Jan 29, 2015Prepping for the Pros
With the end of the college football season squarely in our sights, many of college football’s elite upperclassmen are looking ahead to their next challenge: preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine. In this feature, Steven Plisk, MS, Director of Excelsior Sports, a coaching and consulting service specializing in professional development and athlete preparation, provides an inside look at the nuts and bolts of this all-important job interview.
For strength and conditioning coaches fortunate enough to help an athlete or athletes train for the Combine, hopefully this is useful in developing strategies enabling them to arrive in Indianapolis in February, knowing what to expect and fully prepared to ace the interview. This is no small challenge, especially considering how extensive the Combine is and how limited your window of time to prepare your athletes may be.
The National Invitational Camp, or “NFL Scouting Combine” as it’s popularly known, is conducted each year during late February in Indianapolis (the home base of National Football Scouting, the scouting service that organizes the event). Up to 335 of the nation’s best college football players are invited to participate, with the number of athletes from each position varying from year to year depending on available talent. Athletes are chosen by a selection committee comprised of directors from NFS and BLESTO scouting services, as well as members of various NFL player personnel departments. The list of invitees is typically published in December, and the players on it receive their invitations via mail.
Athletes usually put big emphasis on the measurables, especially the workouts (read: performance tests). These tests are commonly performed at most schools’ pro-timing days as well, typically sometime in March. While these tests are clearly important, athletes need to realize that they’re really a means to an end: grading and ranking players. As part of the entire event, measurables are used to try to gauge the same immeasurables most employers screen for when interviewing candidates for a position. Besides a player’s health and durability, these include: • Character and discipline • Work ethic and productivity • Instincts and intelligence • Demeanor and coachability • Competitiveness and teamwork
NFL teams use the Combine to screen prospective players for more than just athleticism. They’re also looking for professionalism. This isn’t such a surprise considering the money and other resources they invest in their personnel.
WHAT THEY’RE TRAINING FOR
Day 1. In addition to traveling to Indianapolis, the first day’s events include registrations, medical pre-examinations, orientations and formal interviews. Since medical screening is a top priority, it’s crucial for players to arrive prepared for their medical pre-exam. Athletes should consult their college team’s sports medicine staff for any X-rays, MRIs or CT scans performed in the past 12 months, along with their interpretation, as well as any written surgery or test notes. Failure to bring any of these to Indianapolis may result in repeating tests and possibly getting behind schedule. Players should be advised to keep copies of any test results they bring in case they don’t get the originals back.
The medical pre-exam also includes Cybex isokinetic testing. This test involves bilateral concentric knee extension-flexion at two different speeds on a Cybex HUMAC NORM (for more information about this apparatus go to: www.csmisolutions.com). As isokinetic testing and rehabilitation has become less popular in recent years, many athletes have no experience with this kind of “accommodating resistance” machine. Hence, it is very useful to familiarize them with one in advance if possible, because poor performance on this test can be used to flag a potential problem during the medical exams conducted on day two.
The test protocol is as follows: After warming up on a bike or arc trainer, each player performs three practice repetitions on the Cybex. He then performs three maximal reps with each leg at 60 degrees/second, as well as 15 maximal reps at 300 degrees/second. The test is usually completed in less than five minutes, and results are provided on a one-page report including the athlete’s demographics, a graph of torque vs. positions curves, best repetition values and comparisons. These are evaluated by an Athletic Trainer and included with the athlete’s folder. The report and all other test results are stored on a CD and provided to each team.
This is also the first of three days of team interviews. On days one and two, these are conducted in a kind of gauntlet format often lasting well into the evening (up to 11 p.m.). Each NFL team is allowed to send advance invitations to as many as 60 players they’d like to formally interview. These sessions are limited to 15 minutes, where players may rotate from one meeting to the next over a period of hours. My advice: expect the unexpected!
Day 2. The second day’s events include measurements, team medical examinations, media interviews and psychological testing. Formal interviews similar to those described above also continue into the evening.
