Why So Serious? Determining the Causes of the Catastrophic Injury Plague in the NFL

Joker pic

Disclaimer:
With the rash of injuries that has continued to occur day-by-day, I begin each day cringing at what that day’s news may bring in the NFL. I also end each day being grateful for health after checking in with my guys across the league to make sure they made it out of that day as clean as possible (for this time of the year anyway). Let me be frank here: I am flat-out pissed off. Some of the things that are happening are unavoidable. Others deserve a finger pointed at them. Thus, I decided to whip this blog together very quickly this morning before getting out to another camp later this afternoon. It is a compilation of some random thoughts going on in my head regarding the subject so I will be the first to admit that this blog post probably isn’t the most well thought—out or well-written in the world but someone had to tackle the subject as this continues to get out of hand. My ideas come from two distinct places; the first as someone who has personally worked with and extensively studied what makes NFL players tick for the last 6 years. The second as someone who spends each day witnessing Training Camps for 3 weeks straight across the league. Thus, take any thoughts and hypothesis as you wish (again, remembering that I am pissed off).

As Training Camp carries on, the amount of serious injuries seem to continue to pile up on the daily, and it only leaves me to question just what the heck is going on right now in the NFL? When a few of the original ACL-related cases started this injury gun off with a bang, a good number of people raised the question to me: why are so many serious injuries happening in camp? I responded to each and every individual with the pre-packaged politically correct answer containing the ideas that we must investigate each individual injury case-by-case as many things will greatly play into any injury.

These things include, but are not limited to:
-what was the nature of the injury (magnitude of injury, was this an area of previous injury, was it a freak thing, etc)
-how & when did the injury happen (was it contact vs. non-contact, what period in practice did it happen during, etc)
-what extraneous circumstances may have played into the injury (field conditions, odd cutting action that the player wasn’t accustomed to, etc)
-what was the athlete’s level of physical preparedness (how specifically prepared was he to do his job)

Well, each of those questions still needs to be asked and therefore each injury obviously still needs to have this depth of investigation. It will always be pretty difficult to speculate regarding causation of any injury. Yet; I feel like there are a number of things that need to be brought to light especially when it seems like everyone wants to just point the proverbial finger at the fact that this is simply a chaotic game where guys are bound to get hurt. This may in fact be true…but I would be amiss if I didn’t actually try my hand at providing some thoughts to the matter.

How Prepared Are They Really?

To start, let me raise this point; I often say one of my missions for the preparation of my NFL players is to match the level of their special preparation with the individual player’s level of mastery at the level of qualification that he plays at. I understand that this is a mouthful. Let me elaborate. In the context of that quote, the three terms that you may be unfamiliar with that need to be clarified are:
Special preparation-what can we do in training which will specifically carry over to his duties of his position
Mastery-what should the athlete be doing right now to raise his level of specialization to improve upon his weaknesses and yet take advantage of his strengths in order to make him more skilled (masterful) within his craft
Qualification-simply refers to the level of football that he plays at which in this discussion is players in the National Football League

So, really what I am saying is that the training means & methods being incorporated must match exactly what the player has to do on the field as well as exactly what he needs at that given moment in time and what he is ready for.

However, here is where the paradigm shift still has not occurred! First of all, the CBA from 2011 limits the amount of overall preparation and development time that players spend with their team’s strength & conditioning staff. Thus, most players are on their own for the 4-5 weeks leading up to camp after their OTA & Minicamp phases of the NFL offseason. Some use this time wisely to train and therefore come into camp very prepared to perform their tasks. Others…umm…not so much. In fact, in the last 2 years, I have heard stories or have personally known guys who actually take the time before training camp to go on frickin vacation! Think I am kidding?! This year alone I know a handful of Pro Bowl players who in the last 2 weeks before training camp were actually vacationing instead of training thinking they “would simply use training camp to get their bodies ready to play on Sundays.”

Second, even in the majority of those guys that are ‘preparing’ either on their own or with their own sports performance professional, they are often not performing the most specific of training that will be directed towards raising their level of mastery in the most optimal possible fashion. Many are utilizing training means & methods which simply do not match their level of specific preparation, mastery, or qualification. Meaning; they are utilizing exercises that may be increasing their levels of general motor abilities but aren’t necessarily having the greatest carryover to the field.

They may be lifting tons of clanging heavy weights, going through drill after drill, or hitting copious amounts of conditioning runs. BUT…most of them definitely are not training in specific ways that will directly translate to the movement actions that they have to perform at maximum intensity during training camp and then for the 4 months following it. This is something that I am working very diligently and passionately to remedy. Not only with my soon-to-be released book but also this blog where I am attempting to enlighten readers (hopefully coaches and sports performance professionals) as to more specific and optimal training methods directed to on-field physical preparation.

Technique is NOT Constant

Second, I want to add this idea; on-field movement technique is always changing. Of course it becomes less variable for the athlete who has a higher level of technical mastery but it will still change each and every day depending on countless factors. Yes; that’s right. I know…it sounds odd. These guys are supposed to be possessing of the highest levels of expertise in their movement execution on the field. It may be true that, at least in most cases, they have the most solidified of default movement patterns usually because of the sheer quantity of repetitions they have executed in a certain fashion. However, it’s the smallest differences in movement execution that can make the biggest change to the display of the movement pattern. That change can be either positive or negative.

Great physical preparation mind and elite athlete coach, Dan Pfaff, once said something along the lines of, “mechanical efficiency can be affected daily by therapy. Top athletes are like F1 supercars in that the mechanic can acutely improve performance.” This quote attempts to shed light on the sheer sensitivity of an NFL player’s central nervous system and anything it’s being subjected to in its outside environment will change the outcome of the way that it performs things that it may have done numerous times before.
Taking that analogy one step further…imagine having a little puddle-jumping car that is built around its small engine and great gas mileage. It’s not meant to race anywhere but to the grocery store. Next, imagine a brand-new Ferrari or Lamborghini. It is meant to give the driver the ultimate thrill imaginable anytime he is in it. It begs for the driver to push it to the limits. However, if either of these cars is malfunctioning in the smallest fashion, which car would you rather be in when all hell breaks loose: the efficient little go-kart-like car or the car that is meant to be on the race track? Well, the first car likely won’t be pushed (at least by most drivers) at the time of malfunctioning nor does it even have the potential to be operating at the upper limits of automotive performance. In contrast, the supercar is capable of radically going from 0-60 in less than 3 seconds and has top speeds that exceed 200mph. In addition, in the Ferrari or Lambo you can feel every little thing and see the immediate difference in performance. Well, every NFL player happens to be that Ferrari.

Ferrarri

Applying this thought to the field, a typical WR, RB, or DB going into a force absorption phase on a planting or cutting action can subject the player to forces that can easily exceed 3 times his bodyweight and this force has to be withstood within approximately 300 milliseconds or even less. It should be easy to see how even the smallest perturbation to the conditions of the execution can change the landscape of its display and determine its result. Neuromuscular efficiency changes in the athlete which may produce muscle coordination sequences that the central nervous system and the body’s units are ill-prepared for. Large, global muscle groups that produce the majority of force or small, local muscles responsible for stabilization may not fire synergistically at the right time or the right intensity to control movement quite in the same way that the body is accustomed to. From there, biomechanical efficiency changes as well. Here the joints are not being adjusted to positions where they are familiar with being in or producing force adequately from. All of these things combine then to put the athlete behind the 8-ball for bad, bad news on the injury front.

On a mild, August day in Minnesota

The second week of training camp practice is well-known for the ‘chippy’ nature that the players start to exemplify because they are sick of hitting their own teammates and are ready to lay out someone else for a change. Well, the second week of camp is also notorious for ‘camp legs’ setting in where the legs just feel heavy and guys feel like for some reason they can’t move like they know they are capable of. We have all heard the famous Lombardi quote, “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Well, it has great truth in the context of movement efficiency, as well.

Let me give you a brief illustration of that which I just introduced. I happened to be in Mankato, MN on Wednesday as I often am because of the number of guys that I have who play for the Vikings. At their afternoon practice session, as soon as the first player walked out onto the field it was easy to see that today was going to be a day of holding my breath. Across the board, warm-up routines were shorter. Legs were heavier (damn you, camp legs). Guys were operating slower. Routine skills weren’t getting executed according to the norm. Focus was lapsing quickly. And all the while, movement was changing…and not for the better. The players may not be overly cognizant of this but all of it was noticeably different as long as you know what to look for. In each of my athletes, who I study while performing on-field movement in both closed drills (rehearsed training drills with me) and open conditions (chaotic unpredictability on the field on Sundays) more extensively than I should admit for the well-being of my social life, I was blown away by what I was seeing from them. I pride myself in the mentality that my guys bring to their craft; a mental approach where they are usually focused and concentrated deliberately on each detail of their tasks at hand.

