Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice-working your hardest, in game mode, in the off-season-makes perfect. A subtle distinction, but one that can mean the difference between all-star and benchwarmer. Darren Sharper knows this.
Football training is pace-specific. That means the speed you train at during practice is the pace you'll use on the field during competition. So you'd better move as fast you can.
Most of the plays Sharper runs are at least 40 yards, times an average of 65 snaps in a game. "Just add all that up and see what you come up with," he urges. "It's a lot of running.
"And the time you don't run as fast as you can is the time you get beat. I can't afford that."
Sharper, who's built quite a reputation as a big-play guy, has certainly beaten the odds. With the average NFL career spanning just less than four years, the Pro Bowler and New Orleans Saints safety is on number 13—and he still looks and performs as good as ever, a testament to the value of his off-season training. He says, "Football is such a rigorous sport, you know? The training I've done off the field has provided my longevity."
It wasn't always like that for Sharper.
"As I continued to play, I realized that I suffered more injuries during the regular season if I didn't come into training camp in excellent shape," he says.
Many NFL players taper back their conditioning as they enter the season, but Sharper did the exact opposite. He upped his training intensity and sought out speed expert Tom Shaw, who has worked with 85 first-round NFL draft choices and trained the last five Super Bowl MVPs.
"Before my fourth season, I started to work with Coach Shaw on my speed and explosiveness," Sharper says. "That's when I really noticed a difference in my performance."
A great idea turned into tradition for Sharper, who now heads down to the Wide World of Sports in Orlando every off-season.
Enhancing both his finesse and raw strength, Sharper's training has enabled him to play both sides of the coin. Poised and ready to pounce, he can pull a pass out of mid-air, turning an interception into art. Back on defense, he can zone-in on and smash into an unaware running back, causing a fumble.
"There are some situations when you just have to flat-out run a guy down," Sharper says. Shaw's secret to helping Sharper's speed?
A simple bungee cord.
"Football is a game of angles," Shaw says. "The bungee cords and belts enable our guys to have 360-degree resistance. Every single step—whether it's the backpedal, turn or sprint—is trained with 20 percent resistance."
This allows the player to have more hip power and stride length, which, as Shaw points out, are essential to reaching top speed.
"The number one thing is being explosive," Shaw says. "We work on pushing ourselves down the field. The longer your strides are, the faster you'll run—period."
In football, a wasted movement or hesitation can spell the difference between winning and losing.
"The bungees pull you into a position really quickly," Shaw says. "[They force you] to get your feet right back underneath you, which is essential to cutting and breaking away."
Sharper fully understands the benefits of using the cords: "Once you take away the resistance of the cords, you feel a lot lighter and freer. Your body just takes off."
His only regret is that he didn't start using them sooner: "It's definitely something I would have done when I was younger. All through high school and up until my first few years of college, I just didn't take advantage of them."
Check out the bungee cord exercises Shaw uses to make Sharper a defensive threat.
But first, a few tips:
1. Safety First
"The bungee is one of the more dangerous exercises you'll do," Shaw says. "You don't want to feel like you're pulling a truck."
So, he recommends using only 20 percent resistance; that way you use the same form and technique you do on the field.
"You want to be in a position to be explosive," Sharper adds.
2. No Wasted Movements
According to Shaw, most athletes have a tendency to keep their bodies high when backpedaling, which is a wasted movement that slows them down.
"Once you rise up out of your stance," Shaw says, "you have to get back into an acceleration position, which means dropping back down."
The bottom line? Stay low.
3. Maintain Proper Form
When backpedaling, Shaw recommends keeping your nose right over your toes and your head level, so you can turn and run smoothly at any angle.
"You have to make it perfect, because you don't want any separation from the receiver or the guy you're trying to cover," he explains.
Also, make sure to keep a slight forward lean and get your elbows pumping.
"The faster you move your elbows the faster your feet go."
4. Get Adequate Rest Between Sets
"The harder you work the more rest you need," Shaw says. "I don't want my athletes feeling gassed before they run again."
The Nitty Gritty:
Sets: Two with the bungee cord; one without
Rest: 120 seconds, or until you feel fresh again
Distance: 20 yards
The Exercises: Perform all exercises with a partner holding the other end of the bungee cord [except for Backpedal, Break Forward, where you and your partner are attached to the cord].
1. Straight-Ahead Run
With cord around your waist and partner holding it from behind you with adequate resistance, explode off the line while maintaining a slight forward lean. Partner should follow you, maintaining the same cord length and resistance throughout the sprint.
2. Backpedal, Turn and Run:
With partner holding cord in front of you, begin backpedaling. After five yards, turn left and begin sprinting. On the next rep, turn right. Stay low throughout entire movement.
3. Backpedal, Break on a Post and Speed Turn:
With partner holding cord in front of you, begin backpedaling. After five yards, break on a post to your left and sprint. After another five yards, complete a speed turn and sprint to your right. Perform next rep on opposite side.
4. Backpedal, Break, Backpedal, Break:
This exercise is great for measuring reaction time and explosion. First partner stands to your side and provides tight resistance on the cord; second partner directs you by pointing either back or right. If he points back, begin backpedaling; if he points right, break into a sprint to your left. Follow movement with another backpedal or another sprint. For next rep, have partner hold resistance from opposite side and perform to left.
5. Backpedal, Break Forward:
With partner attached to bungee and standing in front of you, begin backpedaling. After five yards, break to the front and right; sprint five yards. Cut again, then backpedal again. After five more yards, break to the front and left.
Quick-Foot Ladder Drills
Shaw recommends performing these on the track before moving to grass. Once you're up for it, try the drills in sand.
In, Behind, Out
Stand next to the ladder. With the foot closest to it, step in the ladder. Swing your other foot around to the outside and then step out. Repeat on opposite side.
Both feet should go into each rung of the ladder as you sprint forward.
Stand to left of ladder; step in with your right foot. Then, step in with your left foot and simultaneously move your right foot outside the ladder. Move your left foot into next rung, and repeat the pattern to the opposite side. Think "in, in, out."
Coaching Points: Keep your feet close to the ground // While accuracy is important, aim more for speed // Keep your elbows pumping while maintaining proper form
Perform 10 reps of each exercise; if a directional movement, perform 10 on each side.
Ankle Flexor Hops: Jump up and land on the balls of your feet. Make sure your heels don't touch the ground.
Squats: Drop down like a regular squat. Keep your head up, don't lean forward and go to parallel.
Lunges: Keep your back leg straight and don't let it touch the ground.
Bob and Weave: Think of an imaginary rope at chest level. Drop your center of gravity, then move your head side to side underneath it.
Jump With a Reload: Jump explosively, then land softly and set your feet. Repeat. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
Sprint: Keeping your toes, heels and knees up, begin sprinting. Keep slightly forward lean. Go for 20 seconds.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock