Football Beyond The Stats

Modifications within my NFL movement skill refinement process – 2018

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Introduction

With NFL Training Camps now in full swing, I felt as though it was a perfect time to reflect upon and share some of the modifications I personally made in 2018 to my NFL movement skill refinement plan for the players who work with me. In mid-to-late June, when each NFL season and training camp preparation phase rolls around, it is a unique time because it’s a period where I (usually) have players physically with me consistently for a more extended period of time to work directly on their movement toolboxes and specific performance enhancement for the field. Of course, players are typically here to start each offseason, as well, and we do get a really good jump on that year’s movement skill refinement then too. However, in March and April, some players are still recovering from post-season surgeries and/or other challenges from that previous season that it is often more introductory in nature as opposed to in the summer when the players are ready to jump in headfirst to go add movement strategies and solutions to their toolboxes.

I surely like to consider myself a continual lifelong learner (as if anyone would admit to being complacent, closed-minded, and unchanging in their approach). Because of that mentality, along with my desire to be the very best I can be for the respective players who commit to partnering with me, with each year that passes by I feel as though I am able to make significant changes to my overall approach to NFL player movement and skill acquisition. Though I often write down these ideas privately in my own note taking, this will be the first time that I publicly articulate those changes more transparently on this blog. However, I thought it may be worthwhile to share for a number of reasons: 1). Many people often ask me how my movement skill approaches are changing and/or have changed overtime. 2). It could be a way to keep myself more publicly accountable by allowing for a certain amount of auditing from the experienced individuals within the field who I respect who also may read the words which follow. 3). I am hoping that there is something that ‘Football Beyond the Stats’ readers will find interesting within how we go about our movement skill business.

Adaptability within adaptability

Along with the growth within the changes that I attempt to make each year, I also highlight a global theme for my players to embrace throughout the month or so leading up to heading back to their teams for training camp as they prepare for the season. Some of these themes in past years were “Train the way you play” where we centered our approach on more representative learning, “Comfortable being uncomfortable” where we focused on figuring out ways to become bulletproof under pressure, and “Fall off the bike” where we didn’t hide from mistakes but instead learned to thrive when they were made.

Unless you’re completely new to hearing any thought I would share, you probably know that I view the process of attaining mastery within sport movement skill as less of an acquisition process, and instead, more of a process which leads through a performer becoming more functionally connected with how they approach problems within their sport and the solutions which they possess to solve them. Additionally, this connection comes down to ‘attunement’ and ‘adaptation’ (see Davids and Araujo, 2011).

As I tell my players, because of the game that they play and the tasks and environments that contain the niche problems that they face, they (the player) can never actually become too adaptable. To help accomplish this goal of adaptability, which has seemed to be a driving one in my methods now for as long as I can remember, I have gravitated towards certain ideas within an ecological dynamics framework including investigating movement skill execution as a problem solving activity (will give credit to repetition without repetition in a bit!), the understanding and emphasis of perception-action coupling, looking at myself as a learning designer who manipulates constraints to create representative task design, the investigation (and inclusion) of the information which athletes utilize in the form of affordances for action, and the frequent utilization of guided discovery methods within my instruction and feedback communication. Many of the changes highlighted below were ideas that are extensions of these aforementioned concepts; some of which that I have already implemented in certain ways or to various degrees throughout the course of previous years. However, this year, they were concepts that I either embraced more wholeheartedly or played around with to a much larger degree all in hopes of accomplishing the overriding objective of 2018: “Adaptability within adaptability.”

Disclaimer

As I have said more times that I can count across all media outlets including this blog, my twitter, my website, and just about any presentation or podcast interview I am part of, the only thing that matters when a player comes to me is if our interventions translate to increased movement performance when and where it counts; the field on a Sunday. Meaning, the only time to truly assess transfer (even if this assessment is qualitative in nature) is when the player gets back on the football field to play for real (aka during an NFL game). We can speculate regarding movement skill acquisition, learning, refinement, or retention at various times across the timescales of the skill (across a practice session or weeks within the summer), but things won’t become as clear as they need to be until true competition mode kicks in. Long story short, even though I am about to discuss “how it worked out” for each modification highlighted below, I won’t even be able to begin to assess to what degree the change made on the athlete’s movement skill and performance till September and beyond (i.e. then I can begin to understand stabilization and actualization for the player and how the training processes in the summer may have contributed to that).

