May 6, 2009

    Forget Tests: Train to be a Better Athlete

    Most sports fans know that the NFL Draft happened about a week ago on the 25-26th of April. What the casual fan doesn’t know about is the frenzy of testing, evaluation, and speculation that goes on before draft day. When the college season wraps in January it marks the beginning for some of the nations elite collegiate players. They spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars preparing for the NFL Combine (February 18-24 in Indianapolis) or a “Pro Day” at their own university. The Combine and pro days consist of a battery of physical performance tests along with psychological and medical evaluations. A player’s performance at the Combine can have a huge impact on the position they get drafted, costing or earning them millions of dollars. Combine preparation is a multi-million dollar a year industry, but do the tests these players prepare for really indicate what kind of a professional they will be?

    A recent study from the College of Business at the University of Louisville examined just that question. The study examined players from three offensive positions (quarterback, running back, and wide receiver) selected in the NFL Draft during a six-year period (1999-2004). Their goal was to determine what (if any) correlation there was between the players’ performance in the combine tests (both physical and psychological), and their performance in the NFL. Players at the combine perform the 10-, 20-, and 40-yard dashes, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 20- and 60-yard shuttles, three-cone drill, and the Wonderlic Personnel Test. League performance was based on 10 variables: draft order, 3 years of salary and games played and position specific statistics. The researchers found no correlation between Combine performance and actual game performance, with the exception of sprint tests for running backs. Let me repeat that, no correlation.

    So there is an entire industry built to prepare players for a set of tests that aren’t an accurate prediction of eventual performance. A player can have an amazing college season, perform poorly at the combine, fall many picks or even rounds in the draft and loose out on millions of dollars. The ironic thing is that this kind of a player can eventually become great, leading his team to Super Bowl Championships, making the team millions of dollars (Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round in 2000). The recent rise of NIKE SPARQ testing and training (and their very cool TV commercials) has brought the NFL Combine to high school players all over the country. Football, basketball, and baseball players are all SPARQ tested, and Velocity Sports Performance (a national chain of gyms) even advertises their SPARQ based training as a selling point to high school athletes.

    The problem with these, and most tests, is that they are purely quantitative and not at all qualitative. They don’t care how you do the movement, just what the end result is. You can have the fastest bat speed in the world, but if your swing mechanics don’t allow you to keep your eyes on the ball, you’re not going to hit many home runs. At SPARTA, we test athletes in the vertical jump, but we are not as concerned with how high they jump as we are with how they actually do it. Athletes perform tests on a force plate, a scientific instrument that basically gives us an x-ray of their nervous system. We can use the information we gather from the force plate to then train them to improve the way they do movements, dramatically increasing the speed at which they improve.

    We’ve all seen the athlete who performs poorly on physical tests, but is a great player. We usually call them gamers, chalking their success up to psychological prowess. But maybe if we trained less for tests, and more for movement proficiency we could become a gamer too. I’m sure Tom Brady isn’t too bummed these days about not being taken higher in the draft.

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