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How ETS has become a go-to training destination for local athletes

Draw a circle around towns within an hour-and-a-half drive from Rochester, and there’s a high chance high school athletes from there have trained at ETS Rochester. The reason is simple: ETS is where athletes go to improve in their sport – and in life.

ETS Performance
Tessa Erlandson, who plays volleyball, basketball and is on the track and field team at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School, talks with Jake Kirsch, director of performance at ETS Performance, while working out Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2022, at ETS in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Tessa Erlandson wakes up at 4:45 a.m., well before the sun shines into her bedroom window in Kenyon.

Multiple days a week, depending on her sports schedule, she hops in her car and drives the 45 minutes from Kenyon to Rochester for one reason: to work out at ETS Rochester, a strength and conditioning gym.

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Erlandson, who verbally committed to play volleyball at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point last week, doesn’t mind the early morning commute to the gym because ETS — led by director Jake Kirsch — helped her reach her athletic goals.

“When she's getting up at 4:45, and not complaining to me, and getting in her car and driving in the dark to Rochester to work out,” her mom and volleyball coach, Tracy, said, “I know that there's something special there.”

Tessa Erlandson has always been talented at volleyball — she’s played it for years. But it’s clear to Tracy how much more confident, faster and stronger she’s become since joining ETS.

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So what’s the secret to ETS’s success?

In Tracy’s eyes, it’s the individualized workout plans. Tessa Erlandson is a three-sport athlete at Kenyon-Wanamingo, and has a different workout plan depending on which sport is in season. It’s a more specialized approach than what most high school strength and conditioning coaches, like her mom, can provide.

“They take a lot of pride in doing that,” she said, “and making sure that each athlete is getting the best for what (sport) they’re doing at that time.”

The first time an athlete walks through the doors of ETS, Kirsch and his team — currently made up of full-time performance coach Hank Wittren and a group of part-time coaches and directors-in-training — evaluate the athlete.

ETS Performance
Tessa Erlandson, who plays volleyball, basketball and is on the track and field team at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School, looks over a workout sheet Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2022, at ETS Performance in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“It’s a 45 minute session where we put them through some things that they’ll be doing every day, like the warm up and sprint progression,” Kirsch explained. “I’ll do the physical evaluation, which is just assessing ability, strengths, deficiencies. We do some testing indicators to get some numbers.”

The second half of the evaluation is a sit-down with the athlete and family where Kirsch explains the strengths and deficiencies he saw, and the athlete’s goals. Kirsch also talks through scheduling and how often the athlete should train at ETS, in-season and out of season.

At the evaluation, each athlete is asked what they want to improve. Erlandson said she wanted to improve her vertical. She started with a 17-inch vertical, and in the two-and-a-half years she’s trained at ETS, that number has reached 22-and-a-half inches.

It’s typical that the goals Kirsch hears from athletes are numbers-based — the athletes want to get tangible results that show improvement. The parents, however, have different goals.

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“But the one thing the parent always says is, ‘I want them to gain confidence.’ Because a lot of the time, they’re a kid where maybe they’re not the tallest, the biggest or the fastest. They’re going to be with people back there who might be more athletically gifted than them,” Kirsch said. “But I tell them straight up, ‘I don’t need you to compare yourself to them. I need to make sure that the kid I met on the fifth of October is the worst version of you you’ve ever been.’”

That approach separates ETS from in-house high school programs. The coaching style and workout plans are night and day compared to when Kirsch was growing up in Rochester. He said the running joke is, “Man, I wish I had ETS when I was a kid.” His training included cookie-cutter school training and solo workouts at the Rochester Athletic Club and Workout World.

Kirsch still excelled athletically in high school at John Marshall: The Rockets football alum went on to play football at RCTC and the University of Minnesota.

It was while he was finishing his college degree that he learned about ETS. At the time, in 2016, ETS, founded by Ryan Englebert, had two locations. Kirsch interned at one of them, ETS South Metro, in Lakeville.

ETS Performance
Bentley Lujero, who plays football and is on the track and field team at Pine Island High School, works out Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2022, at ETS Performance in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

He knew that strength and conditioning and human performance was what he saw himself doing long-term. The mission of ETS really stuck with him, and, in December 2019, Kirsch was on board as director of the new ETS Rochester location.

Wittren has been by Kirsch’s side since January 2020. The Lourdes grad played baseball at the University of Nebraska Omaha before returning to Rochester and joining the ETS Fam, as it’s called.

In the first month of ETS’s launch in Rochester, 44 athletes signed on to train. The number grew to 90 right before the gym had to pivot to at-home training because of COVID-19.

Athletes continued to tell their friends and teammates about ETS, and the membership numbers shot up quickly. This past summer — the third summer of ETS’s life in Rochester — 475 athletes were training with Kirsch, Wittren and the rest of the team. Another facet of ETS is Wittren’s training with in-season Byron High School athletes.

