If you haven’t yet heard Bill Belichick’s thoughts on combine training, here’s the gist: He thinks it’s a gigantic waste of time. Last week on NESN, the curmudgeonly New England Patriots head coach shared his thoughts on the combine process, lamenting prospects’ focus on “non-football training” leading up to the event. Essentially, Belichick says training for “those February drills” doesn’t help athletes become better football players.
We get where Belichick is coming from—players don’t Bench Press or run a 3-Cone Drill during football games, yet they spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting those drills. However, the idea that combine training won’t make you a better football player simply isn’t true. Over the past few weeks, STACK has visited a handful of combine training facilities, and we saw first-hand the work the players are putting in. In our opinion, the benefits of their training will extend far beyond the Combine.
Here’s why combine training helps make NFL prospects better football players.
The Attention to Detail Reveals Deficiencies
Danny Shelton training for the 2015 NFL Combine at EXOS SD
The rosters of major college football programs are gigantic, typically totaling over 100 players. That’s great from a depth standpoint, but not so great for giving players individual attention. College strength coaches have to get an army of players bigger, stronger and faster; so they don’t necessarily have the time or the resources to scrutinize technique. The opposite is true of combine training. The groups are much smaller, and a major part of the coach’s job is to focus on fine details, which often reveal significant biomechanical issues.
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Let’s say a player can’t achieve a proper body angle during the drive phase of his 40-Yard Dash due to a lack of core strength. Such a deficiency might have gone totally unnoticed in college, but thanks to the enormous amount of individual attention players receive during combine training, it will be noticed almost instantly. The coach can then alter the player’s training program to include more exercises and drills aimed at building the requisite core strength and stability. The benefits of addressing this issue are not limited to a faster 40-Yard Dash—it will make the player a better all-around athlete. “We have to clean up those movement patterns that they’re coming in with that are dysfunctional,” said Brent Callaway, a Speed and Strength Coach at EXOS San Diego.
The strict detail orientation of combine training often gets criticized, but it usually reveals deficiencies the athletes didn’t even know they had. Combine training focuses on fixing these deficiencies so the athletes can achieve their best possible results. But the benefits of increased core strength and ankle flexibility extend far beyond the combine. “[Combine training] is very specific. Whatever you need to do to get faster or stronger, they’re going to have you do that. Not everyone’s the same,” said Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple, who trained at EXOS SD.
There’s Still Plenty of Football Practice
Brandin Cooks preparing for the 2014 NFL Combine
There seems to be a general idea that combine training includes no ac
tual football practice, but that just isn’t true. Most facilities don’t have their own football fields, but they organize regular sessions at nearby fields for players to attend.
These sessions consist of many of the same drills you see at a regular football practice. Receivers work on route-running, quarterbacks work on footwork, linebackers work on coverage drops. Position coaches with years of experience guide the prospects through the drills, offering instruction and feedback. Sessions often end with one-on-one passing drills, as top prospects go toe-to-toe to bring out the best in each other. It’s about as close to a football practice as you can get without actually being a member of a football team.
Proper Nutrition is Mandatory
Most college programs place an emphasis on nutrition, but they can only do so much to make their players fuel up right. Combine training is different in that most facilities have staff dietitians who design diet plans that perfectly meet the needs of every prospect. Since each athlete has different needs, each meal plan is incredibly individualized. Meals are prepared and provided to the prospects at the facility, so the convenience is unmatched.
Although the players have a few options at each meal for the sake of variety, they really have no choice but to eat healthy. Some of them might not be ecstatic about it immediately, but they soon realize that cutting out junk food and focusing on smart choices can help them feel and perform better than ever—and it’s a lesson that will stay with them for the remainder of their careers.
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“My [eating] has been completely different. We have a dietitian who helps us out with a lot of meals, and we’ve got a schedule set in stone of when we’re going to eat everyday. During [college football] season, you’re just trying to grab a bite before you go into meetings or something. So it’s made a whole lot of difference,” said Marshall University offensive tackle Sebastien Johansson, who trained at TEST Football Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey.
Players Leave as Better Athletes Than When They Arrived
Anthony Zettel training for the 2016 NFL Combine at EXOS SD
Is Belichick forgetting what the NFL Combine is all about? It’s a test of the prospects’ overall athleticism! It’s not like these guys are training for a hot dog eating contest. They’re working out four to five hours a day, six days a week, performing exercises designed to get them stronger, faster and more agile. “I don’t think there’s been a day or even a minute where I haven’t improved since walking through the doors here,” said Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden, who trained at TEST Football Academy.
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Yes, the players spend time working on minute details of events they’ll likely never perform again, but that’s not the only reason their results improve. They can jump higher because their lower-body explosiveness has increased. They can achieve more reps on the Bench Press because their upper-body strength and endurance have improved. They can move faster in the 3-Cone Drill because their ability to cut and decelerate efficiently has gotten better. Players leave combine training as better athletes than when they entered. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what off-season training is all about?