Climbing Jacobs Ladder

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the aftermath of a frustratingly poor spare shooting exhibition that cost Vanderbilt the 2018 Southland Bowling League championship, Commodore coaches intensified their search to replicate game environment into their practice sessions.

“Over the years, we tried various tactics to simulate the unique kind of stress athletes feel when winning and losing are actually on the line,” head coach John Williamson said.  “Virtually all of our artificial situations fell short and as a result, we never really felt our bowlers were practicing in a game-like environment.”

Accordingly, some Commodores would function well during practice only to stumble in the heat of competition. It’s a common occurrence in the world of sports. Golfers miss putts they’d normally sink; expert free throw shooters clang potential game-winners off the iron in the waning seconds.

So Williamson and associate head coach Josie Barnes looked for something that would introduce bonafide tension into the practice center. They recalled that their bowlers had been sharing stories of how they disliked a conditioning machine in the Strength and Speed Center called Jacobs Ladder, an innocent-looking contraption with wooden bars set at a 45-degree angle that revolve at a steady pace like an escalator. Once strapped onto the machine, the user uses a climbing or crawling motion to keep up.

“Jacobs Ladder was originally developed for people with bad backs so they could do a heavy cardio workout without high impact on knees and ankles,” said Vanderbilt strength and conditioning coach Darren Edgington. “When you get on it, the first 100 or 200 feet seem easy, but somewhere about 250 feet it begins to hit you, ‘What did I get myself into?'”

The coaches hoped this might be just what the doctor ordered. They would set practice goals and if the objectives were not achieved, a number of feet were assigned that had to be completed by a specific date. Bingo! That otherwise routine practice session had some tension.

“Jacobs Ladder brought a two-fold benefit to our workouts,” Barnes said. “It created that anxiety they feel during competition which is one of the hardest things to artificially create. They can learn to control their emotions in a setting where they feel anxiety taking over. The more times we can put them in that setting the better as they begin to experience how it feels to succeed.”

It should be noted that the distance on Jacobs Ladder was a team thing, not merely pegged for an individual.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” Williamson said, “so if anyone fails to meet the minimum bar, the entire team earns ‘Jake feet.’ Just like in a tournament, if someone has an off day, the entire team feels the repercussions. That ratchets up the practice pressure.”

And it was with that consequence that Barnes said a second and unintended benefit evolved – teamwork and esprit de corps.

“Things get very busy on our campus as a semester draws to a close,” Barnes notes. “Projects come due, final examinations … lots of demands on a student’s time. After we began the Jacobs Ladder program, the amount of assigned feet quickly built up and they were using their free time to complete their obligations.

“In some cases, when a teammate was struggling to find time to meet their Jake’s deadline, others began volunteering to stand in for them. For example, Maria [Bulanova, the All-American anchor] certainly isn’t a fan of Jake, but she voluntarily took someone else’s feet right before nationals.”

“No one likes Jacobs Ladder,” said Bulanova. “I can’t say we are shooting spares better because of this because we practice them so much, but now we know there are consequences of not making them in practice. Just shooting spares in practice is easy. Say I’m shooting 20 7-pins and 20 10-pins; if I miss it’s just another shot, not a big deal. But now if my teammates and I have to do feet on Jacobs Ladder, it makes us focus and take every shot seriously.”

Barnes says Jacobs Ladder is employed more than just spare practice.

“We probably use this with spare shooting 50 percent of the time,” Barnes said, “and the team earns 50 feet per individual miss. But we also set up various other situations and everyone has to successfully complete them in sequence before the end of practice. For each task left incomplete, feet are assigned. Generally by the end of these sessions they have accumulated 700 to 1,000 feet. These have to be completed within a specific time period so it becomes more than the physical work. It’s also the time required to do so.”

The Commodores have spent enough time with Jake that the machine has actually broken down and needed repair several times over the past year.

Edgington says he can’t draw a straight line between Jacobs Ladder and the national title the Commodores won in 2018 after implementation of the program, but he said a solid case can be made that the machine played a part in Vanderbilt’s latest championship.

“They became comfortable being in an uncomfortable situation,” Edgington said, recalling the tension during Game 6 and Game 7 in the upset of reigning national champion McKendree in the nationally televised NCAA Bowling Championship last spring.

How is Jacobs Ladder regarded by the program, exactly? One side of the team’s national championship ring has an engraved diagram of their conditioning partner with “Jake’s” resting beneath it, an unmistakable lifetime reminder that hard work and focus are a winning combination.