To make it to the top of any industry, you have to be willing to think outside the box.
Fortunately for Penn Athletics, Jim Steel has taken the message.
Behind the efforts of the 12th-year strength and conditioning manager, Penn’s varsity teams have strayed from the status quo in the weight room, adopting an unconventional method to raise themselves to the next level: Muay Thai kickboxing.
“I’ve just found that it’s so good for hand-eye coordination, for conditioning it’s unbelievable, and it improves people’s athleticism,” Steel said. “Plus, it’s fun; you get to hit or kick something.”
The inception of Muay Thai might seem like a recent innovation to a casual observer, but the adjustment to Penn’s workout program has actually been decades in the making.
In 1985, Steel was a defensive lineman for Montgomery Community College and an avid fan of professional football. His father was a professor at Maryland — the alma mater of Cowboys linebacker and eventual NFL Hall of Famer Randy White.
Watching an episode of NFL Today, Steel observed White engaging in Muay Thai workouts, and the rest was history.
“What I saw was a blurb of Randy White just kicking these pads, and I kept watching it over and over — I was a big Randy White fan because he and my dad knew each other,” Steel said. “I finally found a pad and started kicking the heck out of it, and as the years went on, I started reading about it more.”
By the time Steel was hired by Penn, the rookie had become an expert, eager to integrate his newfound knowledge into the world of intercollegiate athletics.
“I just started doing [kickboxing] with my players, basically winging it wherever I went,” Steel said. “By the time I got here, I had already coached 10 or 12 years, so I had gotten a decent grasp of it. ... By now, all of my assistants have taken lessons or fought, so everyone here can teach.”
One might have expected such a change to be met with some dissent, but this was by no means the case for Penn athletes.
“You didn’t have to convince [the kids] — they loved it right away because it’s different. Anybody can make you do sprints, but teaching somebody how to kickbox and hit something while moving around, the kids loved it right away,” Steel said. “A lot of times I’ll just be like, ‘Everybody hit the bags as hard as you can, because I know that’s what you want to do.’”
Similarly, even though Penn’s varsity coaches may not personally receive the satisfaction of delivering punches or kicks to the Weiss Pavilion pads, they’ve also been appreciative of Steel’s efforts to build athleticism across the board.
“There are a lot strength staffs that are very closed off, but we try to be open and work together with the coaches. We always try to back everything up with science, and we pride ourselves on our relationships with the coaches,” Steel said. “I’ve never seen [skepticism], since there’s nothing dangerous or gimmicky about it.”
With sports in which physical contact is emphasized like football or wrestling, it might not be so surprising to see the usage of the combat sport become so popular.
But the advantageous aspects of Muay Thai go far beyond the sensation of hitting, allowing Steel’s methods to succeed across the wide spectrum of Penn Athletics.
“It’s a way to introduce strength and conditioning to teams that maybe traditionally aren’t into it so much,” Steel said. “Lifting weights is a part of football culture, but for sports like squash and fencing, that hasn’t really been part of their culture. So, if you can do something different to keep them interested and then get the weights in there too, you get all-around athletes.”
As a result, Penn’s strength and conditioning program has gained a positive reputation — even among its rivals. According to Steel, Villanova football and Dartmouth women’s basketball have reached out to him about instituting Muay Thai.
“We’ve had a few schools come in just to learn the basics — in order to teach it, you have to know all about it,” Steel said. “I don’t know about [Penn being considered] pioneers, but I would say we do it as consistently as anyone else.”
Ultimately, with conditioning, coordination and physical toughness all being tested, kickboxing’s benefits for Penn’s athletes seem boundless.
And as the man who has orchestrated the makeover of the school’s strength program for the last decade looked on at his proteges, he couldn’t help but take pride in the transformation happening before his eyes.
“You can only watch so many squats, having been coaching for years, but watching kickboxing still excites me,” Steel said. “Just seeing the kids learn, because the first day they do it, they can barely hit the pads. As they progress, their balance improves, hand-eye coordination improves, all that kind of stuff. It’s very neat to see, and they make progress very fast, so it’s a real rewarding thing to experience.”
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.