Measurables include height, weight, arm length, hand span, body composition and “weights and reps” (also known as the 225 lb. bench press test). Contrary to what many athletes are accustomed to, these aren’t conducted in a discreet setting like a doctor’s office or training room. In fact, height and weight are gathered in an auditorium where–wearing only compression shorts–the players are literally on stage in front of hundreds of coaches and scouts, as well as TV cameras.
Athletes’ body composition is assessed using the BOD POD, another apparatus many of them may be unfamiliar with (for more information, go to: www.bodpod.com). It uses “whole-body densitometry” technology to determine lean/fat mass. It’s based on the same principle as hydrostatic weighing, but uses air displacement instead of water. The surface area of clothing and hair can have a significant impact on measurements, so athletes must wear minimal, form-fitting clothing (compression shorts) and a cap to compress the hair on their heads.
Medical exams are also conducted in a kind of gauntlet format with players proceeding from one room to another, where they’re evaluated by several groups of medical doctors. Any significant health/injury issue–whether it’s identified during these evaluations, the prior day’s pre-exam results (discussed above) or team scouts’ inquiries with the school’s sports medicine staff–may be grounds for further assessment. That frequently involves being sent off site to a hospital for X-rays or other procedures. This can be very frustrating for athletes because the hospital visit may take several hours and possibly push them off schedule. In reality, it reflects the teams’ effort to do their due diligence when screening prospective players’ health status.
The weights and reps test is conducted in an interesting environment. Typically, it takes place in a hotel meeting room that’s filled with two galleries of coaches and scouts (flanking the testing station), three spotters and one or two camera crews. Besides the testing station (a bench press preloaded with 225 lbs), a second bench press (usually stocked with up to 315 lbs) is available for players to warm up on as they wait their turn. Testing is done in alphabetical sequence, so depending on where athletes are in the order and how many priming sets they plan to do, some have more time to prepare than others. As each player takes his turn, he must first introduce himself by name and school to each gallery, and then perform as many reps as possible–with a high-energy spotter in his face, two others checking to make sure his buttocks stay on the bench (touching his leg as a warning if the butt lifts off), a camera spotlight shining in his eyes and dozens of observers taking notes. Needless to say, most athletes aren’t accustomed to these kinds of distractions when lifting, and should be prepared for them in advance.
Psychological testing is performed with the Wonderlic Personnel Test, a 12-minute, 50-question intelligence test used in a wide range of occupations to assess the aptitude of prospective employees for learning and problem-solving (for more information or to view sample questions go to: www.wonderlic.com). The test is designed to assess how well people comprehend problems and how quickly they can solve them — in other words, rather than measure what someone knows, it measures their ability to learn and process new information. Day 3. The third day’s events include a meeting with the NFL Players Association, continued psychological screening and informal team interviews. The interviews conducted on day three are less structured than those on days one and two, giving teams additional time to meet with certain players or catch up with those they missed on previous days.
Day 4. The final day is dedicated to the “workouts” that dominate the televised broadcasts and generate so much discussion. These include positional skill drills as well as a multi-event test of athleticism: • Vertical jump • Broad jump • 40 yard dash • 20 yard (pro agility) shuttle • 60 yard shuttle (perimeter players only; interior players are excluded) • Flexibility tests • Three cone drill
With the exception of the vertical jump (which is done on a rubber mat over pavement), all drills and tests are performed on the stadium’s playing surface. Starting in 2009, they will be conducted in Lucas Oil Stadium on the same type of Field Turf used in the RCA Dome from 2006-08 (the previous surface was Astroturf).
Workout apparel is provided, although each player must bring his own shoes. This is a major consideration. Cross-trainers, basketball or tennis shoes are good choices for the vertical jump, while cleats are appropriate for everything done on the turf. Some players seem to believe lighter is always better when it comes to footwear, and bring newfangled sprinting shoes with them despite the fact that they offer little traction or stability on this surface. In addition to preparing for these drills on field turf or natural grass whenever possible, my advice to players is to use the same kind of shoes they would wear on game day. Those, along with anything else they’ll need (snack bars, water bottles), should be carried with them in a backpack.
