Looking back at my years of playing football, I remember the football season's excitement and the accompanying dread for the conditioning we would go through. As a former high school head football coach, I am sure my former players had both of those feelings. The dread of conditioning because I conditioned them the same way I was conditioned years before, and probably the same way my coaches were conditioned during their playing days.
Evolution in Football Training
I find it very interesting how different football is played today compared to when I was a kid. Things like the Spread Offense and RPOs didn't exist back then. Neither did the elaborate defensive schemes used to stop them. Then, schemes were much simpler than today, and coaches had to go and scout opponents physically. Now we trade film online and use digital software to create game plans from the comfort of home, our office, or phone. I have experienced several forms of conditioning as a player and as a coach. I ran and blew the whistle for Gassers running from sideline to sideline, Pittsburgh's running a lap around the field, and of course, the 110-yard sprints. Why did I have my football players do them? Simple: to make them more challenging, to win the 4th quarter, and all of those other clichés. Truthfully, I had my athletes do them because I did them and remember they were exhausting, so they must be good for my guys. My understanding and scheme development play evolved, but not my mentality or procedures for conditioning for the game of football. So many facets of the game have evolved and improved except for the way we condition our athletes.
Hindsight is 20/20.
I now have realized I was wrong. Those forms of conditioning didn't make my athletes or me any tougher. In reality, what they probably did was make us all slower. For this article's context, I won't delve too deep into the different training systems of our bodies such as anaerobic and aerobic. Think about the length of an average football play: approximately 5 seconds with about a 40-second break in between. Since the average play lasts only 5 seconds, the athlete on the field must play at max effort each play. This is where I find a flaw in the "Old School" style of conditioning. The three styles of conditioning listed earlier (Gassers, Pittsburgh, and 110 yard Wind Sprints) take between 15 and 60 seconds to complete. It is physiologically impossible to maintain max effort that long. Instead of preparing athletes for a football game's riggers, these conditioning styles teach the athletes to pace and sometimes survive. More and more research is coming out on how to condition football players for their sport better, but a simple start is to look at what the athletes are doing. The essential components of football conditioning need to mimic the actual game as much as possible. Conditioning needs to be centered on the following components: What is the athlete doing on the field? How long is the athlete doing it for? How long do they have to recover between plays?
I suggest a shift from conditioning athletes to building mental toughness or punishment, using it as a tool, and another drill used to help make them perform better during the games. There are endless ways to achieve this with a little creativity. I have found conditioning the athletes in their position-groups is exceptionally beneficial because each position has its own distinct physical conditioning needs. For example, my favorite drill for offensive and defensive linemen is to use the sled. The unique element of these positions is that they usually require two quick steps and then physical contact. We replicate this action by having the linemen take their 2 steps, then explode into the sled and drive it for about 3 seconds, at which time a coach blows the whistle and athletes driving the sled sprint off to one side. The sprinting replicates an offensive lineman working upfield to block and the second level or a defensive lineman closing on the quarterback or running back.
With running backs, we mimic their play as well. In the game, they usually receive the handoff and run 2-3 steps approaching the hole where they encounter some contact. If they make it through the hole, they are likely to cut on a second level defender about 5 yards past the hole. We mimic this by running through our plays and having the running backs run through the blaster machine (or teammates holding arm shields) as they make it through. They then progress about 5 yards, make a cut, and burst for 5 yards.
Drills for the linemen and the running backs last about 5-6 seconds, similar to a football play. Similar drills can be performed for each position on the field by just trying to mimic the athletes' responsibly during the game. Again, the drills are endless and can be different based on your offensive and defensive schemes. Use your imagination.
The final and most important element that makes these drills conditioning is the time allowed to recover. The recovery time is conditioning. First, the athletes need recovery time between reps or go into survival mode and begin to pace themselves similar to "Old School" conditioning. In the first week of practice, the recovery time should be a little longer than the athlete's need (45-55 seconds). Then as the weeks go on, progressively shorten the rest interval by 5-10 seconds. If at any point, you notice your athletes starting to slow down, make the recovery time longer. Every rep should be performed at a max effort, just like every snap in the game.
With this steady progression, your team will have the conditioning level to compete by the first game season. The athletes will have had gotten several more quality reps during the week of practice. You should see a significant drop in injuries due to fatigue, and your athletes should be much fresher on game days.