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Zen Wednesdays one of many coaching tools P.J. Fleck brought to Minnesota

Gopher football players use hard foam rollers as they finish their practice with stretching routines at the University of Minnesota, Aug. 8. Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers strength and conditioning coach Dan Nichol scowls often as he stalks the sideline during a preseason football practice. When two players were kicked out of a practice last weekend, the authoritative assistant was called on to escort them to the locker room.

But afterward, Nichol, the muscular son of a Marine-turned-cop, brought his thick Boston accent down to a near whisper when describing the program's use of yoga, pilates and meditation to aid recovery and boost on-field performance. For the Gophers, Nichol is the intersection of where encouraging shouts in the weight room meets the calming salutation "namaste" on the yoga mat.

"Breathing is where you are gonna grow," Nichol explained to the Pioneer Press in hushed tones. "Let the body relax and stretch out and mobilize."

One of the many coaching tools new head coach P.J. Fleck has brought from Western Michigan to Minnesota is the concept of Zen Wednesdays.

Each week, the players go through different stations. They use foam rollers and balls to work out muscle tightness. They strap on elastic bands to isolate and activate other muscles. They go through yoga positions and pilates moves to improve balance, flexibility and core muscle strength.

The players also slip into a dark room to meditate with soothing music playing in the background. They don't utter mantras.

"You get to really focus on yourself and your body," junior running back Rodney Smith said.

When Nichol joined Fleck for their first year at Western Michigan in 2013, the Broncos had a rash of injuries and surgeries decimating the roster. That's when Fleck said they started "doing our homework" on yoga, pilates, rest and relaxation.

"I believe in mind, body, spirit," Fleck said. "I believe in that all being aligned, and it's about the player."

When Fleck and his staff arrived in Minnesota this winter, he inherited a roster with 22 players rehabbing injuries and surgeries. He and Nichol plugged in a similar, crafted formula that helped Western Michigan improve from 1-11 in 2013 to 13-1 and the Cotton Bowl last season.

"(Nichol was) one of the main reasons, might be one of the sole reasons, why we had so much success at our last stop," Fleck said.

To help minimize injuries in a violent sport, the Gophers aren't alone in incorporating yoga. Big Ten powers Michigan and Ohio State have conducted similar sessions the past two years. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly incorporates yoga into his daily regime, and Kansas has implemented it.

In 2014, the former Gophers staff added it to summer workouts after seeing what it did for the Seattle Seahawks, which added a yoga program before their run to a Super Bowl title.

In the new, under-construction football performance center, former coach Tracy Claeys had a 1,000-square-foot additional space adjacent to the main weight room set aside for additional weight equipment and cardio machines.

When Fleck was hired in January, he decided to use that space for yoga, pilates, stretching and meditation. A sound system in the weight room will carry into the space, providing a calming atmosphere for yoga.

Gophers offensive tackle Donnell Greene, who is 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds, "didn't really get the point" of the yoga and extensive stretching when it was introduced last winter. That's before he was one of only four healthy offensive lineman during some spring practices in April.

"Taking all those plays, I (now) love doing the yoga and every stretch I can," Greene said. "It made me feel a lot better."

Defensive tackle Steven Richardson, a third-team all-Big Ten honoree in 2016, estimated that he faces double teams from opponents on 95 percent of snaps during the season. He said the pre-camp preparations have set him up for a strong senior season.

"I'm a stout kind of guy and my muscles get tight, and yoga seemed to help out a lot," said Richardson, who is generously listed 6 feet, 292 pounds. "I haven't felt this well in a long time."

After practices, the Gophers break up into position groups to use the foam rollers on their achy muscles, undergoing coordinated stretching routines on the field before stiffness can set in.

While players have put in long hours, sometimes from 6 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. during camp, they rest on Sundays and only do walk-throughs on Wednesdays.

"It's extremely important in how we build these guys," Nichol said. "If you break them down, you have to build them back up and recover."

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