In 1984 my good friend Jeff Hays and I were stationed at the United States Air Force Academy as “Graduate Assistants” having just been commissioned Second Lieutenants the past summer. We both had been recruited by and played football for the Air Force Academy, but after 4 years found ourselves relatively healthy (both of us had gone through knee surgeries as cadets) yet in need of a competitive outlet. We still did what most former football players would do to stay in shape; heavy weight lifting, sprint workouts, etc… Our focus shifted from college football, to a shot at the 1988 Calgary Olympics in Bobsledding.
You have to understand that the Bobsled Federation that governs the sport today (producing Gold & Bronze Medals in the 4-Man & 2-Woman events in the 2010 Vancouver games) has little resemblance to the group that oversaw the sport in 1984. Training has progressed throughout sports the past 20 years and bobsledding is no exception. In the years leading up to Calgary, the American emphasis was placed on the actual sled itself (design, construction, maintenance). Next came the skill of the drivers, then the brakemen, or pushers. There were physical standards required in order to make the team, a series of tests not too far off from the NFL’s Combine.
The Federation did very little in the way of physical preparation of its athletes back then. It was up to the individual to ensure they showed up in proper condition to not only pass the qualification test, but to push the sled at a world class level. There was a “mish-mash” of backgrounds mixed into Team USA. Along with a smattering of former football players were former college track athletes and lifelong “sliders”, bobsledders who had never really done anything else at a competitive level. The various training regimens were reflective of this and it was little wonder that the Americans struggled to keep up with the Eastern Europeans and Soviets in the sport.
These countries put out “well-oiled” machines to push and drive their sleds. It was evident they had spent the majority of their training concentrating on the skills necessary to explode the sled out of the blocks, pushing it down the starting ramp at maximum velocity, then with precision timing enter the sled like a troop of Ninjas.
Sticking to “Old School”
The NFL reminds me a bit of the old days of bobsledding. As offseason conditioning programs commence across the League, most of the media & fan focus has been on 2012 NFL Draft preparation and Free Agency. NFL players have been on their own since the end of the 2011 NFL season and many, if not most, take their offseason preparation into their own hands. This should be time spent to rejuvenate both the mind and body in anticipation for another grueling 6 month march towards the playoffs and Super Bowl.
Once the offseason doors officially open, NFL players belong to the Strength and Conditioning coaches. The work put in the weightroom and on the practice fields this spring will go a long way in determining who’s clubs are playing late into next winter. That alone should tell you that an NFL season is a “marathon” and not a “sprint”. NFL players should prepare accordingly, and yet many tasked with overseeing this very process stubbornly cling to the philosophies similar to USA Bobsledding of 20 years ago.
Outside of the Box
The amount of individualized attention that now goes into a “slider” or any other Olympic athlete for that matter, should also go into the NFL football player. Professional football demands as much or more from its athletes than any other sport. A new generation of Strength and Conditioning Coaches is embracing this “new look” personalized preparation; programs with emphasis on baseline testing as it relates to core strength, balance, flexibility and recovery. These coaches appear to understand the importance of injury prevention and long term performance as it pertains to the success of an NFL club. Players should DEMAND it as well.
But amazingly there are still those that overemphasize the techniques of the 70’s, 80’s and even the 90’s. These “cookie cutter” programs place way too much emphasis on heavy lifting and straight line speed. There’s ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE for a player to pull a hamstring or quadriceps in Training Camp, and NFL GM’s should hold club Trainers and Strength Coaches directly accountable for such injuries. But funny how when this epidemic (pulled muscles) tends to hit a few clubs in droves, it’s usually passed off as bad luck and not bad preparation by the club.
The Football Educator will go into further detail regarding these “new look” training techniques, but file away in the back of your mind the idea of personalized programs at the club level and DEMAND that your club participate.