We know exactly what NFL Combine tests are, and we understand the techniques and training protocols needed to maximize performance on them. However, some players are unbelievable in practice or in the weight room, but fail to meet expectations when it counts on the field.
This whole concept intrigues me. How can a player show all of the physical assets he needs to succeed but fail to execute during games.
When it comes to performance, I've moved away from focusing on drills and changes in periodization. As an industry, we know what we need to do to improve performance.
However, we tend to fall behind in regard to knowing how to coach athletes or design practice sessions so athletes can actually learn more. We need to help athletes learn movement patterns, and help them remember those patterns when they're in stressful environments, whether during a clutch moment of a game or at the NFL Combine.
To accomplish this, we focus on three aspects of coaching, which I believe are the X-factors many coaches miss. Many great coaches do this. They just don't know it yet.
Instruction and Feedback
There are two ways you can provide information about movements. One is to cue the body and movement process. For example, say something like, "extend your hip," "flex your ankle" or "tighten your abs."
The other method is to reference action outside the body with outcome-oriented coaching cues.
Imagine you're coaching someone who's in a three-point stance. One of the most common cues is "explode through your hips." This can easily be improved with an outcome cue, as you instruct the athlete to "explode off the ground," "push the ground away" or "sprint away from the line."
Either way, we're trying to get the athlete to explode forward, but we're saying it differently.
We have found—and hundreds of published papers have confirmed this—that instructing an athlete with an external cue, rather than referencing his or her body, is far superior, not only in practice, but more importantly in retention tests when no instruction is given. In any study where it's not found to be superior, it's at least as good as telling athletes nothing at all, meaning they're no worse off. Conversely, cuing the body was found to make athletes slower than doing nothing at all.
There's a simple strategy to squeeze more juice out of every exercise or drill.
When an athlete gets into a rhythm, his or her body fails to learn past a certain point because it gets used to that rhythm.
For a practical example, consider your daily commute. You've done it maybe hundreds of time. You can talk on the phone and eat a sandwich, and before you realize it, you're home and you didn't need to focus much on the journey.
The same thing can happen to an athlete during training. We design practices to introduce contextual inferences.
When teaching or learning a new skill, most people use blocked practice, which calls for working on the same skill over and over again, like doing 20 consecutive starts. But, imagine you're on your 10th sprint. Are you really as mentally engaged as you were for your first sprint?
That's why we engage athletes with random practices, which involve three or more skills, such as a start, a sled drill and a skipping sequence.
You can argue that to get better at sprinting, you need repetition. It makes sense, because sprint development requires physiological changes only attainable through volume. But, in terms of learning the skill of running, random practice is more effective. Although it's not truly random—as a coach you know what you're prescribing—the athletes are doing more drills within the context of a series, which maintaines their attention and focus.
Another thing that drives learning during a session is something called "purposeful struggle." If an athlete is not struggling, he or she is not learning to overcome that struggle. Too much efficiency actually slows learning, which is why we include purposeful variations.
I use this principle more to teach the 5-10-5 Drill and the L-Drill more than linear sprinting because of the volume requirements. So with the 5-10-5, imagine that we have 10 guys on the centerline. They don't know whether I'm going to call left or right, or a color of one of the cones. Even within the context of the drill, we introduce purposeful variation.
Players get so locked into counting steps and focusing on nuances, they sometimes can't perform the drill. To help, we create a more robust system in which they can simply act and learn without realizing they're learning.
The second I bring an athlete's attention to his biomechanics, all of the subtleties can seep into his mind when he is under stress and cause "the yips." He doesn't forget how to do it, but he focuses on all of the technical aspects and the process rather than just doing it, thereby slowing down the automatic processing of the brain.
I try not to teach my athletes information that could become a virus to them when they are under stress. If I tell them too much technical information, it can feed back into their mind when they are at the NFL Combine, and they may revert back to a less successful movement strategy. Training sessions with purposeful struggle give athletes more constant learning, especially when it comes to transfer.
The same principles drive both motor learning and motivation. We want to get athletes intrinsically driven to take the necessary steps to reach their goals.
It's easy for an athlete to say she wants to win a championship. It's much harder for her to say she wants the struggle and challenge. This is your mission as a strength coach or personal trainer.
We know kids play sports because they enjoy the challenge, which motivates them to keep playing harder. So the question is, how do we keep elite athletes from focusing their minds on superficial things and get them to put in the work to play at the highest level?
To do this, you need to tap into self-determination theory, which has three components.
Athletes need autonomy, so we try to create an environment that gives them choices, which has been shown to be more effective if you want sustainability.
I constantly question them when coaching, such as asking them to choose between two drills. Also, I may tell them they look good and ask them to let me know when they want feedback. When they finish a rep, I ask how it felt.
I remove myself as much as I can and create an interactive environment with choices. The athlete has a path he or she must walk, but I'm going to help him or her get there. If they stray from the path, I make sure they get back on track. But I let them make their own choices when there's a fork in the road.
Once a person voluntarily makes choices, he or she becomes competent in the effect those choices have. People want to feel competent that they can do tasks under their own command.
If I tell an athlete to push hard, he or she may do it to an extent and feel better. But imagine if an athlete came up with his or her own coaching cue and executed it. That is so much more powerful.
Personal belief in their capacity to make judgments and change technique is profound. So we encourage this as much as we can with positive reinforcement and questions, which really becomes motivational interviewing. It guides the athlete toward the answer. If he can find the answer, he teaches himself and drives toward autonomy and competence.
3. Social Interaction
The third piece is really the glue for all of this, and it's the reason why our industry is moving toward small group training. People value what they do personally and value it even more when others take note of it. They want to share what they do with a community.
By the nature of sport and Combine development, we have groups. There's always a social atmosphere, but that doesn't necessarily guarantee relatedness among athletes.
To get the most out of this setting, we have our athletes partake in group competitions. A lot of our warm-ups are group-based. We'll do shadow drills, where guys mirror each other while shuffling, backpedaling and running s-curves or figure-eights. They're often laughing and having a good time, which creates camaraderie and an understanding that they will rise higher as a group than they would as individuals.
That's the constant tone we build all the way to Indianapolis and the NFL Combine. Our guys cheer each other on along the sidelines and help each other warm up. We use team dynamics to make a strong, cohesive unit.
Environments rich in the application of self-determination theory, autonomy and self-efficacy make athletes feel part of something bigger and encourage better learning, which actually improves motor learning. Motivation in that sense creates learning, because if I'm learning. I'm getting better. If I'm getting better, I'm motivated to continue on that path.
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