As we dive headlong into another football season here in the states, my mind turns to the single overriding factor separating championship teams from the rest of the pack: the art of identifying, recruiting and polishing the raw athletic talent that competes on the field.
There are for sure many factors that contribute to winning: great coaching, strength of schedule, team chemistry, and luck, just to name a few. But none of those factors matter nearly so much as the raw athletic talent a team manages to sign.
Barry Switzer commented on his time at then powerhouse University of Oklahoma. He said that he wasn’t much of a coach, but he was one hell of a recruiter.
I couldn’t agree more. In order to win consistently, a team needs to evaluate and recruit the best raw talent. Then polish (“puttin’ spinners on the Bently”, as it were), and position that talent on the field correctly and consistently, play to play. Then stand back, watch the magic happen and the wins accumulate.
It’s said that individuals play the game; teams win championships.
The caveat to that being that the team comprised of the best raw athletic talent wins the most championships.
Which then begs the obvious question: how does one identify raw athleticism (as opposed to sport-specific talent)? What are the true indicators of fitness and athletic potential? How can we best identify not just the finest raw athletic talent, but also the talent with a low potential risk for injury? And how can we identify athletes with substantial potential upside?
And lastly, can any of this apply to the weekend warrior, or even the average Joe and Jane?
The short answer is, absolutely!
But you’ll have to read on for the full explanation.
How can we best assess fitness and athleticism?
With the flipside of this question being:
- How best to train those specific attributes? Or, are they a “given”, i.e., genetically predetermined?
- Is there carryover to the health-and-fitness minded general population? In other words, would a better raw athletic assessment mean your normal Joe or Jane is “healthier”?
- What are the available assessment mechanisms? And what are we comparing against? We need accumulated data!
- Can injury potential be predicted?
As well, we need to differentiate between “raw athleticism” and “sport specific skill”. Indeed, this is the dilemma of every talent recruiter: raw athleticism does not always translate into high-level sport-specific skill. All the speed, strength and quickness in the world cannot make up for hands of stone, 20/60 vision, or the inability to think and process at lightning speeds. And nothing can make up for lacking the “will to win”.
No, sport-specific skill must be assessed independently. Which brings up another interesting dilemma for the recruiter: some athletes with tremendous skill possess very little raw athleticism. And not only that, they may also have very little room for improvement in that realm.
Case-in-point: I’ve seen some extraordinary baseball players who possess shockingly little raw athletic talent. Take them outside of their highly specialized box, and they’re a mess.
It’s up to the recruiter / coach to evaluate how an athlete will fit into a program and situation. It’s up to the organization to determine what combination of skill, athleticism and “upside potential” they’re willing to take on.
A note on the “limited capacity to improve” scenario: this was once known as the “Notre Dame syndrome”. Kids would come into the Notre Dame system as high school All-Americans, only to leave, as 5th year seniors, still with the talent and ability of a high school superstar. And their teams suffered during this period. It’s not that they were “bad kids” or unmotivated. They’d simply peaked, in an athletic sense, too early.
Most who know the game (in this case, football — but it’s true for any sport) can readily identify the best players on the field. But it takes a very skilled eye indeed to find those athletes who will excel in years to come.
If I were to distill why it is I love sport in general, and strength and conditioning in particular into a single thought, it would be this: because these practices reflect a perfect marriage of art, science and real-world application to achieve a quantifiable end result.
Training — whether it’s horses or humans — is as much art as it is science. And it’s tough to argue with the real-world results of training methodologies. They either work, and produce winners, or not.
And in a competitive environment, it’s imperative to select the best specimens in which to invest time and training expertise. Because, in the real world, people are not genetic equals; not everyone gets a ribbon. However, in what I call the trickle-down effect, everyone can learn from the training of these genetic freaks.
But we know, too, that genetics never tells the entire story. Athleticism is a complex mix of epigenetics and circumstance, superimposed upon the genetic hand. My situation is a prime example, in that my own genetic hand would seem to predispose me toward endurance activities.
Good thing I didn’t let that little inconvenience prevent me from excelling my entire life in repeat-power based, sprint-heavy, sports.
Epigenetics matters, my friends. And in my case, it was the epigenetics of my training stimulus that “over rode” my genetic predisposition.
