’14 NFL Combine – Part 1: Why the whole thing is overrated

To so many people in the NFL performance enhancement world, the NFL Combine represents the highlight of their year. And to these 3-hundred-and-something young men who will participate in the ensemble, these days will be their biggest job interviews of their lifetimes up to this point. It’s one in which their performance will make or break the degree to which their dream is able to come true…or at least as they think or their agent continues to tell them daily.

Most people think that I am all about the entire charade and meat market that is today’s NFL Combine. But I really am not. There are a few reasons for this. To start, a number of years ago, I actually stopped training guys specifically for the Combine or their Pro Days. Simply put, I realized how little translation and transference there was between the quantitative values attained on some of the tests performed and the success that a player will have later as a professional. And to me, I am hired for that very reason…to make each athlete better where it counts; on the field!

Combine post 6

Thus, with any of my athletes, I refuse to ‘sell-out’ just to prepare a guy to his fullest for his performance at the combine because I realized we were wasting precious time that we could actually be spending to get the athlete ready for the stuff that was going to ensure that they were able to play the game at the highest level once they got there. The ‘stuff’ I am referring to is the aspects of their game & their craft that will help them realize higher levels of mastery. And this ‘stuff’ very rarely involves getting a faster 40, more reps on the 225 bench press, or even a higher vertical jump. Instead, it usually does involve, optimizing their on-field movement mastery (go figure!). Proficiency in this ‘stuff’ is what is going to dictate what kind of football player they are and how long they will be able to be one (and hence; live their dream).

Unfortunately, agents and many athletes alike are so caught up on the quantitative numbers and values that they attain in a day audition that they forget the important meat & potatoes of the football preparation meal here (that is till they actually get in the League and realize that physical preparation specific to the game is much more important!). It isn’t sexy enough to most to work on ways to develop movement mastery. Though, one would think it would be because it should make a little more sense to train for the exact tasks that the athlete has to perform when they get to one of 32 cities across the league.

Combine post 1

You might be thinking to yourself…Shawn, what do you mean? Running, jumping, and changing direction is what players have to do on at the Combine and IT IS what they need to do on Sundays too. Ummm…yeah…not exactly! Have you ever wondered why, more often than not, the best performers in the cute little tests that everyone gets all hot & bothered over when they’re watching aren’t necessarily the best performers at their respective positions years down the road? Well, it’s no coincidence. As athletes move up in their level of mastery and qualification (i.e. move from being top college players to the ranks of the NFL), the biodynamic structure of the movements start to become extraordinarily specialized. Displaying force in one movement may not carryover to that of another movement (it rarely does in fact). Control of biomechanical position in one movement pattern will often not be the same things we will see when the athlete is required to change the kinesiological demands of the pattern and actions involved (i.e. execution during THE game!).

At times, we may be able to get general qualitative feedback from the testing results but the quantitative data isn’t representative of that. What I mean by this is; a 4.20 Pro-Agility Drill time doesn’t tell me anything about that running back’s force absorption capabilities and control of his stability/mobility/balance once he has to react to an unexpected defender in this path, drive his foot rapidly into the ground at an awkward angle, and then reaccelerate so he doesn’t get decapitated by an angry man who outweighs him by 40 pounds. Maybe you see where I am going with this: the combine tests are simply representative of some of the general physical qualities that form the base of the foundation of characteristics that could apply but not nearly the specific application of those qualities. And as athletes move up in levels of mastery (as each one of these young gentleman desire), the specific application is really the only thing that truly matters.

The other thing that I have a problem with is this; the NFL Combine and the training for it have turned into a pissing match in my profession! Some of my peers who work with Combine athletes are going to be irritated at me for this outlook but c’mon people. Of course there are some better places than others who may use with a little better training means & methods. But at the end of the day it’s about who you happened to have come through your program before not necessarily what you have done with him. If a young Deion Sanders happened to walk into my door, he’s going to make me look like an absolute genius come Indy if I am his Combine preparation guy. After this happens, before you know it I am a Combine prep Guru and every top prospect each year is going to be chomping at the bit to train with me as their Guru.