Repetition without repetition

Anyone who follows me knows that the principled concept of ‘repetition without repetition’ within my approach to movement skill refinement is far from new or different for me. In fact, not only is ‘rep without rep’ the words I would use to summarize my overall movement skill philosophy as I explain it to others, but it is also what I strongly believe is mainly responsible for the majority of players I work with being considered as more proficient problem solvers than their peers. That said though, I would be amiss if I didn’t at least mention the concept here, because to accomplish the objectives of our theme for the year (i.e. adaptability within adaptability), I did so by taking even more steps to live and breathe within a repetition without repetition approach in every way imaginable as you are about to see as you read on. Therefore, I am in even more debt of gratitude to Nikolai Bernstein for how he changed my world years ago and continues to still to this day.

Paying respect to movement histories

When analyzing movement skill execution for players, I’ve always attempted to try to understand why their movement was being controlled in the fashions that it was/is; to do so, I’ve had to investigate how their movement toolboxes have emerged over time particularly as it pertains to activities that they used to participate in before they focused on playing American football. Thus, uncovering their movement histories has always been a vital step within my movement mastery processes but this year I attempted to bring further attention to how they got where they are and what it may mean especially for my guidance, instructions and feedback that I offer.

Example of what it looked like:

I would tap back into what I knew about who they ‘used to be’ as a mover in the past and bring attention to what was required in those other sports/activities to potentially connect to any carryover that any former movement style could have in how they currently move.

How it worked out:

Some of my players were multi-sport athletes and even had another sport as their deeper love. Others used to participate (hopefully it’s a “used to” anyway) in more extreme sport activities such as skateboarding, motocross racing, and downhill skiing. Others yet, have vast experiences in certain martial arts or even dance. Overall, tapping into what was required in each of those activities seemed to bring about a unique bravado and zeal for each player. They talked about that activity with me often with great passion and they had a chance to teach me about not only what the sport entailed but why they loved to do it and what made it different from how they approach their movement skills in football. The only bad thing to come of this was that the more we talked about it, the more I found them hinting at how they can’t wait to be able to do it again…this would be fine, of course, IF they elect to wait till they are done playing football to go all-in with said activity…especially if it’s a sport endeavor that could be a bit more risky now (for example, a skateboarding tight end who now weighs 260lb as opposed to the last time he boarded when he was 14 and about 170lb).

Ownership within movement preps (aka warm-ups)

Those who have followed this blog or my work for any period of time probably know how big I am on treating one’s warm-up as a true preparation for the movement skill to come. In fact, with my players, we take great pride in treating these periods as not only a calibration for the human movement system for the day but also a kinesthetic screen for the awareness of who the player is on that day. Because of that, though we have explored the use of repetition without repetition in the execution of the respective activities that make up each player’s movement preparation for training, practices, or games (and each had their own individually designed warm-up), this year we aimed to force adaptability right from the start of the session as a whole. Thus, just like no two reps were the same, now no two movement preparation scheme designs were the same day-to-day. I also aimed to hand over the keys to the car in this regard, as well. Meaning, I would allow them to design the warm-up structure and plan on the fly.

Example of what it looked like:

Once the player’s session would begin, I would place certain constraints on him for the warm-up and then let him have at it. For example, I may say:

How it worked out:

Being that the players are human and humans are creatures of habit, most were slightly uncomfortable at-first. However, the players began to become more accustomed to being ready to handle any movement and at anytime. Overall, I would say this change made them more sensitive to what they were feeling within the execution of any respective activity and, as a whole, more understanding of who they were as a mover on that day. The only downfall with this overall change was that it forced a certain discomfort with me as I would know what problems that the athlete was going to be asked to solve later in the behavior change portions of the movement skill session and what the problems were going to demand of their movement systems and the patterns within its execution. Additionally, when we began to get closer to camp or it would be a day where I was looking for them to be in prime position to execute/perform at their fullest early in the session, I would give them more flexibility to select the activities that they know they love for whatever reason.

Beginning every session with some ‘movement flow’

As I will talk about a little later in this post, one of the major driving forces in my thoughts towards movement skill is encouraging creativity and authenticity within the execution of the solutions that athletes organize to solve the problems at their position. In order to facilitate it literally (to open up movement system degrees of freedom) and figuratively (to drive the intention towards being a creative mover), I’ve often turned to basic movement flow type patterns (think Ido Portal-style here) to get the player closer to the ground, being graceful moving through various positions which are sometimes novel. In the past, we would often do that one to two times per week, especially during the in-season, as we found not only the aforementioned benefits but also some regeneration properties from it. Because of that, this year I decided to experiment with this type of activity each day before our movement preparation/warm-up time would even begin.

