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Podcast Ep. 50 | Tom Morris, IU Strength: Make Today Better than Yesterday

Making Today Better Than Yesterday

Tom Morris is the Director of Athletic Performance at Indiana University, where he develops and implements sports specific strength, conditioning, flexibility, and speed and agility programs for IU’s 24 men’s and women’s teams. Tom works with the national champion Men’s Soccer team, as well as a multitude of other teams from track and field to men’s and women’s basketball, swimming and diving, and more. Tom doesn’t just work in fitness–he lives and breathes it, day in and day out. 

Tom has completed countless triathlons, numerous cycling races, and 12, 24, 36, and 72 hour adventure races. But in May of 2012, Tom’s journey changed forever when he suffered a spinal cord injury while mountain biking and broke his C6 and C7 vertebrae, leaving him paraylyzed from the waist down. After a year of rehabilitation, Tom returned to Indiana University to where he continues to lead the strength and conditioning programs. 

Listen to Tom reflect on his experience training the nation’s top athletes, and how his life changing accident changed his perspective on day to day life. You will not only hear his insight on developing programs that challenge top-tier athletes and shape national championship teams–you will learn the value of optimism and hear what it truly means to use adversity to create opportunity.

He joins us on Episode 50 of the Upper Hand Podcast.

Note: This special episode has two parts, both of which are extremely insightful and motivating.

In part one, Tom discusses working with top collegiate athletes and coaches, fitness regiments, shares his coaching styles, and more.

In part two, Tom opens up about his accident in May of 2012, his inspiring road to recovery, and how it’s changed his perspective with fitness and in life.

You can read an overview of the interview with Tom Morris or listen to the podcast below for the full interview.

Q: You’ve worked with a number of different men’s and women’s programs at IU, and before that you were at Lasalle and Penn State. Can you describe what goes into developing strength and conditioning programs?

A: We’re the complement to the athletes themselves. Athletes come to Indiana not to be the greatest weightlifter or body builder or anything like that—they come here to be the best player. And what I do is try to analyze and figure out what makes that person, and what is going to make them develop into their best athletic person. I look at your flaws and then try to work on them and turn them into your strengths.

Everybody comes into our programs with some kind of flaw. No matter if you’re a five star recruit or a walk on, when you come into the program, it’s our job to break down and analyze what your positives are and what your negatives are. And if you’re lacking fitness or you’re lacking strength, we’re going to analyze that stuff and make a specific program for you and for the world of soccer. We’re gonna work on your flaws but we’re also gonna make sure we’re tweaking them for fitness, because that’s really going to be associated directly with what your position on the field is. And all of this stuff differs from sport to sport, and even within the sport itself, because we need to look at what each individual’s highs and lows are. Once we’re able to address those things, you can make some significant games that will compliment your athleticism on the field.

Q: When you’re designing programs for different sports, like the soccer and baseball teams, what types of characteristics go into planning out a year round program, based on the sports and their different kinds of functional movements?

A: In developing programs for different sports—we’ll go with soccer and baseball, kind of two different ends of the spectrum—soccer has that power and a huge fitness component. They need to be not only be powerful but they need to have the fitness to be able to sustain a 90 minute game, to be able to keep moving, and to actually be explosive. And as physically demanding as the sport may be, we need to make sure that we’re matching the programs up. So when I’m designing a program for soccer, I’m making sure we’re working on a huge fitness base. When we get them to a point where their fitness level is high, we want to make sure they’re still demonstrating power, so we throw athletes into situations where they have to complete basic movements like box jumps to demonstrate power under the duress of physical fitness fatigue.

The opposite of that is baseball. Baseball is a 100% power sport. Fatigue isn’t a huge factor, except for the multitude of games maybe within a day or the just the length of what the game is going to be, but the reality is that fitness isn’t as big of a component. When we’re designing a fitness or a power strength and conditioning program for the baseball program, we’re looking at power. We’re looking at getting our guys as strong as they physically can develop, and allowing them to actually use that strength and make it more velocity specific. What I mean by that is getting someone to squat 300 pounds is a great thing, but getting a person to squat 300 pounds with a certain tempo and a certain velocity is the most important because we’re always trying to make the weight room literally match up to what the sport specific movements may be on the field when it comes time to play.

Tom Morris trains an IU athlete
Tom Morris trains an IU athlete

Q: How do you ensure each player is developing and getting better throughout the season?

A: If you don’t have progression within your workout, you don’t have a real workout. You’ve got to make sure that you progress each and every time, maybe through volume, maybe through intensity, but there needs to be a progression within that workout. If you’re not progressing each time you come in, then you’re just going through activity.

