The NFL Combine is quickly approaching, and college football's best players are in the midst of preparing for it. They're training at various facilities around the country to maximize their test performance, impress NFL scouts and coaches and ultimately improve their draft stock.
Let's just say it's an important time in these athletes' lives.
We recently had the opportunity to observe Combine training at EXOS in Los Angeles and San Diego and Proactive Sports Performance in Santa Ana and Westlake Village, California. Here are a seven observations we made while watching elite NFL prospects prepare for the NFL Combine at these world-class facilities.
1. Combine Training is Specific to Combine Events
Football players train to improve their ability to play football—except during Combine training season. During this period, NFL prospects are specifically training to perform well in the tests they will undergo in Indianapolis, such as the 40-Yard Dash, Vertical Jump and Bench Press.
So their workouts—and their goals—look significantly different from how they trained in college and how they will train when they eventually get to the pros. For example, these athletes will never again in their careers train for max reps of 225 pounds on the Bench Press. But it's a huge focus in their Combine training. Nor will they ever again work to refine a tiny flaw in their 40-Yard Dash technique, because it's just not that important in the actual game of football.
But training specifically for the Combine tests can make or break a prospect's performance. True, some of the qualities they are improving will transfer to the field. Strength, explosiveness and movement technique are enhanced by this type of training. But the real preparation for the NFL starts after the Combine and Pro Days.
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2. There's a Lot of Fundamental Work
Collegiate strength and conditioning programs do a fantastic job of improving their athletes' performance on the field. But the fine details of specific exercises are difficult to refine in those settings because there's an entire team to account for.
For example, many athletes might be able to perform the Bench Press perfectly. But a few advanced technique tips could help them eek out a few more reps on the 225 max rep test. Combine strength coaches have the opportunity to teach and reinforce these technique tips.
Another example is the 40-Yard Dash. Many collegiate athletes have only run the 40 a few times in their lives, so they never needed to perfect their technique. Combine training may be the first time they ever received detailed instruction for this sprint test.
The same goes for each test the athletes will perform in the Combine, including universal physical tests and position-specific tests.
3. Injury Prevention is a Huge Focus
Combine training is intense, but the coaches' first job is to keep the athletes healthy. An injury that forces an athlete to sit out the Combine could hurt his draft stock and put a red flag on his scouting report.
From what we observed, preventing injuries was the top priority during Combine training. Here are a few strategies the facilities use to help prevent injuries:
- At EXOS and Proactive, mobility work was integrated into the speed and strength workouts. For example, after some sprint work, the athletes would foam roll areas of their lower bodies to improve tissue quality and mobility.
- Sprints were typically limited to no more than 30 yards. Top end speed is where an athlete's hamstrings are most at risk.
- Recovery time between sprints was extensive, and the emphasis was on technique and power rather than fatiguing muscles and potentially causing them to fail or for form to be compromised.
- Each of the athletes spent time with a masseuse or soft tissue expert at some point during their week, which assisted their recovery from the difficult training sessions.
4. It's a Full-Time Job
Combine training is more than going to a few workout sessions. It's a full-time job, which for athletes coming right out of school was a big adjustment. The workouts typically started between 8 and 9 a.m., and the athletes were at the facility until early afternoon.
There are several workouts during the day, which typically includes a separate speed workout and strength workout. In addition, there's time spent refining skill work and preparing for other aspects of the Combine (more on this next).
The athletes were expected to stick to a prescribed nutrition plan. Food services and pre-packaged meals for the athletes were designed to meet their nutritional needs based on their goals. From what we saw, the meals looked tasty, but we're sure the strict nutritional regimen was a departure from how the athletes typically eat.
And this all takes place far from home—although Southern California seems like an ideal place to prepare for the Combine.
5. It Involves More Than Training
We get so focused on the physical tests in the Combine that it's easy to forget there's more to it.
At the Combine, each player must perform position-specific drills, which can make a big impression on coaches and scouts. During Combine prep, the athletes work with position coaches to perfect their tests and fundamental skills.
For example, we saw receivers at Proactive run through routes they will be tested on, catching passes from a quarterback. A position coach was there to help them work on their body position, route running and pass catching. We also saw a linebacker coach barking at the linebacker prospects, helping them hone in on how to properly change directions and open their hips to make a play on the ball.
After the workouts were finished, the position coaches took their athletes for what are called "boards." Basically, the players were presented with plays on a white board, and they had to draw up how they should react to prove to coaches that they understand the game.
Work also goes into interview prep. Although we didn't see this in action, athletes were coached on how to present themselves to coaches in what's often called "the most important interview of their lives."
6. The Athletes Form a Tight Bond
There's a small group of athletes at each facility. Typically, they are grouped together in workouts by size or skill positions, so the actual training groups are even smaller.
Despite coming from different schools and backgrounds and having a broad range of expectations for the Draft, the athletes share a common goal: train as hard as they can to crush the Combine.
At each location, it was apparent that the athletes formed a tightly knit group. They encouraged each other to succeed—with playful jabs of course. And when there was an opportunity to compete, their competitive natures came out and they pushed each other to work even harder.
It's a great atmosphere to train in, and we could see why the coaches said the bonds the athletes form during this period remain strong even after each they go their own ways in the NFL.
7. The Athletes Take it Seriously
One thing that echoed among the athletes we spoke to was their recognition of the magnitude of the situation. They all put in their full effort to maximize their Combine performance.
That's why a guy like defensive tackle Kenny Clark, a beast who weighs in at 310 pounds, ran sprints on a steep sand dune until he could barely walk. Or why linebacker Robert Nkemdiche attacked Explosive Squats with an unreal amount of power.
Those are just a few of the exceptional moments we witnessed while observing Combine workouts. It was clear that every athlete was grinding, leaving everything they had in the weight room.
The top athletes understand that this is their time to prove they are worthy of a high pick. For guys lower on the draft board, their Combine performance can determine whether they shoot up the board or fall off altogether.
It's game time, and they know it.
In the coming weeks, we will release Path to the Pros 2016, documenting how several elite athletes prepared for the NFL Combine. Meantime, check out last year's Path to the Pros to gain more insight into this grueling process.
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