Pittsburgh Steelers speed coach Robert Fitzpatrick shares a mental twist that will help you take your game to “the next level.”
When the Pittsburgh Steelers went from 6-10 in 2003 to 15-1 in 2004, people couldn’t help but ask, “What did these guys do after the 2003 season?”
Yeah, picking up Pro Bowl running back Duce Staley from the Philadelphia Eagles helped. And who can deny the impact of 2004 first-round draft pick, “Big Ben” Roethlisberger? The young QB from Miami of Ohio didn’t lose a regular season game until his 16th consecutive pro start.
However, major acquisitions were not limited to the field. The Steelers also hired Assistant Strength Coach Robert Fitzpatrick. The two-time selection as one of Men’s Journal’s Top 100 Trainers in America flipped the team’s program on its head.
On his first day, Fitzpatrick asked each player what part of his game he wanted to enhance. “A lot of the guys said explosiveness and first-step speed. From their answers, I produced a program based on explosive movements and plyometric drills,” he says. “But what makes this program really different is that it challenges them as much mentally as it does physically.”
Fitzpatrick refers to his mental training as “the next level.” He says that when two athletes of equal size, strength and speed go head-to-head, the one who can maintain mental focus longer will win.
The drills Fitzpatrick uses develop first-step explosiveness and reaction time while simultaneously challenging the athlete mentally. His technique involves nothing more than a tennis ball or the opening and closing of his fist.
“I use tennis balls and other visual cues with every drill,” he explains. “The athlete can’t start a rep until I drop the tennis ball or open or close my fist. This way, he’s always thinking, staying focused on the ball or my hand, and then reacting as fast as possible to perform an explosive movement. The combination of a cue and movement incorporates the dynamics of football into my training. Every play is based on reacting to something you see. Your first step then has to be fast and explosive.”
The Steelers perform the following five drills (among many other essential speed training drills) twice a week in the off-season. “The guys love these drills because they are challenging; they love being tested,” Fitzpatrick says. “And the drills have greatly improved their first-step quickness, which is crucial to every position on the field, from corner to linebacker to lineman.”
Explosive Prone Reaction Starts
BENEFIT: Mental focus
EXPLANATION: You have to track several elements simultaneously, which means you have to keep a sharp mental focus. A partner holds a tennis ball in each hand. At the start of each rep, your partner tells you to react to the left or right hand and which leg to drive off to start the sprint. If the right-hand ball is the reaction ball, but the left ball is dropped first, don’t move. Once the correct ball falls, move as quickly as possible, making sure you drive with the proper leg.
• Start on ground in extended push-up position with chest and stomach up
• Partner stands facing you 10 yards away with tennis ball in each hand
• Designate one leg as drive leg
• Designate one of partner’s hands as reaction hand
• Move only when reaction hand drops tennis ball
• When ball is dropped from reaction hand, drive designated leg up under center of gravity and sprint to partner
• Perform 5 reps for each leg, sprinting 10 yards to partner
• Perform 5 reps for each leg, sprinting 20 yards to partner
• Use walk back to start as rest
Coaching Point: I don’t have the guys try to catch the tennis ball as they sprint to the partner because of the torque it puts on their knees when they bend down to get the ball. I eliminate anything that increases chance of injury.
Explosive Plyo Reaction Bounds
BENEFIT: Explosive power, acceleration
EXPLANATION: The drill develops proper acceleration drive angles. Because you start with one foot on a plyo box, you’re forced to drive completely off one leg. To do that quickly and forcefully, you need a good forward body lean—the same lean used to accelerate during a sprint.
• Place left foot on ground and right foot on 18-inch plyo box in front of you
• Partner drops tennis ball as cue to drive and jump straight up off right leg
• Drive left knee toward chest and right arm toward head
• Land in starting position
• Repeat jump only when partner drops tennis ball
• Perform 6-8 sets of 6 reps for each leg
• Rest 15 seconds between sets
Coaching Point: The focus of this drill is not how fast you land and get back into starting position after the jump; it is the speed of your reaction and the explosiveness of your movement off the box.
BENEFIT: Game speed
EXPLANATION: Performed with a staggered stance, this drill incorporates football dynamics. As soon as you have to move on the field, one foot is in front of the other, which means you have to practice moving from that position. If you only train with your feet square, you’re not preparing for the game and not getting the most out of your training.
• Place 6-inch hurdle 65 inches from 18-inch plyo box
• Start with feet shoulder-width apart, right foot one to two feet in front of left (if right handed)
• When partner drops tennis ball, jump off both feet, over 6 inch hurdle and land on box
• Perform 8 sets of 10 reps
Explosive Lateral Box Steps
BENEFIT: Lateral quickness
EXPLANATION: Stepping laterally onto the box forces you to drive off your back leg, which is crucial to effective lateral movement. Many athletes often reach and pull with the front foot when shuffling; that is slow and inefficient. The fastest and most explosive way to shuffle laterally is by driving off the back leg.
• Stand to right of 18-inch plyo box
• When partner drops ball, step laterally over 6-inch hurdle onto box with right foot
• Step left foot onto box, then step down
• Repeat only when ball drops
• Perform 8 sets of 10 reps for each direction
Coaching Point: You want to make sure your lateral steps onto the box are performed as fast as possible. The key is to react rapidly and move quickly. The step down from the box can be slow and controlled.
First-Step Focus Drill
BENEFIT: Mental focus, change of direction
EXPLANATION: Before starting the drill, establish cone numbers and movement patterns to and from the cones. Then, your partner holds up a number corresponding to the cone to which you should move. React to the cues and perform the proper movement pattern to and from the cone based on memory. The drill incorporates stopping, starting, pivoting and mental focus. No verbal command is given to explain where or how to move from cone to cone.
• Set up four cones, 10 yards to front, back, left and right
• Number cones 1 through 4 counterclockwise
• Sprint and backpedal to cone 1
• Shuffle to and from cones 2 and 4
• Backpedal to and sprint from cone 3
• Have partner stand near cone 1 and hold up fingers indicating which cone to move to
• Move to appropriate cone and perform appropriate movement pattern to and from cone
• Follow visual commands for 20 seconds
• Perform 4-6 reps
• Rest 40-60 seconds between reps
Coaching Point: As an advanced progression, have your partner hold up a number with each hand at the same time. Perform the right-hand number first and left-hand number second. This forces you to remember the numbers and to react and perform many different movements in different directions. This drill keeps you sharp and mentally ready for games.