Example of what it looked like:

Usually we would spend anywhere from 5-10 minutes performing this flow in which the activity selected was typically the player’s choice (or combination of choices) and/or expression of movement.

How it worked out:

Players absolutely love it; there’s something rather invigorating and enlightening about performing these activities where this isn’t a right way or a wrong way to perform them. Instead, it directly gives the keys over to the athlete. I can actually see a significant difference in their ownership within more specific movement solutions later on after a player has performed this type of movement flow early in the session. Additionally, the player’s confidence grows significantly in the execution across the bandwidth of what are often extreme biomechanical positions and patterns (but not uncommon to emerging within the sport of football).

More creativity (aka ‘just say no to cones’)

Many people know that agility ladders are literally my biggest enemy in this profession. Ironically, with each passing year, cones are slowly but surely going in that same direction. Most people also know that I am huge on perception-action coupling and strongly believe in not dictating how or when an athlete moves but instead finding ways to facilitate the player’s ownership of their own execution. Because of this, though I’ve gotten to the point where I would rarely utilize cones and more closed change of direction activities (at least in traditional manners), I elected to try a little experiment and do my best to eliminate them from my arsenal this summer to see what would happen (note: this didn’t mean that every activity we performed was “open agility done with an opponent” as you will see below).

Example of what it looked like:

I would put a ball in my offensive skill player’s hands and tell them that I wanted them to use a certain space to just go create with change of direction techniques within it without an opponent present (sort of as if there were cones to signify a directional change like a slalom drill) so they could change direction when, where, and how they desire. Actually, in five weeks, not a single cone was used to designate a particular movement pattern or a decision to be made.

How it worked out:

The use of the more creative, open environment movement activities seemed to allow the players to own and explore the control of their movement strategies and solutions significantly enough to get them to emerge more naturally when there were opponents present in the environment later on (either in the same session or in subsequent sessions). Some players even inherently began to include this activity then in their movement preparation schemes, as well. I still believe that we must address their movement affectivities and attempt to find ways to fill in the gaps within the movement toolboxes (especially when an athlete may be, either consciously or subconsciously, avoiding certain movement positions, patterns, or combinations such as when they are coming off of an injury); but I’m just not certain that we need cones to do this in a more closed change of direction-oriented fashion.

Player designed representative tasks

As part of my constant desire to assist a player in the facilitation of enhanced movement skill and increased personal ownership as a mover, I’ve often prided myself on pulling out all stops to act more as a learning designer and, at all costs, avoid making the athlete dependent on me for the movement strategies they employ, the solutions they execute, and the need to have guidance or feedback from me. This is a movement skill partnership and not a dictatorship and I want each player to always embrace that mentality and to understand, at the end of the day, they are in control of where their movement skill goes.

Example of what it looked like:

During the programming of each day we would be on the field, at least one of the activities that I would prescribe would be a player designed task which the player would personally feel could be utilized to adequately address a movement skill of their choice.

How it worked out:

Wonderfully! Player’s autonomy seemed to skyrocket through this change; in particular, creativity flourished and the activities that the players came up with gave me a really good idea as to what they were feeling sufficient at versus deficient in. Additionally, this activity also gave me a few good ideas on future problems and tasks to utilize for each one of them and other players, as well.

Footwear and surface interaction

As most know, I am particular about movement behavior change; thus, I am also very meticulous in the investigation of how a player’s foot interacts with the ground to allow him to carry out his respective movement actions. Obviously, this foot and surface relationship is a very important one not only for performance but also for injury prevention. Because of this, I often would preach to athletes to find a football cleat that provided the ride they were searching for early in the offseason and then to stick with it through the season. Additionally, in our training, I would find the best turf field in the area and we would stay there all summer long to take out any potential negative effects on the movement behavior that could emerge from surface inconsistencies. I understand now just how much this idea goes against my mantra of adaptability! Thus, this year, I flipped the script on this idea and did a 180!

Example of what it looked like:

One day we would be on a super-posh, brand-spanking-new, turf football field. The very next day could see us training on an uneven, un-mowed, grass field. We also found ourselves performing movement actions on other various surfaces (such as a tennis court or even a beach) and other locales across town (such as a soccer field instead of a football field). To go along with this, we would also frequently change footwear. On each day, each player would wear two to five different pairs of shoes during a given training session. We would rotate through various football cleats and training shoes (even if the athlete was on turf or grass and the shoe may not give them their desired traction).