Thankfully, it wasn’t just something I saw occurring in their execution and demeanor. Instead, it was team-wide. Even in the current best player walking the planet, Adrian Peterson, it was very easy to see (sorry to break it to you but even his superhuman persona is susceptible to this). Having spent a significant amount of time studying A.D. on-field it was apparent to see that something was more than a little off. He didn’t have the same explosive pop in his acceleration steps that he is known for. His toes were pointing out more than usual. There was a little hesitation when pressing on the gas pedal (yes; even for All-Day). Going into his cutting actions (even onto his right leg which right now is still better than his left) he wasn’t widening his base of support to the same degree as he normally would to give himself the same optimal angles for efficient deceleration and for slicing out of the cut. Furthermore, 28 was also not grooving to the same depth and range of motion therefore putting more torque onto aspects of his knees during rapid movement actions. And remember; the higher performing the player, the higher the risk. Thankfully, the Vikings intelligently ended practice about 20-25 minutes earlier than usual so I could rest easy yesterday. To whomever made this decision; kudos! You may have saved a season-ending injury to any number of 90 guys including the game’s best.

AP practice 10 pic 1

What Needs to Change?

Well, unless the NFL is going to go back and re-do the CBA to change the annual schedule, something else has to give. Obviously, that would be best case scenario. But knowing it’s more likely that I see a pig fly over my next training camp locale, a band-aid on this cut would be more likely. I think it’s time for coaches to acknowledge that there are things that they can and should immediately do in order to help combat the current problem.

For starters, we know that camp is a grind. Coaches brag about it. “It’s only normal,” they say. “It’s the way it’s always been so why change now?” they question. Well, to answer the rhetorical ‘why change now’ question, here is my rebuttal: it’s about damn time, that’s why! We know that players in this day and age are bigger, faster, and stronger. Thus, they are much more supercar-like than they have ever been. It’s time to treat them as such and continuing to put them at risk is not a good way to go about this. A Ferrari can look good on the outside but still not be running optimally. It’s time for coaches to be more cognizant of what ‘camp grind’ does to players. It makes everything more variable. It makes routine movement more stressful. Do we need our players to endure some of that stress? Yes; absolutely, without a doubt. But it should not occur to the point where movement patterns begin to become compromised in anyway.

The ability to truly analyze and acknowledge the display of those on-field movement patterns is obviously needed, as well. Without this eye for what’s happening, there is no way that we can make judgment calls on if a player is either performing the movement as close to his potential or if there may be a higher risk of injury on that day for one reason or another. In my opinion, technical execution of often performed on-field movement is the only screen we need as long as we know what to look for. If we just turn a blind eye, we are just asking for trouble. Either we are going to decrease their technical mastery or we are going to take the next step and dangle the athlete off the proverbial cliff of injury risk.

On a similar note, when we add in the cognitive and perceptual demands (both of which are shown to change muscle coordination sequences, movement kinematics and kinetics) it takes the demands and raises the ante. Thus, if you are requiring a player to do something that requires more mental processing (which is occurring during all tactical aspects of camp) the movement patterning will be changed and the stress level will automatically increase. I know NFL coaches pride themselves in their extensive ‘install’ periods to handle this but when chaos ensues how much of that which they ran through a handful of times do you think they are going to do correctly? Yes; I get that they will have to play in a game and perform those very same tactical and technical tasks. I also understand that you only have a limited amount of time and practices to get your players ready to play the game. Thus, a certain inherent risk will always come simply by participating in game-like conditions.

In addition, I know it’s only American to want to outwork your opponent. But we should all realize that outworking can be more than just doing more of something. It can actually come from doing things more intelligently. It’s not uncommon for camps to go 6 days in a row with only 1 off day for the first 2 weeks. Then at the end of that 2nd week will be the first preseason game followed by maybe a day of travel or if you were at home you get to rest. We should realize that players can afford a little more rest in the schedule. Only perfect practice makes perfect. Do more than simply practice for the sake of it! Practice with deliberate intent for everything that you do either makes you better or makes you worse. If there are any NFL coaches reading this I want to let you in on a little secret here: the players LOVE the reprieve days where they get to go paintballing or go to the water park for the day. On most days of camp, these things will go further to get a positive adaption than pushing the players out onto the field for more of the grind.

If coaches and organizations are not willing to adapt then I guess I will continue to start each day hoping and praying for health & safety across the 32 camp locations on that day and keep my fingers crossed that each night I retire with thoughts of gratitude for my guys’ health for yet another day. It’s in their court now; just don’t say that someone didn’t warn you about a new way of looking at things.

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