Football Agility: It’s NOT About the Strength

As we prepare for the Super Bowl, many people prepare for not only watching the biggest football game of the year but also the parties, the abundance of food, and of course, the seemingly-endless expensive commercials that occur during the game. I am preparing as well…for an onslaught of a different sort: to read the ridiculously unfounded tweets from those in my field about what they are witnessing from the players during the game.

What exactly am I talking about here you may ask? Well, let me take you back a few weeks to rehash a few particular instances for illustration purposes (trust that this will help open up Pandora’s box on our real topic today: what factors are most responsible for making agile movers on a football field).

First, let’s go back to Monday, January 12, 2015…the day of the NCAA College Football National Championship game where many of us watched as the Ohio State Buckeyes man-handled the Oregon Ducks.

Zeke Elliott

En route to this rout, Buckeye RB Ezekiel Elliott put up a performance for the ages when the nation saw him run for 246 yards and 4 touchdowns making Ducks look silly in the process as he ate up yards over and over.

This performance led to a number of tweets on my timeline from professionals in my field which held a common theme (I wrote them down but will keep the person anonymous of course):

“Zeke Elliott is showing Oregon that they need to squat and clean a whole lot more if they hope to tackle him.”

“Elliott is such a beast. Keep your speed and get in the weight room, Oregon!”

Then, fast forward a number of days to the weekend where the NFC & AFC Championship games occurred in the National Football League. Both victorious teams featured running backs who put on displays of RB-freakdom (or Beastmode in one case) when Marshawn Lynch trampled the Packers for 157 yards while LeGarrette Blount ran for 148 yards against the Colts.

Lynch champ game

Again, I “had to” deal with the comments from my football training peers (note: I say “had to” being that I often tweet live about the movement that I am witnessing during any game I am watching):

“Kids who want to play FB at a high-level…follow Marshawn Lynch and get in the weight room.”

“Blount is just running past, through and around guys. Bigger/stronger wins.”

Bount champ game

There were others…and I could go on…but let’s get into the meat & potatoes of today’s discussion.

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-playoffs/0ap3000000460340/NFC-Championship-Marshawn-Lynch-highlights

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/0ap3000000460574/AFC-Championship-Colts-vs-Patriots-highlights

Take a moment now and watch the above three highlights (of Elliott, Lynch, and Blount) and pay close attention. As you do so, also think constructively about what types of characteristics each of them possesses and displays in their movement which allow them to excel in comparison to their peers.

How can we really believe it’s the strength?

Though I have no doubts that each of the three RBs we just mentioned has ‘sufficient’ weight room strength, I believe it’s absolutely asinine to believe that general strength (especially that which is measured during most weight room activities) is the differentiating factor to attribute their on-field performance to in those respective games.

Yet, it seems as though our profession holds that thought near and dear to their heart and gets downright angry when someone dare question that strength is NOT as important to the on-field football movement prowess (or any sport besides weightlifting and powerlifting) at the highest levels of qualification.

Note: I didn’t say that it’s not important at all…just that it’s not AS important…especially in comparison to other factors.

By this point of reading, many professionals are sifting through their folders of change-of-direction research articles to send me the correlations found between strength and change-of-direction speed. But here’s the rub…for starters, we must look at 2 different things in those studies: 1). level of qualification & mastery of the participants and 2). the nature & demands of the task.

Now, if the qualification and mastery of the athletes involved in the study are low please throw the study to the wayside for a bit knowing that in these types of participants we can expect transfer from the acquisition of general motor abilities to one another as well as to many types of sport movement activities. And the athletes we are talking about today do NOT fit within that population.

Next, ask yourself if the nature & demands of the task in the study really represent a task that can be deemed indicative of/definable as agility in the sport of football. If the task is a closed and preprogrammed task (such as many types of ‘agility’ tests used in training circles like the 5-10-5 and the like) then strength will still show some great importance. However, we did not witness any closed/preprogrammed movement in the highlight videos of those guys.

However, the more open and chaotic the task is (i.e. change-of-direction on a football field), and the higher the level that the athlete resides at, the less strength (especially that displayed in the execution of a general weight room exercise) will have any transfer implications whatsoever onto the performance of the task.

Instead, the successful performance of athletes in these types of tasks is going to have a much more complex equation.

In fact, I would propose that general strength (maximum squat or hang clean or fill-in-blank 1RM effort) now will have very little bearing here. Specific or special strength qualities (such as eccentric rate of rate of force absorption and starting/isometric strength) will now be of more importance. In addition, biomechanical efficiency and the respective positions that the athlete finds himself executing from will also be very important but they are almost more of a by-product in comparison to more determining factors for success in an open environment.

Lynch cut in training camp 13

More important yet lies aspects that are dependent on acquiring a higher level of movement mastery and specific skill respective of the particular task. The types of factors here come down to cognitive-perceptual ones which include an automatically-occurring use of kinesthetic sense & awareness, visual scanning & processing, accurate decision-making, and then heightened motor control.

This is the reason why we could witness an athlete perform very well during the execution of a closed “Pro Agility Drill” but yet perform poorly on an open “Reactive Agility Test” and vice versa (at least as long as the Reactive Agility test contains task-specific stimuli that the athlete is accustomed to).

Without those psychological factors of the cognitive-perceptual sort, all the strength (even if it’s specific or special strength) in the world would do very little good during the execution of most football movement-specific activities. Additionally, with the acquisition and maintenance of those types of psychological factors, an athlete can be relatively weak in comparison to their peers and still excel in the tasks that really matter on the field on Sundays (or in front of a national television audience with the whole world watching).

So what will we see & what’s responsible for that display?

Masterful movers such as Elliott, Lynch, and Blount all rely on the honing of these psychological factors to be more specialized to the types of tasks found within their sport movement demands. In comparison to less masterful or qualified movers playing the same position these types of guys will:

• Feel more comfortable when chaos enters the mix

• Display more body control and be able to finely adjust more rapidly to the stimuli present in the ever-changing environment

• Maintain higher degrees of freedom for potential movement strategy options

• Execute movements with near-optimal & efficient biomechanics (when energy leaks are often present for the less masterful as the chaos increases in comparison to the execution in closed tasks)…they can essentially do more of the right kinematic things from all biomechanical positions.

• Use more defined visual scanning to make more appropriate decisions (i.e. watching nuances of his opponent’s behaviors to give him cues regarding best choices)

• Will use “chunked” sensory information from more various places in the environment

• Possess an authentic movement signature (especially fluctuations in the kinesiological pattern) that would be difficult for other performers to duplicate and would often be difficult for the athlete himself to describe

• Have deeply ingrained motor programs that are unconscious, of the highest coordination, and which utilize a high degree of his respective specific motor potential

Conclusion

I know it hurts a lot of my peers’ feelings that strength may not be the determining factor for success in the agility demands of the highest level of mastery of football players. However, until we all come to the common ground that expert movement on a football field is determined from a more complex combination of aspects we will always be doing our athletes an injustice. We still stand in a great role in the motor learning and movement optimization puzzle as it’s up to all of us to look for ways to help him (or her) acquire the psychological cognitive-perceptual skills necessary to take that next step in sport movement mastery. But first, it starts with a more thorough awareness of what we really see as we watch the movements taking place in the game (so please remember that as you tweet this Sunday!).

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