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Cooper Kupp: Hamstrung Again.
Cooper Kupp not at Point B in regards to Reactive Strength in his hamstrings
The Cooper Kupp Situation
In continuing to explore blind spots in modern sports training using current athletes, it is unfortunate to find another example in NFL wide receiver Cooper Kupp. In 2021, he achieved the remarkable feat of leading the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, a feat accomplished by only four other receivers in NFL history. Kupp was not only named the Offensive Player of the Year but also secured the MVP title for his performance in Super Bowl LVI. It is obvious during this time that his physical capacity was deep enough to sustain high levels of performance over time.
Now, as the 2023 NFL season kicks off, Cooper Kupp finds himself far from the physical state he needs to be in, Point B. What's more troubling than the physical distance, however, is the lack of understanding regarding the “root cause” of his hamstring injury. Essentially, Kupp is not only distant from Point B but also lacks a clear roadmap for the necessary training work to get there.
Currently, Kupp is lost in uncertainty (not a good place to be), unsure of the training required to regenerate his hamstrings and reach Point B. It's evident that he isn't the only one who is lost, as the Rams' staff has mishandled Kupp's injury management, as evidenced by the re-injury that occurred under their supervision. Logically, and based on evidence the most important risk factor for any injury is a history of previous injury. To put it bluntly, Kupp understandably has lost faith in this staff, as the old adage goes and as George W Bush eloquently tells us“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me…….
We aim to use this current real-life example to conceptually break down the “root cause” of the injury, enabling us to set up a roadmap for getting Kupp to Point B and back to performing at a high level.
Understanding the “Root Cause”
The “root cause” of Kupp's situation can be attributed to a lack of reactive strength in his hamstrings. This highlights the significance of reactive strength as a paramount component of Point B, as without it, an athlete cannot effectively participate in play or practice. This observation underscores the hierarchy of high performance, where training takes precedence over both play and practice.
Kupp’s Lack of Reactive Strength: Defined
Reactive strength has been defined as the ability of the contractile anatomy to rapidly switch from an eccentric contraction to a concentric contraction. For this transition to happen efficiently, the connective tissue architecture must be in an optimal physical state, namely in the appropriate direction as this ensures that normal force transmission occurs. It must be borne in mind that there are two components to reactive strength: the first is the top down motor output of the CNS to create muscle activation, while the second is the bottom up dynamic change in the anatomical architecture that allows for the gearing of the fascicles to transmit force along the direction of the concentric contraction. In Kupp's case, due to previous injury as well as improper training to re-establish the architecture and its dynamic nature, the connective tissue component in his hamstrings is suboptimal, unfortunately leading to abnormal force transmission.
Lack of Reactive Strength is a Limiting Biological Constraint
Practically for Kupp, this disorganized connective tissue leading to the inability to transmit forces appropriately, means that when he's running a route he is unable to manage risk appropriately within his internal ecosystem. For a wideout in the NFL, running a route properly and with precision requires the application of large magnitudes of force being applied into the ground, as well as quick changes of direction. Ideally, to accomplish this movement task there has to be a matching of the bottom up tissue requirements as well as the top down neurological outputs such that the CNS can output into the largest motor units at a time when the tissue has been pre-stressed and has already begun the necessary dynamical changes in fascicular architecture to make the switch from eccentric to concentric action.
In the case of Cooper Kupp, when his nervous system coordinates his hamstrings to rapidly switch from an eccentric to a concentric by recruiting the largest motor neurons to stimulate the strongest muscle fibers, there's an internal system problem. These muscle fibers pull fast and hard on the connective tissues that are not architecturally sound and therefore don’t have the capacity to be pre-loaded and stiffen appropriately to effectively change the speed, torque and direction of the generated force coming from the top down (CNS). As a result of this mismatch it is the connective tissues that ultimately bear the uncontrolled build up of internally generated force output which over time leads to these tissues giving way and getting injured.
Lack of Reactive Strength Capacity Injury Loop
The root issue in Cooper Kupp's current injury, as well as those like Joe Burrow's, stems from a lack of coherent understanding of what the tissue behaviour of reactive strength is and what specific tissue produces it.
As consultants working with high-performing athletes, we've observed a common and recurring problem. The staff responsible for managing these athletes often misconstrue reactive strength. They view reactive strength as primarily a function of the nervous system, which it is however, they fail to recognize it as a connective tissue capacity as well - which we at Absolute have recognized. As a consequence, these staffs consistently fail to appropriately train the connective tissues to reach a level of capacity necessary within Point B. This incompetency erodes trust in the player-staff relationship. Consider that Cooper Kupp is traveling to Minnesota to seek help outside of his team's facility in an effort to address his own reactive strength issue.
To further highlight this incompetency, the strength and rehabilitation staff, unaware of how to treat or train connective tissue properly, typically diagnose the issue as a “muscle strain.” This is why coaches like Zac Taylor and Sean McVay (the coaches of Joe Burrow and Cooper Kupp) describe it as such to the media.
Labeling a lack of reactive strength as a “muscle strain” is a telltale sign that these staff members lack a comprehensive understanding of the problem. Their ineffective approach typically involves passive treatments only, such as ultrasound, rest, ice, stretching, compression sleeves (see Joe Burrow), etc. Once the initial acute symptoms of the "muscle strain" subside, they often clear the athlete to return to action, which then inadvertently causes further damage to the connective tissues - note: how Kupp and the Rams have been dealing with this issue for a couple of months (see Schefter’s tweet).
The State of NFL Reactive Strength Training in 2023
In 2023, the state of reactive strength training in the NFL is concerning for its players. Two of the league's best players, Burrow and Kupp, find themselves limited in their ability to play and practice due to suboptimal training and the subsequent mismanagement of their connective tissue injuries.
What's striking is that, while fans and the media would never tolerate compounding errors from a head coach or coordinator, such issues seem to be a common practice when it comes to player physical management in the NFL.
We will do a video exclusively for our paid subscribers to delve into the specifics of Kupp's roadmap for addressing and resolving his reactive strength issue in his hamstrings. These are the issues we will discuss:
Kupp is dealing with a biological constraint on his nervous system, specifically a lack of reactive strength in his hamstrings.
To address and resolve this capacity issue, he needs to follow the length loading progression for his hamstrings, a concept we recently covered in a video for hockey players regarding adductors.
While Kupp possesses a prepared nervous system and the determination to excel, the missing piece is a clear understanding of his problem. This has led to him performing non-propagating work, which, unfortunately, has set him back even further. He now recognizes that working harder won't resolve the issue; he must work smarter.
Kupp finds himself in a challenging position. His nervous system is primed and ready, but the limitations of biology are holding him back. This situation can be incredibly frustrating, especially for competitive athletes like Kupp.