Within approximately the past month, many people in the football strength & conditioning field have been discussing the release of a study which investigated the changes in the morphological structure and performance function of Division 1 football players over their 4 eligible years at Oklahoma State University. This study, entitled ‘Longitudinal Morphological and Performance Profiles for American, NCAA Division I Football Players’ was published in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. After reading through it, I wanted to provide some thoughts as I believe that the results that the researchers found are a microcosm of what is happening in college football performance programs…in addition, as it turns out, I also feel that it is representative of a greater problem presented to training professionals and coaches when we are attempting to develop greater movement mastery on-field for our football athletes as well as the fulfillment of our players’ potential.
Summary of the findings
Basically, the study found that though athletes realized large increases in both strength and size at most positions, there were very limited changes in both speed and power (though as you will see below both had limitations in their testing, as well).
What was investigated and measured?
Assessments of strength included 1RM of bench press, squat, and power clean as well as a 225lb max-out of the bench to assess strength endurance. Assessments of power took place with the vertical jump. Finally, speed was assessed using a traditional 40 yard sprint. The changes were then tracked as athletes moved up (at least theoretically) in sport mastery over their 4 years at OSU. In addition, morphological data and changes were also observed and reported.
Limitations in the study and its findings
Even from the design of the study it’s easy to see what many in this country place a premium on; strength gain and morphological change. This is unfortunate in my mind as most people know that I am of the belief that the achievement of sport mastery in football revolves around the improvement of more specific movement ability and that is where our objectives for changes in performance on-field should be centered. This contrasting outlook doesn’t neglect strength at all (especially at lower levels of mastery and qualification). Instead, it looks at how strength qualities will be specifically displayed during sport movement actions common to those on the field.
Unfortunately, in this study, there was no measurement of qualities that would offer us much deep insight as to which qualities are more important when it comes to athletes moving up the mastery ladder. We know that in the sport of football, correlations between on-field movement characteristics and physical qualities extend far beyond the display of, or the increase in, maximum strength capabilities. Furthermore, success on-field comes down to power development and expression, quick short distance acceleration, rapid force absorption in a timely fashion, and overall the ability to start, stop, and change direction for most positions.
That all said, I believe that they could’ve greatly improved the study by including a measuring stick for change-of-direction & agility, short distance linear speed (5 and 10 yard times from a football-specific stance), and horizontal projection (broad jump). In addition, there was no use of force-time data or quantification of force-velocity characteristics of the athlete and this is the information that could’ve changed not only our level of understanding of what is important for increases in football performance but also give the program at OSU further critical assessment of their own approach.
Of course, there was only one program studied (though done with a good number of athletes over the longest period of time possible for those athletes) and the changes witnessed within that population. Thus, it’s quite possible that Oklahoma State and the situation there is an exception and that other programs could have significantly different results. It’s intuitively obvious that not only are programs going to differ in philosophies and the aims that they emphasize but also in the results that are realized. Because of this, specific results will likely differ among programs in Division I football. That all said, I do actually believe that the results are indicative of what we may find if more programs and teams would be sampled in a similar fashion. Unfortunately, no real detailed insight was given regarding the training specifics implemented annually and it’s obvious that it would’ve been too exhaustive to truly investigate but it would be interesting to see what exactly was done over the years to elicit the results realized and reported.
Early gains are easy
Here is what I believe to be true and was further solidified in the study: Physical changes are easy to elicit in athletes at lower levels of mastery and qualification (in this case in years 1 and 2 of college football) due to limited past training time, lower base levels of physical qualities (such as strength and speed), and overall greater transference between general motor ability increase and athletic ability on the field. However, over time, specificity should become more and more of a determining factor for success. Meaning; the training means and methods must get more specific and intensive to the game so the athlete’s biomechanical and neuromuscular efficiency levels become more specialized to the athlete’s constantly changing morphology and heighted motor function (i.e. technical mastery). We must acknowledge that training means that worked at one point will lose their efficacy and the ability to positively contribute to an athlete’s on-field performance as time carries on. As an athlete continues to close his potential gap (i.e. his room for adaptation becomes lessened) this need must be addressed and becomes even more imperative. Thus, based on the results of the study, I would highly question what (if any) sequential and progressive approach of training means and methods was even taken.
Why is recruiting the only answer?
The authors suggest, in their practical applications section, that coaches should attempt to recruit players who already possess power and speed superior to their peers because those variables are difficult to change in 4 years of training at the college level. This is a major problem in my mind and professionals in our field should take great offense to this type of mentality. Rather than look for ways to make their programming better or to understand the causes behind the effects realized, the authors elected to pass off the results as further support of the thought that more attention should be paid to the selection (aka recruiting) of those who have previously demonstrated superior speed and power qualities.
In fact, when we are talking about athletes who have this type of genetic inheritance (think about it; only about 1% of high school football players will play D1 football at the college level), yes, they most definitely do have superior power and speed qualities to begin with…they hit the sperm lottery! However, where the authors go wrong is that it is actually quite easy to change these qualities in this type of athletic population (especially over a 4 year period for gosh sakes!) and if you don’t think it is…you should NOT have your job! Let someone who knows what the heck they are doing come in and do it for you! I know that sounds harsh…but for someone to suggest that increases in these qualities (especially in these athletes) are unattainable is downright laughable to me. You cannot tell me that a high school athlete, even one going to the D1 football level, already possesses elite level power and speed qualities specific to the field. If you do, it is a moot point arguing with you because your view is already too skewed for you to comprehend any different.
Conclusion (aka My Soap Box)
If you know me or follow my work, you will know how strongly I believe that our football athletes in this country have much further that they can go in order to achieve their highest levels of mastery where it counts; on the field. During my work with NFL football players, I have found that qualities and traits of movement ability (which again really wasn’t fully assessed or discussed in this study) is really what separates the athlete who can achieve elite level mastery in the sport from those that are simply good. These qualities CAN be developed…just not in the fashion that most collegiate S&C programs are attempting.
In the study discussed here, they continually talk about “sophisticated training programming” yet they couldn’t develop anything more than just greater strength and size?! Detractors from my philosophy at these types of programs constantly tell me about the large correlation that they see between strength/power qualities in general training means and its change in football performance on-field. They use this as an excuse to constantly chase greater squat or hang clean quantitative values. Well, you know what? It’s time to show me the numbers! These athletes in this study did get stronger! And they got bigger! But did they get more athletic where it counted (i.e. on the field)?! That remains to be seen!
All in all, I believe that the study proves once again…it’s time for there to be a paradigm shift…at least if we want to achieve the highest level of mastery in the sport. We must shift away from an approach that solely chases the development of general motor potential to one that attempts to focus on specific motor potential as an athlete moves up the ladder of qualification (and true mastery) and perfect the technical mastery of on-field movement. It is in this way that our athletes will be able to take full advantage of any of their existing motor potential as well as the changes in physical qualities (including morphological changes) specific to the game movements in the future.
Jacobsen, B.H., Conchola, E.G., Glass, R.B. and B.J. Thompson. Longitudinal Morphological and Performance Profiles for American, NCAA Division I Football Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27(9), 2347-2354. 2013.