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Here is the rub that no one wants to talk about though…whoever is deemed the Combine King of the Hill for 2014 could have likely trained literally anywhere and by nearly anyone. I could’ve had my pet monkey train that guy and he likely would still be at the top of the heap (Side note: I don’t really have a pet monkey, though I really wish I did). OK…this may be a bit of an exaggeration but I think you get my point. We are talking about freaks of nature and we are talking about guys training for very short periods of time. Granted, I will be the first to tell you that if you do the right things you can make a significant impact on these freaks of nature…but much of the coaching isn’t so much about eliciting certain physical characteristics and specializing movement patterns but really it’s more about learning the nuances of the tests (how many steps to take, how to adjust your body when they are poking & prodding at you to make yourself appear better than you are, etc) and getting so familiar with that and the process that you can perform on that one day in the test….in most cases it’s not about optimizing your physical response or personal performance for that which the player does later (i.e. when they get to their team once they’ve made the League). I understand it’s all marketing, promotion, and advertising of the player and his potential but this all seems a little backwards to me…that is, IF my goal is to make him a better effin’ football player.

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I think the proof is in the pudding when I have players come to me once they get in the league and have been there for any period of time. Physically-speaking, they never come close to hitting the same numbers and values that they did at the combine on those very same tests. Yet…here’s the thing: they show increased on-field proficiency than they possessed in college from playing the game at a higher level and learning the nuances of the game (note I didn’t say that most are actually optimizing their individual & positional movement patterns).

Here’s my further thoughts on the matter: IF these tests were actually indicative of characteristics that correlated to on-field performance AND the coaches made appreciable & lasting change on those characteristics, don’t you think the athlete would be constantly renewing them every single time they performed a movement on-field and thus would be tapping them out to maintain that given level of performance? One would think…but it simply doesn’t happen this way.

Combine post 2

Could I train guys to perform to their highest level at in the cute drills they perform? Yes; I absolutely could (and have). Would it be just for the show of it all? Yes; it absolutely would be. Would I be doing that athlete a disservice in the whole scheme of his football development? Yes; without a shadow of a doubt in my mind. And thus, the money or glory involved with training guys for their job audition in Indy simply isn’t my forte or my desire. There’s some that really love to do it and help guys to show & shine on those days…and this blog isn’t a knock on them…it’s really more of a knock on the system!

Now, don’t get me wrong…the NFL Combine and/or Pro Days are a necessary evil. It’s part of the lay of the land. And with the magnitude of the fiasco it has turned into on NFL Network and other sports stations, it surely isn’t going anywhere! However, I am not planning to personally contribute to the problem. Will I still take on guys entering the draft as personal athletes of mine? Yes, I will and I do. But it’s only if they (and their damn agents) understand exactly what my objectives are going to revolve around…which is exactly what I believe it should be…taking them to the next level in their football specific performance & mastery. And if an increased broad jump or quicker pro agility happens as a by-product, so be it!

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3 thoughts on “’14 NFL Combine – Part 1: Why the whole thing is overrated

  1. Shawn, You know I like your thoughts on this, but I have a couple of questions. I’d like to hear your thoughts on which tests or evaluations SHOULD be done instead of what is currently done. They already watch endless amounts of film and do incredibly thorough background checks, so what else would you like to see them do to make a better evaluation?

    Second, do you think that the football coaches are teaching movement mastery? If not, should they be? Or is that somebody else’s job?

    • Jim,

      Thanks so much for the comment and insightful questions! Ironically, you totally read my mind…as Part 3 of my Combine series is going to include an analysis on what it is that I believe needs to be done for assessment at the combine! So, stay tuned for that.

      On the second piece…no, I don’t believe that movement mastery is getting close to adequately occuring in American Football with the exception of a rare few who may get to work with guys like you and I for an extended period of time. On the note regarding who’s job it is…I actually wrote a blog a few months ago on the issue. Check it out:

      https://footballbeyondthestats.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/who-is-in-charge-of-movement/

  2. Look forward to reading Part III. To Jim’s question, I have looked at vertical performance data of those “special” players, the Barry Sanders’ types. The vertical jump power/force outputs are not that special, and their combine 40’s are not that special (surprise)…on paper, very average. But, the plyometric data, yep, there is something there. The muscle stiffness, reactive index, amortization analysis, force curves (eccentric RFD) all shows patterns that correlate with those special players.

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