The flipside of that of course, is that all the epigenetic stimulus (training) in the world cannot make up for the advantages of favorable genetics. Those who excel at sport’s highest levels are products of incredible training ethic combined with lottery-winning genetics.
Recruit speed, train the rest
So assessing athleticism is not nearly as easy as simply running a genetics test. And though skills may be accurately assessed by watching an athlete perform in the crucible of competition, what is to prevent us from falling victim to the “Notre Dame syndrome”?
The short answer is, we test, evaluate, and compare. But for what exactly? And against what?
Well, if you listen to old school recruiters who have been in the game for a while, they’ll tell you this: recruit speed. Train the rest.
Digging a little deeper, what they actually mean is that all things being equal (position required size and skills), the player with the highest power output to bodyweight ratio generally wins.
So the key is to identify a few low-skill “tells” that are easy to measure and assess. And one of the easiest is the simple vertical (or countermovement) jump. The CMJ is the easiest measure of raw power production you’ll find. It’s just the athlete gravity, with very little in the way of technique to skew the outcome.
It also correlates closely with speed and change-of-direction quickness.
In fact, if I had to choose just one measure to assess raw athletic talent, the simple vertical jump would win, hands down.
Comparing apples to apples: the Sayers Formula
The Sayers Equation (Sayers et al. 1999) estimates peak power output, in watts (Peak Anaerobic Power output or PAPw) from the vertical jump. This is a useful metric for keeping our vertical (countermovement) jump an apples-to-apples comparison between athletes of differing size and body composition.
And since it does provide an apples-to-apples comparison, it also serves as a great competition measureable across an entire team.
Here’s the base equation for the Sayers Formula:
PAPw (Watts) = 60.7 · jump height(cm) + 45.3 · body mass(kg) – 2055
Let’s assume the athlete in question pulls off an 83.8 cm vert at a bodyweight of 100 kgs.
- PAPw = (60.7 x 83.8(cm)) + (45.3 x 100(kg)) – 2055
- PAPw = (60.7 x 83.8) + (45.3 x 100) – 2055
- PAPw = 5087 + 4530 – 2055
- PAPw = 7562 Watts
The natural follow-on question then is this: how do I train to develope a great vertical jump?
And the quick answer is that we’ll need to first identify, then bolster whatever the weak link in the chain might be.
And here’s where things get interesting.
Strength or spring deficit?
Ok, so let’s imagine a situation in which we have two potential recruits of equal size and skill, and each with the ability to produce the same amount of power as described by the Sayers formula above. And today these athletes might very well be equals in every way at their particular positions. But which athlete has more potential to improve?
A good place to start might be to unpack the contributing factors involved in the CMJ. Things like:
- Muscle size (engine capacity) relative to joint size and tendon insertion points
- Note: this hypertrophy calculator created by Casey Butt, Ph.D., is phenomenally accurate
- Rate of force development / CNS contribution
- “Elastic” contribution; i.e., the amount of potential energy held in and released from structural tissue (tendons, primarily)
- Biomechanical lever advantage
- Skill — even though a CMJ is a low-skill action, there is still a component of skill involved. “Fluidity” and “timing” might be good terms to suggest what we’re looking for here.
This is just a short list, and there are for sure other intangibles. “Competitive drive” is one. “Coachability” is another. Highly subjective attributes, yes. But I can tell you that a coach/recruiter with an eye for these attributes can field a superior team year after year. Over and above what even the best objective-based coaches can demonstrate.
Again, human performance is as much art as it is science.
Back to those things we can objectively measure, though: of that list above, what things do you as a coach think that you’d be able to significantly affect?
I’d argue that biomechanic lever advantage, joint size and “spring” (elastic contribution) are fairly well set. You’ve got what you were born with.
By far and away what we have the most influence over is strength and size. And, to a lesser degree, rate of force development.
So what we’re looking for is a kid who’s developing speed and power like a pogo stick — all spring. Because I can layer strength on top of that with relative ease.
Note: Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix’s is a classic story of adding strength on top of an otherworldly natural springiness to create one of the best female sprinters of our generation.