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Kirsch isn’t trying to “pack the place like sardines,” as he says, “because then the experience suffers.” But area athletes have bought into the vision of ETS and believe in what the Rochester team is doing.

Take, for example, a Tuesday morning in October. It’s 6:30 a.m. and the gym is full of high school athletes going through their workouts, printed out in a folder on the ground in front of them.

Kirsch counted nine schools represented that morning. About 40 athletes showed up for a workout two hours before school begins for the day.

For Pine Island senior Jaxson Klusmann, the energy at ETS is what keeps him coming back.

There's nothing like it. It's special,” he said. “It’s the best part of my day.”

ETS Performance
Lincoln Majerus, who plays football, basketball, baseball and is on the track and field team at Mayo High School, works out Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2022, at ETS Performance in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Lincoln Majerus started at ETS three years ago when he was in seventh grade. Now, as a four-sport athlete as a freshman at Mayo, he’s arguably light years ahead of other freshmen in the weight room.

“I don't think I have a limit. I always feel like I can get better somehow. They really help with that,” he said. “Especially because I started younger. I still have four more years of coming here, so I'm really excited to see what happens.”

‘He made me a better person’

There's another key component to ETS's success, and it has nothing to do with athletics.

“What separates us from a lot of other training facilities is that connection that we have with the kids that goes beyond what we do inside the gym, in terms of lifting weights,” Wittren said.

These relationships outlast an athlete's high school experience. Just look at current collegiate athletes who began training at ETS in high school and still return there for workouts: Lourdes graduate and current North Carolina women's basketball guard Alyssa Ustby, Stewartville graduate and current University of Michigan men's basketball forward Will Tschetter, and John Marshall graduate and current Indiana women's basketball forward Lilly Meister, among others.

The current high school athletes at ETS feel the intentionality behind the coaches efforts to get to know them. Kirsch asks about their grades and talks about mental health. “They care about them as a person, not just an athlete,” Tracy Erlandson said.

Another thing ETS teaches? Accountability.

“Obviously it's made me faster and stronger like (Jake) said it was going to,” said John Marshall junior linebacker Nolan Radtke. “But then it also came with discipline. He came in, he disciplined me. He made me a better person. He showed me how to be positive and just a good person. He made me a better person all around.”

ETS Performance
Tessa Erlandson, who plays volleyball, basketball and is on the track and field team at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School, works out Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2022, at ETS Performance in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Kirsch said on the ETS Podcast last year that he asks athletes what they did at school that day. If they respond by saying nothing, Kirsch says, “Why did you waste your day?”

Kirsch encourages athletes to take academics seriously, even making bets with athletes, like “if you ace this test, 50 pushups for me. If you don’t, 50 pushups for you.”

Erlandson describes ETS as homey. They develop a relationship with athletes; every athlete has Kirsch’s phone number. He and Wittren are intentional about going to as many games as they can. If they can’t make it, they’re still keeping up with their athletes' performance, sending congratulations texts or encouraging athletes if the game doesn't go as planned.

Kirsch is a magnet. “You just want to be around the guy,” Tracy Erlandson said. “You really do.”

In Kirsch’s own opinion, that comes from his true love and passion for what he does.

“I feel like the work I do is almost a thank you to the really good coaches I had,” he said. “My driving force is how can I make sure everybody comes in here, they feel the love, obviously help them build confidence and instill confidence in themselves and just be a servant leader that’s going to put them before myself.”

That’s why building relationships with athletes is so crucial to Kirsch and Wittren. They aren’t tracking the number of athletes in order to hit a certain number. Sure, they would love to have the opportunity to train more athletes, especially soccer and softball players. (ETS does have a partnership with Southern Minnesota Select soccer.)

ETS Performance
Will Sexton, who plays hockey at Mayo High School, works out Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2022, at ETS Performance in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

ETS continues to grow as a company. Last week, the company celebrated the grand opening of ETS Duluth. Two more locations in Sioux Falls and La Crosse are set to open in November. And, on Tuesday, ETS announced its partnership with Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who will help ETS expand to his home state of Michigan.

If this illustrates anything, it’s that athletes are increasingly buying into the mission of ETS and understand the benefits of strength and conditioning training. But, here in Rochester, Kirsch and his team don’t want to bring athletes in just to increase membership numbers.

That’s not why they’re in the business. Kirsch doesn’t even mention a number goal when considering where ETS Rochester will be in a few years. Instead, his response goes back to maintaining relationships with athletes.

“We want to make sure that no matter if we've had kids that have been here for three years or three days, we want them to have the absolute best experience when they're here,” Kirsch said. “Keeping those kids around and being a part of their athletic journey is why we do it. As long as we can maintain and uphold the standard that we've set on a consistent basis, we'll be in good shape.”

Abby Sharpe joined the Post Bulletin in February 2022 after graduating from Arizona State University with a sports journalism degree. While at ASU, she created short- and long-form stories for audio and digital. Readers can reach Abby at 507-285-7723 or asharpe@postbulletin.com.
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