How it worked out:

Subjectively and qualitatively, I believe players’ human movement systems were able to more effectively make the necessary adjustments in calibration of the structure of the movement solutions which flowed from the perception of the frequent change in footwear and surface. I noticed that players seemingly appeared to have better control of the ankle and foot positions during the execution of certain movement patterns which in the past would have likely changed anytime there would be a slight difference in either footwear or surface.

Embracing uncertainty

It goes without saying that the NFL landscape can’t possibly get more uncertain than what it is, both on the field and off of it. Yet, as performance coaches, we often try to bring more consistency to what they do day-to-day in hopes of maximizing performance during the short time windows that the individual has to prepare. However, with frequent changes to the NFL practice and game schedule throughout the season (along with time zone jumping, media requests, and other logistical nightmares on performance), it’s intuitively obvious that players are often pulled in numerous directions at once and still forced to perform at their highest levels even under the unpredictability that often ensues.

Example of what it looked like:

I wouldn’t tell the players what time we were training the next day, where we were training at, or what our goals would be for the session sometimes until it was the last minute. Keeping them on their toes in this way seemingly required them to be ready for anything on that given day and to approach each day with the same mentality.

How it worked out:

NFL players are always compensating and it just so happens that they compensate more easily and usually more effectively than the rest of us. So, even though some of my longtime players were sensitive to these changes brought to their movement behaviors and their performance, they understood the need for this challenge and began to almost enjoy the process of not knowing what was coming (but staying ready for it anyway). The logistics as a coach/learning designer was the most difficult obstacle to deal with here mostly in regards to my own scheduling and planning. However, I also embraced an adaptability mindset day-to-day, as well.

More diverse groups

Over the years, because I’ve mostly worked in one-on-one situations with players or usually in groups of less than five, I’ve sometimes been accused by others across the profession as someone who doesn’t understand the difficulties of incorporating certain motor learning and skill acquisition principles within the context of groups of athletes. Additionally, when I would work with my guys in groups, I would be very strategic as to who trained with whom; attempting to ensure that personalities didn’t clash and that movement skill-sets matched up to one another. This year, I wanted to challenge my old status quo a bit and begin to group players together more in diverse fashions.

Honestly, I wanted to make this change this year selfishly for a number of reasons: 1). To prove what can be done with the individualization of sport movement skill acquisition methods even in groups. 2). To see what challenges would present themselves to me when they were in groups to better streamline my messages to those who do work with larger groups. 3). I am not as young as springtime anymore and seem to be losing a step or two (shhh…don’t tell anyone) and thus my body can’t handle being an opponent in representative tasks for players hour after hour for 10 hours per day anymore…so, I needed more bodies and more diverse challenges for each player.

Example of what it looked like:

I would pair players together that are not accustomed to training with one another to practice their movement skills together. Additionally, I would also then set-up more representative task design as players were able to face opponents who presented a variety of challenges with the movement problems repetition to repetition (creating more repetition without repetition!).

How it worked out:

I started out with the best of intentions here. However, the scheduling issue of getting all players together at the right time in the same place, especially as other commitments mounted (family obligations, promotions/camps, individual appointments with our sports medicine professionals, etc) proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated especially with the other new change of keeping things uncertain (I could have/should have/need to plan this better!). But, honestly, when I did get it scheduled effectively, the group dynamic worked out pretty well. Of course, as can be expected, it seemed to be more of a difficult transition for the players who had worked with me for over a number of years as they were inherently more accustomed to working in one-on-one fashions; thus, they no longer had me watching their every move or having access to immediate feedback on every repetition (note: this change is good in my view as it requires the player to be more self-sufficient in owning their movement behaviors!).

We run fastest when we are being chased

For the last four or five years, the majority of my speed or agility work for my players has been when the player must perform within the problem solving contained in representative tasks. Though those representative tasks were highly varied as I manipulated constraints to frequently modify the problems the athletes were facing repetition to repetition, I will admit that most of the tasks that I designed contained problems where the opponent(s) were out in front of them or to their sides. Then, at some point last season, it dawned on me that my players seemed to be incredible problem solvers when they could perceive the problem which existed in front of them with ease and accuracy, but they seemed to get caught from behind way too frequently for my liking. Through this, I realized that I needed to place the players within problems where opponents could be coming from any direction so the individual had to remain more perceptually attuned in a 360 degree fashion.

Example of what it looked like:

I would set-up a problem, such as an offensive skill player receiving a ball in space, with three or four defensive players already surrounding him at various distances and places on the field (including a player or two behind the play/player) and the receiving player would have to perceptually connect to where the various opponents were and what it would mean for his respective movement solutions (and of course, then act to carry out the solution to its completion).

How it worked out:

Though I have dabbled in the design and utilization of these types of activities in the past (especially for my offensive skill players), I am a bit ashamed it took me this long to go all-in with their use on a day-to-day basis. Now that I did though, I witnessed a huge increase in each player’s comfort level with this type of problem and enhanced sensitivity to the specifying perceptual information present with them; furthermore, new movement solutions flowed from this exposure and I am anxious to see how it shows itself in similar situations come NFL Sundays.

Changing roles

With the depth of my investigation of the problems and solutions on a football field under my current lens, I try to connect players to the specifying information within the problem to more effectively channel dexterity within their movement toolbox (dexterity being the ability to find a movement solution under any context or any situation). Furthermore, to me, it’s always about both the problem and the solution and this reciprocal relationship must be studied in a coupled fashion as such. This got me thinking; what if I could get a player to see themselves (and the problem they present to their opponent) through their opponent’s lens? To do so, could I have a player play an opponent’s position just to see what that player may be intending to do (and in perceiving and acting, as well)? In doing so and while existing in this perceptual-motor workspace, I thought maybe it could help attunement and adaptability by allowing the performer to more closely understand the strategies and solutions of their opponent more intimately. Honestly, I’ve thought about doing this for quite some time but felt as though now would be the perfect chance to implement it with our 2018 emphasis of adaptability within adaptability.

Example of what it looked like:

A tight end playing safety trying to cover the amount of ground that his counterpart does in the fashions that he does. A cornerback playing wide receiver trying to run a route and get open. A running back playing linebacker moving in space to tackle an individual in various spaces and angles. A defensive end running with a ball in his hands trying to make someone miss in space. You get the picture.

How it worked out:

Well, at first glance, I thought it was going to be absolutely brilliant. But I quickly realized that the result would end up far short of that. The players had such a varying level of experience or movement expertise playing on the opposite role that it created few too many mismatches in representative tasks to accomplish my goal for these drills. For example, you ever see a wide receiver, running back, or tight end attempt to backpedal?! It’s usually not very pretty! Additionally, there were probably a few times, because of a lack of movement mastery within the positions and patterns required at the opposite position, the participating player would be moving so inefficiently that I felt as though the injury risk was a little too high for my liking. Because of this, I think I only programmed for it one time for each player over the whole summer phase. I do think that I may incorporate this idea again; but, if/when I do, it will be earlier in the offseason where the overall intensity is at a lower level to begin with and we aren’t working on such limited time frames to refine the movement skill.

Dealing with other trainers

This issue used to be one that proved to be quite problematic. In fact, as of a number of years ago, I almost flat-out refused to work with a player who was also working with another trainer(s), as well, due to the laundry list of headaches which sometimes present themselves when we are trying to make changes to the player’s movement skill and the other trainer(s) may be utilizing what are sometimes less than effective methods when the athlete is under ‘their watch.’ However, not only does it seem that this trend (of players seeing multiple trainers) isn’t going anywhere, but by formerly advocating that a player only see me in the offseason, I realized that I wasn’t really being true to the message that I was preaching to the players: one where I wanted them to own and embrace who they are as a mover and player as well as fully invest in their process towards becoming more skillful.

Example of what it looked like:

Well, when a player would bring up that he would want to go see another trainer for any period of time (whether that was because his buddy was going to that trainer or whether it was because of some type of convenience or whether their agent was requesting they do it or whatever!), I would do my best to support it while throwing the same Bruce Lee quote (“absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own”), that I start every presentation with, at the player to hopefully help them realize that it was to be a learning endeavor one way or another.

How it worked out:

I will admit: this area was a somewhat frustrating endeavor for me and each time this happened, it was truly a work in progress personally. This was because there were times that the player would be bringing up a name of someone in the profession that I was familiar with (often someone I may disagree with his approach/take regarding movement skill and performance). Thus, it became very difficult to be in full support and not approach it with a certain bias because deep within me I would feel as though the player would be taking steps back by going through sessions under the tutelage of the other trainer/alternative training methodology.

Conclusion

There you have it: a short discussion of the more pertinent changes I made to my 2018 NFL season preparation for players who works with me. Personally, holistically-speaking, I was pleased with the apparent results currently visible from the revisions. At this moment, I feel as though collectively they contributed to the attainment of our overriding objective of ‘adaptability within adaptability’ this season. Only time will tell now to what degree any of these respective changes led to enhanced adaptability on the field on a Sunday.

 

 

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