And I can to some extent at least dial-up a sluggish CNS, and fine tune the rate of force development.
But I can do next to nothing to add to the amount or efficiency of born-with elasticity.
Notre Dame may well have suffered in evaluating other aspects of their potential recruits, but first and foremost they, for many years, made the mistake of recruiting athletes who were, for a given power output, already strong enough.
The room for improvement was small with this pool of potentials. If we were recruiting for a game next month, the selection process would be straightforward: identify the best athletes right now. Choosing athletes who will continue to improve and excel over the next few years is another story entirely.
I happen to know about this, first hand. I was recruited by, and played for, one of the best-in-the-business when it came to identifying, polishing, and motivating raw talent — Jim Wacker (pictured below).
And the Wacker organization was able to stock and restock talent at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) by identifying under-recruited talent at small Texas high schools. And this was at the time when the recruiting wars in Texas were in full swing. A recruiting frenzy that eventually lead to the complete dismantlement of the SMU football program.
Another story for another time.
But in the midst of that craziness, year after year, the Wacker staff filled rosters of kids, who as juniors and seniors, could have played anywhere in the nation. But who, as freshmen, were not even on those same schools’ radars.
Now that we got ‘em, what do we do with ‘em?
At novice levels there is a high correlation between all motor abilities. I’m only half joking when I say I could have a kid do a quarter mile of walking lunges and push a car 8 x 50 meters in the parking lot everyday and he would get faster. This just speaks to the degree of how easily a novice athlete can make gains.
As an athlete progresses however, there’s a lessening correlation between maximal strength and speed. At certain point that correlation approaches nil. Until finally we can actually begin to observe a negative strength-to-speed correlation in highly trained athletes.
Why would that be? And how can training be modified accordingly?
Of springs and steam engines
All modalities carry with them unintended consequences. And it is the job of an expert S&C coach to realize and train around these negative consequences.
There are no bad exercises, modalities or programs. But there are always better choices vis-a-vis context, situation and goals.
Max strength work can for sure be a boon to a naturally “springy” athlete. The Allyson Felix story being a classic example. However, too much of a good thing here can be a hinderance to speed development by “slowing down” the nervous system. Or, by adding unneeded hypertrophy.
And yeah, I know what you’re thinking: good problem to have. But if size and strength alone were the answer, you’d see a hell of a lot more bodybuilders and strength athletes involved in team sports. If for no other reason, basic economics: team sports pay magnitudes better.
Quite simply, the human body adapts to how it is trained. When athletes focus on slow heavy lifting day after day, the body can and will adapt to that stimulus. This is no different to the body’s adaptation to any other epigenetic stimulus.
The body’s imperative is to live to fight another day. If speed and power production is not part of that equation, the body won’t waste resources in preparing for it.
That said, we must always remember speed and maximal strength are separate motor abilities. As we saw above, early correlation between the two begins to diverge as the athlete advances in both ability and training age.
Increasing Usain Bolt’s trap bar deadlift by 50 lbs at this point in his career is unlikely to make him any faster. If it were only that easy. At some point, continuing to push max strength would not net a positive training ROI for him. When an athlete reaches a certain point, energy should be directed towards maintaining that strength, and shifting focus toward improving other key motor abilities.
But where exactly is that point of diminished returns?
I wish I could give a definitive answer here, but that’s not going to happen. Each case is it’s own special study.
A good starting point though, is to keep track of:
- PAPw (as discussed above)
- Max strength numbers in a few basic exercises
- I like a 2 or 3RM trap bar deadlift, overhead push press and floor press, for example. Better yet if one has access to ARXFit equipment.
- Performance / competition indicators. Track athletes obviously offer more objective indicators of performance (event time and distance). Team athletes must be assessed in a more subjective manner.
- Rate of force development.
- Quick example: 2 athletes have the same 2RM trap bar deadlift at the same bodyweight. One athlete, though, can complete the task in 2.3 seconds, the other in 4 seconds. Which do you think will be able to display more on the field speed? And conversely, what emphasis should be placed on each athlete’s training?
If you answered (1) the athlete with the fastest 2RM, and (2) “train the weakness” for each athlete, move to the head of the class. Essentially, that’s all we’re doing. Identify the weakness, and building a training program that addresses those weaknesses without blunting the athlete’s current strengths.
