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Stephon Gilmore’s offseason soccer training is helping him play young again

Stephon Gilmore has found his peak form this season with the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a harsh reality for aging players to be honest with themselves if they no longer have what it takes to play the game. The game is moving too fast, the players are too fast, and they just don’t run like they used to.

When the Dallas Cowboys traded for cornerback Stephon Gilmore, they knew everything that came with him, including his 33 years of age. However, Gilmore has made it known he intends to play at a high level for a long time because of how he prepares for the game.

So, how does a veteran corner keep up with modern offenses that continue to get younger and faster? By learning new ways to play the game with a soccer coach in England, of course.

You might be thinking, the only thing football and futbol share in common is the pronunciation of their names. Outside of that, the sports are played in a completely different style. However, when you think about the jobs of an NFL cornerback and a defender in soccer, they’re almost identical.

The sports themselves are obviously very different, however explosive movements are needed in both. The NFL has much shorter phases of play than soccer so the athletes need to be conditioned to the short, sharp and powerful movements. In terms of positions, Stephon as a cornerback needs to track his certain player, which is similar to a soccer defender. Change of direction and agility are key to both sports and positions.

That’s a quote from an interview this summer with Tom Joyce, founder of Built Not Born, who has trained athletes of all kinds in the United Kingdom for ten years.

Joyce started by training personal clients but grew to work with amateur boxers. His passion was to always work with footballers (soccer athletes), and the pandemic presented a unique opportunity where players came to him via Instagram looking to train while their clubs were shut down. Because of the COVID lockdown, Joyce now gets to write hundreds of offseason programs for numerous players and hasn’t looked back.

So, where does Joyce fit into this story? Well, back in July, Gilmore was in England for the Wimbledon tournament when he was looking for a strength and conditioning coach to work with while he was there. At the recommendation of a good friend, Moise Kean, Gilmore was told to seek out Joyce’s training.

Even though his passion is for soccer, Joyce has worked with American football players before and knows how to provide exactly what they need to elevate their game.

I work with two American football athletes here in the UK. Both play in the highest division here. We work every week on their strength, power, change of direction and agility.

Those qualities are needed to be an elite corner at the pro level. When Gilmore approached Joyce, he sought to become more explosive as a player.

Stephon told me he wanted to do some single leg stability and balance work. We also incorporated some conditioning and fitness work with mixed intervals. Everything I do is very sport specific, so I elaborated on his position with lateral movements and plyometrics for power and explosiveness.

Coming off his performance of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles, Gilmore looked as explosive as he did when he won Defensive Player of the Year back in 2019. His 82.2 defensive grade from Pro Football Focus was the eighth-best performance by a cornerback in Week 14.

He had a team-leading nine tackles on the night and a forced fumble against Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown that stopped the Philly offense on their opening drive to start the second half.

Gilmore’s best plays of the night came back-to-back in the third quarter on third and fourth down, showcasing precisely what he learned this offseason from Joyce—the use of power and explosion.

Even though their time was brief, Joyce noticed from their training that Gilmore takes excellent care of his body, which could be why he continues to play the game at a high level.

I didn’t do much work with him so it’s difficult for me to analyze all aspects of his fitness but from what I did do with him I can see that his conditioning is elite, as you would expect from an athlete of his calibre, and he’s in great shape.

A player only needs one thing to be said or done to them that fuels them for the rest of the game. On Philadelphia’s opening drive on offense, Brown lit a fire under Gilmore by calling him “old.” By NFL standards, the wide receiver would be correct. However, Gilmore has shown he’s willing to travel thousands of miles and learn new ways to gain an edge over his competition.

Joyce closed our conversation by saying athletes should “always look for the extra 1%” and “work on their weaknesses” when preparing for a long season. Even after 12 years in the league, Gilmore continues to turn back the clock and show someone 33 years young can play the cornerback position at a high level.

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