By Fred Alvarez
It’s deep into a Friday evening just before the holidays and much of Cal Lutheran University has gone dark for the weekend.
But not the Forrest Fitness Center. The place is buzzing with energy as dozens of student-athletes lunge and lift their way through intense workouts that crank up the heat in the state-of-the-art sports facility.
Somewhere amid this swirl of athletic endeavor, Patrick Holmberg is applying his sweet science.
Holmberg, 32, is CLU’s strength and conditioning coach. But really he is much more than that. Moving among basketball players and track runners, he is a master motivator – part coach, part cheerleader and part exercise guru.
He guides athletes through weight training and flexibility workouts, supplying high-fives and words of encouragement as they build power and agility. He preaches the gospel of injury prevention, and provides exercise regimens designed to keep athletes healthy and performing at peak levels.
He speaks with authority. And he knows what he’s talking about.
Less than a decade ago, Holmberg was the starting point guard for CLU’s basketball squad and at that time dedicated himself to the study of athletic performance. He earned a bachelor’s in kinesiology from CLU in 2003 and a master’s in exercise science from Cal State Northridge two years later.
Holmberg recently completed his doctorate in higher education leadership at CLU, penning his dissertation on the relationship between self-determined motivation and athlete burnout.
What Motivates Some But Not Others?
Fueled by a lifelong love of athletics, Holmberg said he chose the research topic because he had long wondered what motivated some individuals to pursue sports while others were content to sit on the sidelines.
As he reviewed literature on the subject, he came across articles on athlete burnout, and with further exploration began to see a correlation between that syndrome and one’s motivation to compete in sports. That subject has consumed him for the past three years.
His research – which included an extensive study involving 600 student-athletes in seven sports at 10 West Coast universities – produced breakthrough findings.
Like researchers before him, Holmberg found that athletes who engage in sport for sheer love of the game are less likely to experience burnout, while those who lack desire to play are more likely to do so.
But Holmberg’s research took that basic understanding a surprising step forward, exploring a motivational middle ground once thought to be a predictor of athlete burnout.
Within that middle ground, Holmberg found a level of motivation – called autonomous extrinsic motivation – in which athletes are motivated to play sports for external reasons, yet have integrated those reasons into their personal value systems.
Those athletes, like the ones who play for love of the game, are more inclined to invest themselves long term in athletic endeavors and less likely to experience burnout, he concluded.
Holmberg said his goal is to present his research results, along with the implications of his study, to athletic administrators, trainers, coaches and others who work with student-athletes so that they might be better able to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout, and adjust training regimens and coaching styles to reduce the likelihood of losing athletes to that condition.
“Too often, the term ‘burnout’ is used as a colloquialism to represent a vague and misunderstood phenomenon,” said Holmberg, who successfully defended his dissertation in February.
“Drawing from the results, I’d like to educate those individuals responsible for the health and well-being of student-athletes about this condition so they can better serve this population.”
Holmberg was the epitome of the student-athlete at CLU. He played basketball for three years and as a sophomore helped lead the Kingsmen to a SCIAC championship and an appearance in the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly a decade.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Holmberg returned to CLU in 2006 as an adjunct faculty member in the Exercise Science Department. He also began working with the men’s and women’s basketball teams as the strength and conditioning coach.
Fast-forward three years and Holmberg would begin working in that same capacity with CLU’s two-time conference-championship football teams.
Just recently, Holmberg was put in charge of strength and conditioning for the University’s entire sports program, a move that puts CLU on the cutting edge of NCAA efforts to expand strength and conditioning opportunities for Division III athletes.
“What a powerful message he brings home to our students,” said CLU basketball coach Rich Rider, who has watched Holmberg blossom from student-athlete to teacher, coach and scholar.
“Here is a young man who not only played sports, but who attacks these academic subjects with research and a tremendous body of knowledge,” Rider added. “He is a strong role model for all of our student-athletes, and they are sold on the program because they see the results.”
Holmberg is quick to point out that the results aren’t necessarily about building superior athletes.
In recent years, he has shifted his emphasis in the weight room from enhancing player performance to injury prevention. Again, he knows what he is talking about.
Holmberg injured his knee at the end of his junior season at CLU, and then blew it out altogether at the start of the next season, forcing him to miss his entire senior campaign.
He believes proper training could have prevented his injury. And it’s with that mindset that he approaches his work with student-athletes, confident in his conviction that his most important job as a trainer and coach is to keep athletes in action by reducing the likelihood of injury.
Count junior point guard Meaghan Goodenough among the converted.
Knee injuries have marred her basketball career, dating back to her playing days at Simi Valley High. But each time she has been down, she has devoted herself to rehabilitation through strength training and conditioning.
The hard work has paid off. She started all 25 games for CLU as a freshman and sophomore, and this year serves as a team captain and leads the squad in assists.
“I swear by this stuff,” said Goodenough, cooling off after a strenuous conditioning workout under Holmberg’s watchful eye. “Coach Holmberg motivates each one of us; he makes us mentally tough as well as physically tough. It’s amazing to see his dedication to us and his dedication to his job.”
CLU officials say Holmberg’s work has been instrumental in reducing injuries among student-athletes, and Holmberg said there is a strong connection between his research and his emphasis on injury prevention as a strength and conditioning coach.
The perception of fatigue that accompanies overtraining, for example, can and often does lead to injury, and that in turn can produce the symptoms that define burnout such as emotional exhaustion and a reduced sense of accomplishment and devaluation.
Holmberg said it’s his job to manage the training schedule of his athletes so that the likelihood of overtraining – and thus the potential for burnout – is minimized.
“I came to realize that my true passion lies in working with athletes; that’s what brings me a real sense of purpose,” Holmberg said. “In my mind, every student-athlete who sacrifices his or her time and energy deserves to look back at his or her college career in a positive way.”
Fred Alvarez is a high school history and journalism teacher who lives in Ojai. For more than two decades, he was a staff writer for several daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune.