Skill Acquisition Periodization for NFL Football Players in 2020: Part 1

A topic that seems to be picking up some steam across the movement sciences and skill acquisition community is that of the concept of periodization models being applied to skill acquisition. I feel as though we are only at the tip of the iceberg in this regards and the personal brainstorming related to it is highly pertinent as it begins to tie our theoretical understanding of how movement skill emerges into the practical application for the design of our learning environments.

Back in 2017, Farrow and Robertson published a journal article entitled, ‘Development of a Skill Acquisition Periodisation Framework for High-Performance Sport,’ which is a fantastic starting point to begin discussing relevant themes like specificity, progressive overload, and the like, as it would apply to enhanced skill execution.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27873190

Then, late in 2019, a new framework was offered by Otte, Millar, and Klatt, which extended and elaborated upon Farrow and Roberston’s thoughts in a journal article, ‘Skill Acquisition Periodization in “Specialist” Sport Coaching – An Introduction of the “PoST” Framework for Skill Development.’

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fspor.2019.00061/full

Now, just a few weeks ago, my friend Rob Gray of the ‘Perception-Action Podcast’ released an episode where he centered his conversation around these ideas and those aforementioned journal articles.

https://perceptionaction.com/168-2/

I would highly recommend checking each of those resources out to start allowing these related ideas to marinate in your head and potentially begin to impact your learning environments, your practice task design, and ultimately, the facilitation of enhanced skill for your athletes when and where it counts!

In my opinion, it IS an all-important topic that is going to be discussed a lot more over the short-term that awaits us in the movement and skill acquisition community. Because of that, we have even elected to schedule an expert round-table discussion on the topic at the 2020 Sport Movement Skill Conference on May 16th and 17th held at ALTIS/EXOS in Phoenix, AZ.

Cheap plug: If you aren’t registered yet, you can still do so, but there are currently only 5 seats left remaining at the time of this writing so be sure to act on it now!

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sport-movement-skill-conference-2020-tickets-86950241513

Thing is, over the years, one of the most frequently asked questions I get from others within the athletic performance enhancement world is undoubtedly oriented around how I personally plan out training cycles and/or approach the annual plans for NFL players who partner with me. Or, if you would rather use today’s verbiage, how I personally go about periodizing the movement skill training in my peculiar environment.

Of course, being that I view myself as a Movement Skill Acquisition Coach (rather, a ‘Facilitator’ if I am being technical), the articles presented above and the ensuing thoughts from them, really hit home for me. Thus, being that it seems to be highly pertinent right now, I want to elaborate upon some of it from my perspective here today.

What does my specific situation look like?

Now, a few notes on my personal beliefs must be reiterated and reinforced before we go any further as they are vitally important to my Form of Life within my craft and they help guide the content of the path I set forth for players who partner with me.

1. Movement skill = problem solving: perceptions, cognitions, and actions intertwine to form a functional behavioral unit known as a movement solution functionally organized in connection to the information which links it to the needs of the problem disposition in front of the athlete.

2. Context drives the content: Movement behavior is assessed from the game itself. The game film is how I personally assess player’s movement problem solving capabilities and then determine where gaps within their movement skill-set exist. The awareness of these capabilities and these gaps, will allow me to design a learning environment to the performer which presents relevant problems (and affordances) to be solved. In short, I study the environment and its common problems (from an NFL Sunday) as deeply as I do the player himself.

3. Representative task design: Because I respect the problems of the NFL environment so highly, this allows me to offer as representative task as I possibly can to the players. I know that because of some of the constraints of my situation, the learning environment could never completely mimic an NFL football Sunday as there will always be certain elements excluded from the practice/training setting. However, it doesn’t need to be identical! Instead, its just imperative that I can manipulate constraints to colace in such a way that it offers frequent exposure to certain slices of the game which will look like, feel like, and act like what they will on a Sunday.

4. Learning is nonlinear: Meaning, we expect that there will be plenty of ups and downs in the learning process. Thus, planning, or at least ‘periodizing’, too far in advance is almost always a fruitless endeavor where constant modifications to the plan will almost certainly be necessary. Additionally, small changes to the practice environment could equate to big changes in the athlete’s movement system (and vice versa).

5. Learning is individual-dependent: To piggyback off of point #4, we should not expect two learners to follow the same path either in regards to rate of learning or the nature of that learning.

6. If all else fails, include more problem solving rather than less: Of course, the players I work with already stand at the highest level of qualification (the NFL) but necessarily at the highest levels of movement skill mastery (surprising to them and others). No matter who they are and what their movement toolbox looks like, my goal is simple…to set the best path I can to guiding them to become the most functional of movement problem solver by increasing their perceptual attunement and their action adaptability.

Additionally, it’s also imperative that I give you, as the reader and fellow Movement Professional or Performance Coach, a little more context about the situation(s) that I deal with personally:

1. On any given year, I will usually have about 8-12 players (I actually max that ‘roster’ out at 12 for the year to maintain the highest quality of service in my interactions) who partner with me on their skill acquisition/refinement processes for the course of that respective NFL year.

2. I am in a situation where I do get to be highly selective regarding the players that I choose to partner with. Actually, I encourage the players themselves to do the same with me! I don’t want them to have any doubts when we start working together (they may have lots of questions but hopefully much fewer doubts). It takes a unique mindset from the player themselves to be willing to be put in the place where our learning environment will take them (living/breathing movement problems, stretching of their ‘grip’ over the movement problem, mistake-led learning, authentic ownership, etc).

3. Luckily, I am also in a situation where I seem to get solid retention of the players electing to keep on participating in what we do and how we do it (for example, in the 2019 NFL year, I didn’t take on a single new player as each player who was working with me happened to be retained from previous seasons).

4. Because of #2 and #3, constant buy-in is certainly imperative but in most years (knock on wood) the players are usually pretty trusting in how I design the training year and what directions we go in regards to their skill refinement processes over the course of that year. That all said though, it IS a partnership and there is an ‘open door policy’ so I highly desire them asking, inquiring or questioning around what we are doing, how we are doing it, and when we are doing it. That is 100% their right as this is their profession and their craft we are talking about!

What does our typical year look like?

I will admit, when it comes to the idea of periodization, I do NOT plan much of anything out far in advance. Even the day’s activities themselves will likely have to change considerably based on certain individual constraints at-hand (i.e. fluctuations in player state like their readiness, emotions, soreness, etc) as well as learning trends of each individual’s movement system. However, after locking arms with NFL players for over a decade, there are certain trends that allow me to ‘predict’ (I hate that word when we are talking about indeterminate systems) and outline our collective approach from a more global perspective as we will below.

Post-Season (January to early February)

Main Objectives:

  • Rest and recover…get back to neutral

  • Mind far away from football

  • Physically get right: surgeries (if needed), rehabilitation, etc

For any players who are veterans, this period lasts anywhere from two to six weeks. As a general rule, the older the player is, the more time I encourage them to stay away from thinking about football, training for football, and being around me or my demands! That said though, this is also the time that player should do the requisite soul-searching regarding their desires to continue playing. This is something I encourage every player to do at the end of every single year regardless of one’s current beliefs as to how long they ‘think’ they want to play. Obviously, playing professional football is too difficult of an endeavor to do unless your entire heart, soul, and being are all-in on it. Thus, it’s important to ensure that those things are still in the appropriate space heading into that next calendar year.

Most players go on vacation(s) with their family to start the NFL off-season. This is obviously the perfect time to hit the reset button a bit and to recharge accordingly. However, some players (especially younger) sometimes allow this period to drag on a bit or partake in a little too much of that which they really weren’t allowed to during the course of the previous four to five months (I will leave the list of these activities which fit under this distinction up to your imagination).

Overall, various factors at-hand can certainly change the length of time spent here in this post-season phase. For instance, the wear and tear of that previous NFL season makes the duration of this phase very fluid. Some players were back-ups and didn’t see much playing time so it may be appropriate that this phase is shorter and they get back to work sooner (as they likely will be fighting for a job in that following year). Other players need to take the entire six weeks before they really get back at it because their bodies are truly that beat up and behind the eight ball.

Usually, there are a few general rules of thumb for behavior though:

  • Don’t forget that you are still a brand even if the season is ‘over’ (it’s never really over!)

  • Be relaxed about your nutritional habits (a few buffets or nights of drinks never hurt anyone) but don’t let things get too out of hand. You should never fluctuate more than a maximum of five pounds give or take from your season playing weight.

  • Find balance! Now is the time to ‘catch-up’ on things that you can’t prioritize to the degree that you desire to at other times of the year – take your kids to school everyday, go to lunch with your significant other, hang out playing video games with the boys, etc.

To conclude the post-season period, for about a two week period of time, I encourage my players to partake in activities where they can get moving again in very general fashions. For some players that could be a different sport like basketball (almost every NFL skill player secretly believes they can hoop) or golf (the older the player gets, it seems the more likely golf becomes the activity of choice). For some others, it could be certain active recovery and regeneration modalities that they believe have some performance efficacy, as well, such as Yoga or Pilates. Finally, for other players, it could be the incorporation of some of our more general and/or natural movement patterns that they know we will be starting our Off-season with in the coming weeks (I have found that the ultra competitive players or those who really prefer to be comfortable owning certain positions and patterns fit this category…so, when they get to me to start doing these activities, they don’t suck too bad in front of me!).

EG97 ESPN

Early Off-season (early/mid February to mid/late March)

Main Objectives:

  • Enhance coordination (1st sub-phase) and control (2nd sub-phase)

  • Increase upon effectivities and determined rate limiters

  • Begin to open up degrees of freedom across the system (perceptual, cognitive, and motor)

Usually, the day after the Super Bowl, things start anew for all! It seems like, without fail, every year on Super Bowl weekend, I get a host of text messages and phone calls from players who are starting to now seriously think about football again and where their craft should head in the coming year. I do leave it to each player to truly determine when they are ready to start that off-season training phase (though they will get ‘nudged’ by me in certain ways). Some of my remote players will travel to be with me during short periods of time over the next number of months, whereas with others, I will send them their ‘programs/plans’ from afar while having check-ins (via phone or Skype) one to two times per week to discuss where things are going and what is unfolding.

We like to ‘slow cook’ things here a bit. For the first two to three weeks (this 1st sub-phase of the Early Off-season), the player will only be doing formalized training on three days per week on average. And in the second block of two to three weeks (this 2nd sub-phase of the Early Off-season) the player will usually bump up to four times per week.

In the 1st sub-phase, we just want to get back to moving fluidly and with some semblance of freedom again. In the 1st sub-phase, we do incorporate a large amount of more general and/or ‘natural’ movement activities. I am talking about movements which must be coordinated and controlled to perform better as a human being first and foremost over being an NFL football player and the specific problems you must solve there. I credit individuals like Erwan Le Corre (Natural Movement), Ido Portal, and Moshe Feldenkrais (The Feldenkrais Method), for some of my thoughts here and the application of many ideas that I have adopted from them to use practically during this phase.

EG97 warm up

However, because I do believe highly in all movement being an expression of a highly integrated problem solving process of perception, cognition, and action, I still present problems/puzzles for the athlete to solve at this time of the year; it’s just that these are of the more general nature and lack specificity and representativeness. Though I do feel that those perceptions, cognitions, and actions are going to need to eventually need to be highly-specific to the nature of the context of the problems that the players face on Sundays, during this early phase of the off-season I am simply trying to allow the player to open up degrees of freedom and access those DOF in various fashions. From a movement skill execution and acquisition perspective, I feel the activities we choose to do here allow the player the opportunity to add to the abundance of their movement toolbox (i.e. degeneracy) that potentially could (or maybe even could not) contribute later on in the further refinement of their contextual movement skill execution.

As we get into the 2nd sub-phase of the Early Off-season, we now get back into a cleat and back on the field to start solving some movement problems which are a bit more indicative of those which may be found on a football field in the competitive arena. Thus, we ‘progress’ from the more general nature of the movement skills found in the last phase, to beginning to coordinate and control movement in more specific fashions now such as acceleration, change of direction/cutting, and high-speed sprinting. I attempt to have as much of this as possible to be done in contextualized fashions (with opponents or through problem-oriented scenarios) though this is the only time of the year where I will have *a small amount of* de-contextualized work with ‘rehearsal’ of repetitive movement patterns for those movement skills (i.e. such as linear sprinting without an opponent). I will admit, this application somewhat violates the way that I prefer to do things, however, I simply have less athletes present with me at this time of the year so its a necessary evil to a certain degree.

AD28 warm up 2016

Overall, the purpose of this phase is still oriented around the player gradually becoming more connected to the information in the world around them which is present in the interactions of the specific problems that they will routinely face and, ultimately, to begin to coordinate and control their movement actions in response to that context (the task and environment).

The only difference here is I will scale the information present and greatly decrease its complexity or intensity (in comparison to how those problem-solution dynamics may unfold later on). For example, the movement activities that the players face will usually contain considerably less parties (both opponents and teammates) so the player himself will have the opportunity to search the perceptual-motor workspace and hopefully become more attuned to specifying information that is present in less overwhelming movement problems. Thus, we will do a great deal of 1v1 dyadic movement problems at this time of the year while maybe progressing to 1v2 and 2v2 activities (at maximum). At all times when we do this (these activities with smaller number of players), I must be careful to ensure that the interactions which take place and unfold between the players behaves similar to (or at least close enough) that fashion that they will when it’s the full 11v11 game. This is occasionally difficult to do but it’s something we must remain cognizant of because I must take great care in ensuring that the emerging movement solutions (the perceptions, cognitions, and action couplings) are going to be those which would still be functional in the competitive arena.

Additionally, repetition to repetition, we still aim for repetition without repetition (where no two problems or solutions will be the same) but it will be done across a smaller bandwidth of situations or conditions. However, as Bernstein told us long ago, dexterity in movement skill is about being able to solve any emergent movement problem in any situation and in any condition (Bernstein, 1996). Thus, everything within my programming must start heading in that direction as time passes and the player gets closer to facing more unpredictable problems to solve with higher numbers of players on the field.

This more contextual movement problem solving and the associated processes involved with it is precisely where we will pick-up in Part 2 to be released later this week.

If the ideas contained in this blog post were up your alley, I selfishly want to invite you to check out a movement skill education endeavor that I am part of entitled EMERGENCE. My colleagues and I there have put together a number of educational resources which unpack many of the theories related to understanding movement behavior within sport and their practical applications within movement skill acquisition. Check us out at http://www.emergentmvmt.com and take the dive deeper into these ideas!

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