The reality is, you’re literally just going through activity if you don’t have an overload to it. If you don’t have something that’s challenging you to put you in the discomfort zone, then you’re not getting better. You’re not really actually working. Don’t mistake activity for achievement, because there’s so many workouts—especially things you see on Instagram—that are cool to see but the problem is that they’re just cool exercises. Without the overload, you’re not going to improve.

Q: You’ve described your accident as going from being on top of the world both physically and mentally to just completely zeroed out . You went from racing some of the toughest races on Earth to not being able to push a wheelchair 5 feet. Take us through the emotions of the day of the accident.

A: Yeah. So that morning, May 17, 2012, I came into work at 6am to train the women’s basketball program and a handful of our men’s soccer guys. But by 8:30am I was done and I was ready to hit the trail. This was going to be at a short little training ride, because I had a huge race that weekend. I was at that point riding some of the toughest races throughout the country and riding at a level that was bigger than I even thought I could ride and it felt like I was on top of the world.

But on the fourth lap of this training ride, I went around the corner and I hit something and before you know, it I was rolling head over heels and flying through the air. All of the sudden the impact of the ground smashed my head and it smashed my neck and it literally blew apart my C6 and C7 vertebrae. I hit the ground and laid there and I couldn’t move. I mean, I couldn’t move. It was not only my legs, but I couldn’t feel my upper body. My hands did not work at all, and it must have been 15 minutes into this when I finally got my bearings.

I got myself under control. I reached in my back pocket, I had a cycling jersey on which I had my phone in, and I started digging and digging and digging, trying to grab this phone.  I can feel the phone, and I was trying to pull this thing out and I just could not get it to budge. It was a very humbling experience, knowing that I was stuck in the woods.

I cannot move. I mean, I felt like I was suction-cupped to the ground. And I was kinda hopeless. I had just no, no, no way of moving. I had no way of getting help and I just laid there. The first hour was about not being able to move. The second hour that went by was the intense burn that just ripped through my body. It just had me on fire. But by our three man. I mean, I didn’t know what was around the corner. My breath was shallow, I was having trouble saying anything. My heart rate was dropping, and the truth is man, I didn’t know if I’d ever go home again.

Luckily at three and a half hours into this, two riders came by and they quickly called for help. I immediately got help sent to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis went under surgery. And, you know, I’ve been on this journey ever since. Five days after this accident I was pretty optimistic, pretty high on thinking “You know, what I’m going to get up. I’m gonna walk then and I’ll get back on a bike.” But on that fifth day, I start my first day of rehab, and I realize that walking was the least of my worries. I lost all independence, and that was a sobering and humbling feeling.

I think of this quote by the author of the Harry Potter novels, JK Rowling, because I had heard it so many times but never resonated with it until that moment. “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

I started from rock bottom and systematically built back my independence. A year later I came out of rehab, came back to my job, and started training athletes again. Two months after that, I got on a hand cycle for the first time and it brought back all the stuff that I’ve always done before. I was quickly able to move up the ranks in the world of hand cycling, start racing at the national level, and compete all over the place. So it’s been quite a up and down roller coaster, but you know, it’s… it’s been tough.

The journey is nonstop and continually moving forward. But it’s given me a perspective on life, about growth, and about doing things that are hard but just keep doing them because it’s going to make the future, and the reward, and the feedback so much better.

Tom Morris using his handcycle in 2019.
Tom Morris using his handcycle in 2019

Q: What is the core message that you want to spread the others? And what have you learned throughout this journey? 

A: It gives perspective on the days when my body feels good. I just got out of bed. My legs are kind of loose, my head’s kinda clear, I’m just going to get up and have joy today. You keep that stuff in perspective and when it’s good, you live in that moment. Live in the moment you have and be present. Live and understand that today is good. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t worry about any of this other stuff. But just understand right now is good, and you gotta live it. And if it’s bad, it’ll get better tomorrow.

The biggest thing I can say is…I just firmly believe everything in life is a choice—how you handle things and how you see things is a choice. Even though there’s certain events in our life that will make us want to move away from that optimistic mindset, I think it’s a choice.

Last night I got to speak to our football team. And one of the guys asked, “How do you keep your mindset when you’re down and your mind is switching from seeing the glass half full to the glass half empty? How do you make sure that you stay in line with optimism and see the good in everything?” And the truth is I don’t have the exact answer for that. But every time that I feel myself moving in [a negative] direction, I give myself 10 seconds. I think 10 seconds is the amount of time that I can choose to either stay going down that path or make the choice to see the goodness, see the optimism, and see adversity creating an opportunity.

You can follow Tom Morris on Instagram @tommorrisperformance

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