That last point being one that befuddles a large majority of S&C specialists. In the example above, the “springy” athlete probably could improve by adding some additional strength and, depending upon his sport, some additional mass (hypertrophy). For instance, I wouldn’t care about putting additional mass on a 100 meter sprinter (in fact, I’d likely train them so as to not gain any weight at all), but that additional mass might make all the difference in the world for an American football defensive back. And thus, I’d have to both prioritize that need, and program accordingly.
Note: I cover training the rate of force development in my post, Training the Central Nervous System for Improved Sporting Performance. Be sure to check that out.
I’m asked quite often on my take on the Oly lifts and their derivatives, both as an indicator of athleticism and as a modality to improve athleticism. Let’s look at this with the idea that there are no bad exercises or modalities, just bad application vis-a-vis goals, context and situation.
Many coaches believe that the Olympic type lifts have a direct correlation with on the field performance since those lifts (and their derivatives) are performed with such speed. In fact, speed is — along with technique — the essence of O-lifting.
Speed here is a relative measure, though. And although a good Olympic lift velocity may reach 1.3 meters per second, sprint speed usually hangs around 7 meters per second. Which means the athlete’s feet are only contacting the ground for fractions of a second with each footstrike.
And this is the crux of the issue: it takes time to develop maximal force. Sprinting and change-of-direction ground contact times are measured in the hundredths of a second. This being the time that an athlete has to display force in sprinting or in a change of direction event. In the example of our two athletes above, the ability to grind through a four-second, 2-rep max means nothing when the athlete’s foot has .08 seconds to display as high a force as possible.
We need high force development, yes. But we need that force to be developed right now!
Cal Dietz, Triphasic Training.
Two athletes, moving the same load. We only have a fraction of a second to express strength (foot strike, punch, etc.). All things equal here, who do you think will present as the better athlete?
Cal Dietz, Triphasic Training.
Note: rate of force development is still important, though to a lesser degree, in strength sports such as powerlifting and strongman. Louie Simmons doesn’t place such a heavy emphasis on speed work for nothing. For more on that, see this post.
Again, there are many attributes involved in speed (or instantaneous power) development. Strength and hypertrophy are just two. They just happen to be the easiest to improve via traditional strength training. Speed is more dependent on:
- the rate of force development
- reactive ability
- nervous system efficacy
- tendon attachment, and
- limb length
Things that, if they can be influenced at all, are only marginally influenceable.
Note: Though I do think there is much value in training the clean, I don’t program it with the idea of training speed / power production properties. I like the clean because it teaches athletes to quickly flip the switch between max force production to max force absorption. I like the clean and jerk / push press varieties as well, and you could do a hell of a lot worse than to program these into the training mix.
And I still program these exercises myself. No other exercise works as well for flipping the “power production / absorption switch” other than life-fire contact in a practice or game setting.
The RealFit advantage
Evaluating various measures of strength, speed and aerobic capacity is paramount in the recruiting game, as well as in assessing general health and wellness. Strong people are harder to kill, That this is not immediately obvious to most is a sign that our society as a whole is missing the bigger picture.
And I would argue too, that fast-afoot people are hard to kill as well.
We all know the downward cascade that results from an elderly person breaking a hip. Overnight they lose the ability to move and to care for themselves. Their family is forced to move them into elderly care. The decline from there is steep and fast.
What prevents that from happening? Strength and hypertrophy. Quick and nimble feet. NFL players survive numerous Sunday trainwrecks. It should be the goal of the elderly to bounce back up after a fall off the curb.
If that seems extreme, well… it’s a matter of life and death. I for one will continue to train for strength and speed. I will not “go gently into that good night.”
What to measure, though? And what to compare those measurements to?
That’s the question my good friend, Dave Patzwald, of RealFit set out to answer. And he did just that by creating a system for the measurement, collection, and quantification of this kind of data.
RealFit is a series of tests designed to measure raw athletic ability. Think NFL combine, but with the ability to tweek the test depending on the needs of the demographic being tested.
High school or collegiate football players? Check. Baseball players? Check. Wrestlers? Sure; we’ll just add, drop, or modify a few tests. First responders? You bet; RealFit can cover that as well.
