For the past few years, the Kansas football program has shaped its resurgence on the strength of one simple mantra — work to get 1% better every day.
You’ve probably heard dozens of Jayhawks say a version of that phrase a bunch of different times.
On the surface, the thought sounds pretty simple.
In the weight room, it means benching a little over 227 pounds on a Wednesday after hitting the 225-pound mark on Tuesday.
On the turf, it means lowering your 40-yard dash time from 4.85 seconds on Thursday to 4.8 seconds on Friday.
Over and over, on and on, day in and day out.
“It’s fun when you can put it into numbers and it’s a competition. But you know whether you got 1% better just by how you approach every day." — Tight end Mason Fairchild
“You understand that it’s not going to be Rome built in one day,” senior tight end Mason Fairchild told R1S1 Sports. “You know it’s going to be a gradual progression, and we talk about that all the time.”
“It’s fun when you can put it into numbers and it’s a competition,” he added. “But you know whether you got 1% better just by how you approach every day. With the body comps, you don’t even see the difference for months on end, but then you go in a week later and you have great results. A lot of times it’s hard to see and quantify, but you know it’s there if you’re getting the job done.”
There are all kinds of other numbers — speeds and velocities, heights and distances, durations and holds — that can and are being tracked on a daily basis by the Kansas strength and conditioning staff.
And the leader of the whole operation, KU football’s Director of Sports Performance, Matt Gildersleeve, is the one who both sets those goals and keeps the Jayhawks accountable to them.
“It is measurable,” KU tight end Jared Casey told R1S1. “You know whether or not you’re getting 1% better.”
Added junior running back Devin Neal: “Our coaches give us a 1% goal every day. It could be something small that we think we can get better at. But it’s something that either shows up or it doesn’t. So, that next day at practice, in those live situations, it’s did you get better at it or not? We focus on that each and every day.”
There’s more to the idea of getting 1% better every day than just tacking on a little extra weight to a lift or cutting into a running time by a fraction of a second.
It’s what the 1% mantra represents as much as anything that makes it effective. And that’s one of the biggest reasons that this program, in head coach Lance Leipold’s first two seasons, went from 0-9 during the COVID-shortened 2020 season to 2-10 in 2021 and 6-7 and a bowl game in 2022.
Gildersleeve calls the approach “conceptual” in nature and emphasizes that the idea behind it is not to attack the numbers as much as to attack a mindset.
“If we develop the root enough the fruits are going to come,” he said. “When and where and how, I don’t know. We can’t always answer that question. But we do know that if you trust it for long enough it’s going to pay you back — as a father, as a son, as a husband, as a co-worker, as a boss, as a football player. At some point in time you’re going to reap the rewards of those habits.”
Trusting the process has become one of the most popular catch phrases in all of sports, former KU basketball big man Joel Embiid notwithstanding.
But there’s a reason behind that approach and a reason the KU players have the word “process” written on their lifting shorts.
Whether you’re a championship program like Alabama football or Kansas basketball or a program still in the building stage like Leipold’s squad, there are certain rules that you have to live by and practices that you must adhere to in order for the bigger vision to come to life.
Any missteps along the way can derail the train, and rather than harping on that as some big, heavy, delicate treasure, the Jayhawks have found that it’s easier to pay attention to it daily on a much smaller scale.
“It’s about each person building 1%,” Neal said. “So, if each person does it, that just means our whole team got that much better that day.”
Neal, the all-Big 12 back who hails from Lawrence, gave an example of another way he tracks his own 1% improvement on a daily basis. And it had nothing to do with numbers that can be measured or tracked.
“Say I need to work on tighter hands in pass (protection),” Neal began. “Did it show up in practice or not? If it did, I got at least 1% better. It’s just focusing on the little mundane tasks in each of our positions.”
Added Casey: “The way you push yourself is how you know if you’re getting 1% better or not. If you’re cheating a rep or a drill and not pushing yourself past that limit, you know you’re not doing it.”
Casey’s examples of keeping tabs on that included guys stopping at nine reps during a bench press drill instead of doing the full 10 or running hard through 19 yards when you’re supposed to go 20.
Cutting corners does not seem to be much of an issue with the current KU roster, though. The priorities that exist at the top are a big part of that, as is the fact that three or four dozen players hold significant leadership roles in all rooms and at all times.
The other part of it stems from the fact that the KU culture under Leipold is now well established. It’s no longer a question of what do they do or this is what they need to do to improve. Instead, it’s the simple approach of guys telling newcomers that this is the way they do it and you’re going to fall in line or find somewhere else to play.
“Developing habits is what we’re trying to do,” Gildersleeve said.
Few players can speak to the importance of the program's suddenly-established habits as well as KU’s freshmen.
The guys who have been here for the past couple of seasons saw the change and had something to compare it to. But this new class is coming into a program where the standards and expectations are crystal clear and written in stone.
Offensive lineman Calvin Clements, who grew up in Lawrence and was familiar with the KU program’s downtrodden decade from 2010-2020, said the buy-in across the roster to the 1% better mentality has been fun to experience.
“I would say it’s not a very measurable concept, but it can be in all aspects – mental, physical, football-specific — and I feel that each day is getting better and I get feedback that shows that,” he said.
In fact, late in preseason camp, Clements told R1S1 that he had two of his best practices as a Jayhawk — through spring and preseason camp to date — in back-to-back days.
“That just shows how each day I can watch the film and say, ‘Oh, I cleaned up that a little bit or I still have this to improve,’” Clements said. “It’s not perfected just like that, but you can get a lot of improvement within that aspect.”
Clements’ progress and understanding of the KU offense has soared so much in the past several weeks that he says he no longer puts a limit on how much better he can get.
While 1% daily improvement is the minimum for players to be doing their part for the program, Clements said it’s not crazy to think that there could be 5% days, as well.
That fact and the signs plastered on the walls throughout the facility that remind the players of that 1% goal have continued to push the Jayhawks harder than ever through their recent rise in performance, popularity and optimism for the future.
“You’re always going to need it,” Casey said of the stated goal and not-so-subtle reminders. “Especially (late) in fall camp. You’ve always got to go back to your roots and your groundwork. We always talk about it’s the little things that drive us here, so we’ve got to rely on those little things to get us where we want to go — what is the little 1% that we’re doing that other teams aren’t?”
The answer to that question could come in the form of dozens of different answers, from weights and times to effort and attitude and everything in between.
But the way Neal sees it, the fact that the Jayhawks have the philosophy in the first place is part of what ensures that they’ll continue to keep getting better.
“The target of what you’ve got to improve gets smaller, but there’s always something you can improve,” the KU running back said. “We always find something new that we can focus on and get better at. We haven’t arrived. That’s our mindset and we’re not about to get complacent.”
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