All cadets 'Go pro' after graduation

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, the superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, said that due to the combination of the institution's athletic and education programs, all cadets "go pro" in their fields after graduating. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, the superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, said that due to the combination of the institution's athletic and education programs, all cadets "go pro" in their fields after graduating. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- I love sports - the competition, the teamwork, the athleticism. Our twin boys even humor me when I'm not traveling, and we go shoot hoops, throw the ball, or even see who can do the most flips and twists on the trampoline. You can guess who wins; especially given that I went in for some serious depot maintenance - a shoulder overhaul - this summer. I guess I'm paying for all of the jump shots I took in my youth.

Even with the recovering shoulder, however, as the superintendent of the Air Force Academy I have the privilege of working with, admiring and cheering for our young cadets as they compete. Each cadet at the academy is a student athlete. Some will know the feeling of wearing Falcon blue and represent us "on the fields of friendly strife" in NCAA Division I competition. Some may represent us on the variety of competitive clubs we offer. Nearly all cadets will have the opportunity to compete as members of their squadron in our many intramural competitions.

We know competition, whether intramurals, competitive club, or intercollegiate, is an essential part of the Academy experience - fighting to win, risking failure, facing defeat with character, depending on others and working to ensure they trust you are critical lessons these cadets take into their futures.

Achieving these desired outcomes from competition means we also spend lots of time focused on the inputs. Not only do we recruit scholar athletes - more than 80 percent of our students earned a varsity letter in high school - but our athletic department has experts dedicated to improving cadet performance, cadet health and the cadet mindset and approach to competition.

The academy's human performance lab studies, tests, and advises cadets on their health and fitness. This past year, the lab performed more than 1,700 DXA body composition scans. These scans show in detail a person's fat mass and fat-free mass. For our cadets this information, combined with resting metabolic rate tests, allows the lab to advise them on their individual caloric intake, the level of activity and where they should target their fitness. This level of support helps our athletes in heavyweight sports when they finish their last season.

This fall, the Falcons will play several teams with offensive lines made up of players that resemble the "tiny homes" we see on TV. Our cadets will compete despite the size difference because of their will to win, their teamwork and their grit. However, many people may not recognize that our players are required by the Air Force to still make the weight and body composition standards of every officer upon graduation. This requires our larger players to lose more than 70 pounds in the time between the last snap, hopefully taken at a bowl game in early January, and the day they walk across the stage in May.

The DXA scan, metabolic resting rate and nutritional consulting offered to cadets are key aspects of the program the lab designs to healthily transition each of these players to the weight they need to succeed and graduate. The lab has never had a football player fail to graduate due to weight.

The athletic department has been so successful that the Air Force, the Army and other colleges come to them for their expertise. The lab recently completed a research study that demonstrated combining energy balance education with cognitive skills-based interventions focused on personal empowerment made a positive difference in the nutritional and lifestyle choices of more than 150 Division I female athletes.

The lab was also instrumental in determining the impact of altitude on fitness run times. Their results, now used throughout the Air Force, suggested about a 30-second difference in 1.5 mile run times between our "moderate" altitude and sea level. This work informs research designed to help special operations forces' performance in extreme conditions. Our nutrition experts also helped us establish the first "Falcon Fuel" nutrition stations in our gyms, which pair various nutritional options (shakes, protein bars, etc.) with pre-, during- and post-workout routines.

For cadet-athletes who struggle to meet our fitness standards we offer a reconditioning program targeted to their success. Lessons from this program, combined with research from the lab, are now used to support our Army brothers and sisters as part of their Tactical Human Optimization, Rapid Rehabilitation and Reconditioning program.

The Army, much like the Air Force, wants people to be successful, and given the number of young Americans who struggle to meet required weight and fitness standards, these reconditioning programs are essential to our success.

To borrow from the title of Chris MacDougal's most recent book, we are creating "natural born heroes," scholar athletes who thrive on competition, ready to serve their nation. Although almost none of our cadets will play sports at the next level, our cadets will "go pro" upon graduation ... as Air Force officers.