How would you stack up against these results?
The TTP short list of tests
Using the RealFit model, I can create any battery of tests I want (or, use pre-established tests) in order to evaluate my target demographic. I can then use the results of these tests to compare and contrast, and to help correlate to other more subjective parameters. As well, I can compare across the entire RealFit database of exercise performance.
Let’s look at evaluating football players as an example. What might we test for? Personally, I’d opt for short list of very basic tests.
- Vertical jump
- Standing broad jump
- Caber toss
- Cone drill (each direction)
- Shuttle run (each direction)
- 40 yard dash (with a 10 yard split. Electronically timed at start, split and finish)
- Trap bar deadlift (2RM, no bounce, timed)
- Front overhead push-press (2RM, timed)
Note: I’d much rather test strength on the ARXFit leg press and chest press in lieu of the TBDL and push-press. It’s inherently safer, and much more data can be gleaned. I understand though, that few have access to this equipment.
Additionally we’d want height, weight, body comp (via DEXA), as well as wingspan and inseam measurements. Why? Because as David Epstein points out in his masterful work, The Sports Gene, Success at the upper levels of sport is hugely influenced by body type, limb length and biomechanical leverage.
And as mentioned above, I’ll want to run wrist, knee and ankle measurements through Dr. Butts’ body mass predictor. This would be more important for sports like football, where the ability to put on mass is paramount.
I’m not super interested in spending time assessing a prospect’s conditioning level. At least not for football players. Every player can get in adequate condition for the game, especially once “in the system”. They just have to endure the grind of that conditioning process.
That’s not to say though that I wouldn’t want to test different parameters for different demographics. And sometimes aerobic fitness might need to be assessed.
For instance, firefighters could define and standardize distance load pulls, stair-flight climbs, and other mission critical tests. I’d argue, though, that they should always test for base athleticism.
And one thing to remember here: aerobic fitness is largely dependent upon task. In other words, someone who might pull off a blistering 2k C2 rower time might suck-ass at a mile run. Both are “endurance” events, but each has vastly different movement patterns.
Functional Movement screens?
My good friend Ann-Maree Williams is a leading expert in correlating poor performance in the FMS to injury propensity.
She found in her work with the US Army, that:
- 87% of all musculoskeletal injuries are non-combat related and are the #1 cause of medevacs (24% vs 14% for combat injuries)
- Potential injuries could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy using, essentially, a basic Functional Movement Screen
- Potential injuries could be radically reduced by treating those identified as “high risk” with appropriate exercise therapy.
This screen ought to be part of any evaluation. The ability to pinpoint potential injuries with a skilled eye and a basic battery of tests provides too much ROI to ignore.
If you’re a team owner, you’d sure as hell like to know if the guy you’re getting ready to drop millions on has a high propensity for injury. And if you’re a city comptroller, you’d much rather pay a little up front for preventative care vs for the fallout of an injury that could have been prevented. Lost time, workman’s comp, etc. These, along with treating diseases of modernity, are wrecking city economies. Detroit being a prime example.
Training for the test?
Some will argue that with any known testing procedure comes the inevitable: training specifically for the test.
My answer though is always this: so what? If we pick very basic tests, there is no real way around training for these basic tests other than… hitting the training basics.
Think about what you would do to train for the CMJ or caber toss. What about training the broad jump? You’d have to train the basics that comprise the move itself. And guess what those parameters are?
- Muscle size (engine capacity)
- Rate of force development / CNS contribution
- “Elastic” contribution; i.e., the amount of potential energy held in and released from structural tissue (tendons, primarily)
- Biomechanical lever advantage
- Skill — even though a CMJ is a low-skill action, there is still a component of skill involved. “Fluidity” and “timing” might be good terms to suggest what we’re looking for here
- Bolstering any potential injury issues
Pretty familiar list, huh?
And, as discussed, some of those attributes are more easily addressed than others. And so, as a trainer, I’d be forced to train that component that is currently my client’s weakest link.
And generally, that can be broken down to either speed or strength being the most limiting current factor. And since we know have a well rounded assessment to look at, we’ll know how to begin programming.
Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world –