Former Avon Football Star Tackles Strength & Conditioning Coaching Job at IU
Writer: Christy Heitger-Ewing
David Ballou can relate to such a sentiment. Born in Indianapolis, Ballou moved to Avon when he was in seventh grade. At the time, he was huge into basketball. Then one day he put on shoulder pads and slammed into somebody on the football field and —boom — he was hooked.
“The physicality of the sport triggered something within me,” says Ballou, who played running back and linebacker at Avon High School under Coach Jim Kaiser. Ballou’s power-lifting uncles taught Ballou how to train and eat properly. Once he started lifting weights, he noticed immediate improvement.
“My body responded quickly. The more I trained, the stronger I got and the better football player I became,” says Ballou, who graduated AHS in 1996, then played fullback for Coach Bill Mallory at Indiana University. After playing from 1996–1999, he graduated in 2001 with a degree in Kinesiology.
Given his background, it should come as no surprise that Ballou would gravitate toward the study of human movement.
During his last season at IU, he sustained a significant knee injury that would keep him from going pro. But around that same time, he began working as a student intern in the weight room with strength coaches and found his life’s purpose.
“I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” says Ballou, who was hired in August 2001 by Avon High School as their first strength and conditioning director. Ballou enjoyed coming back to the town where his love of the sport was born and to reconnect with the people of Hendricks County, who had always been supportive of his football career.
“When I lived in Avon, it still had that small-town feel,” Ballou says. “Everyone knew and pulled for one another.”
Ballou is quick to clarify that the Avon community is still very supportive of its players. It was just that back in the mid-90s, the football team was making a name for itself.
“We were a small deal and were working to put our name on the map,” Ballou says.
Ballou’s long-term vision was to one day become a head college strength and conditioning coach. His initial plan was to remain in Avon for a handful of years. As it turned out, he got married (to Leah) and had two daughters: Mallory (now 13) and Aubrey (10). Next thing he knew, he’d been at Avon High for 14 years. When IMG Academy, a preparatory boarding school and sport training destination in Bradenton, Florida, offered him a job, he jumped at the chance as he was eager to tackle a new challenge.
“The best way to describe that place is like Disneyland for athletes,” Ballou says. “It’s the best of the best on a day-to-day basis, with access to all the resources you need. I was like a kid in a candy shop.”
Being 10 minutes from the beach wasn’t bad, either. For the two years he worked there, IMG was ranked fourth in the country one year and first in the country the next. Though he was enjoying his time in the sunshine state, when Notre Dame called, asking him to join their team in a co-director role of strength and conditioning, he couldn’t pass it up.
“When you get a phone call from Notre Dame, you listen,” Ballou says. “Plus, Coach [Brian] Kelly is unbelievably awesome.”
After one year in South Bend, however, another call came in — this time from his college alma mater.
“After spending five years here, enduring all the blood, sweat and tears you grind out playing the game of college football, you grow a genuine love for the university,” Ballou says. Plus, his wife is from Bloomington, so the timing seemed right. Tom Allen, who Ballou describes as the greatest football coach but even better human being, offered Ballou the role of Director of Athletic Performance. Ballou started the job in January 2018, dividing his 98-player roster into four lift groups that he trains for 75-minute sessions, five days a week.
“I dig into each guy, trying to find his flaws so that I can fix them,” explains Ballou, who finds these flaws by using science and data. He takes specific measurements and implements certain exercises to accentuate weaknesses. Maybe the right leg is putting out 15 percent less power than the left leg; Ballou needs to balance that out in order to minimize injury.
“If you don’t fix these problems, the issue compounds. In the end, fixing the flaws is how you keep guys healthy,” Ballou says. “You’re never going to prevent injuries in football because it’s a collision sport, but you can certainly try to minimize them.”
A third of the daily workout all players do, a third of the workouts some players do (depending on their weaknesses) and a third of the workouts are individually tailored to each player’s specific needs. NCAA rules dictate that coaches can train each player a maximum of eight hours per week. According to Ballou, if training is being attacked in the right way, eight hours is plenty of time.
To ensure that players don’t run out of gas by the fourth quarter, Ballou increases work capacity in his athletes by focusing on work-to-rest ratio.
“In the weight room, it’s about changing rest intervals because in actual conditioning they’re coming in and out of energy zones,” says Ballou, noting that if a coach pushes an athlete before he’s acclimated, that stresses the player’s body. Ballou likes to push players out of their comfort zone, however, because doing so produces sweet results.
These days he finds that the biggest hurdle to success lies in attitude.
“In my world, there’s a high level of accountability and a high level of expectations and it never wavers — never, no matter what,” Ballou says.
He asserts that most students want to be held accountable.
“In my career, I’ve found that players want to be pushed. They want to work hard. And they want you to give them a reason to work hard,” Ballou says.
He maintains that the biggest way football has evolved through the years is the speed component. Though it’s always been a part of the game, today speed wins games. That’s why learning how to develop speed is a big part of Ballou’s job, incorporating drills, exercises and variations.
“We attack speed on a day-to-day basis both in the weight room and out on the field,” Ballou adds.
When asked about his childhood idol, Ballou mentions Bo Jackson.
“He was just such a physical specimen — a freak of nature,” Ballou says. The same could be said for Ballou, who weighs 275 and whose best bench press has been 565 lbs. It’s safe to say that Ballou both pushes forward and never holds back.