Positional drill menus and descriptions are posted at the Combine’s official web site (www.nflcombine.net). Network broadcast footage is also quite useful for getting a sense of how the respective coaches administer them and what they expect of the players. One thing from the footage that jumps out at me right away is drill duration: Regardless of position, each rep typically lasts 17-20 seconds. The durations of the performance tests are significantly shorter than this, so the coaches take advantage of this opportunity to see how athletes respond to some fatigue. Overall, the metabolic stress is pretty modest–typically five to six positional drills, with each player doing two trials of each. GETTING READY
There’s no doubt about it: Preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine usually involves a fair bit of “training for the test,” but there’s more to it than just running and jumping well. The Combine has evolved into a four-day event that’s part medical exam, part psychological test, part interview, part workout and a couple parts media circus. A prospect’s disappointing performance at any step of the process can cost him future earnings.
In my experience, preparing for this resembles training for an Olympiad more so than a football season. That’s a wake-up call for many athletes, especially when they discover what’s actually involved and how extensive–as well as different–their preparation needs to be. Consider how many football players have never experienced six or more consecutive weeks of double sessions, a pre-event taper, or a running program that’s focused on technique instead of conditioning or punishment. Talk about a paradigm shift–that’s three of them rolled into one!
The good news is that most Combine invitees are highly motivated because they know this is their shot to make it to the pros (and they rarely argue when you explain that you won’t be running them into the ground). The challenge, however, is that much of this is new territory for them, requiring a leap of faith on several fronts. I have found that advance education is the key, beginning on the day I first meet each athlete.
Prepare with the intent of doing everything. Unless an athlete is the top-rated player at his position and projected as a first-round draft pick, he doesn’t help his rank or bargaining power by opting out of something or deferring until his school’s pro-timing day.
Listen to coaches’ and scouts’ instructions during performance tests and positional drills. The athlete needs to understand that those coaches want each drill executed cleanly, so they don’t have to be repeated.
The athlete is graded on effort as well as execution. These are the universal criteria coaches use to grade players’ performance on game day, and athletes need to understand that they’re being graded with the same two criteria in every Combine drill and test. There’s more to earning a high grade than just getting a good score or using good technique–the coaches and scouts are looking for “snap-to-whistle” players who hustle and finish everything.
Think teamwork, even when your instincts tell you otherwise. Players are herded through the Combine workouts in position groups. This can get interesting during actual positional drills, when an athlete may have to line up (and cooperate) with another player who might eventually be competing with him for a draft position. Obviously, some might not be inclined to play well with others if they think they might be able to gain an edge. The coaches and scouts who run these drills are clear about directing players to work together and help one another–and an athlete’s stock can drop fast if he gives off any vibes that he’s a “me guy.” So advise your athletes to be team players even when they might not be inclined to do so, and to focus their competitiveness on their own effort and execution.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
Earlier I touched on the issue of tapering and importance of explaining its benefits to athletes. In the May-June 2007 issue of Training & Conditioning, Dr. Guy Thibault wrote an excellent article on tapering strategies entitled “Resting to Win”. I also recommend the review by Mujika & Padilla (2003). While both articles were aimed at endurance athletes, the guidelines they offer are very helpful when tapering for the NFL Scouting Combine due to the high volume-loads involved, and corresponding need to manage fatigue.
The bottom line: the Combine is a business trip where the stakes are high. Players invited to participate should be businesslike in their approach. If you expect to go pro, conduct yourself like one!
Mujika I., Padilla. Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 35(7): 1182-1187, 2003. Plisk S.S. Speed, agility, and speed-endurance development. In: T.R. Baechle & R.W. Earle (Editors), Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning (3rd Edition). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2008; pp. 457-485. Plisk S.S., Stone M.H. Periodization strategies. Strength & Conditioning Journal 25(6): 19-37, 2003.
Thanks to Doug Harney, Bill Hughan, John Kyle, Ned Simerlein and Derek Touchette.
To develop a comprehensive plan of attack and teach athletes detailed, proven performance techniques for each combine event, check out Excelsior Sports’ 6-DVD set on NFL Scouting Combine Preparation. Part of the company’s New School of Human Performance, the series contains videos that provide an innovative approach to: • Strategy • Bench Press • 40 Yard Dash • Jumps & Long Shuttle • Pro Agility Drill • 3 Cone Drill