High School Combine Training
Combine season is upon us. This means a lot at stake for high school football players and college football players. High school players are trying to showcase their talent at a combine or camp for that D1 look. Football athletes need to do something big to turn coaches' heads; athletes need to be motivated in the weight room and on the field to master the combine events to help with their football level of competition trajectory.
To start, we need to analyze “What is football”? There are a lot of moving parts. Understanding the neurological control is complicated. For instance, the defender sees the ball handed off to a running back. That is an afferent signal to the brain. The brain adjusts and then sends an efferent signal to the muscles to do something. It is a kind of slow process for something that happens rather quickly. The big key here, and why the best football players have so much success, making the reads makes things easier and quicker in the afferent/efferent feedback loop so the body knows what to do and how to act.
But what does this have to do with combine preparation?
Well football is an open skill sport. Open skill sports tend to have unpredictable components. However, football, which is an open skill sport, the combine events turn it into a closed skill sport. Yes, football is an open skill sport like basketball, ping-pong, volleyball or lacrosse. But the combine events are not. The combine events resemble other closed sports; think the 100 meter dash, the shot put or an Olympic weightlifter. The movements are closed skills. Granted, the movements are highly technical and demand high levels of athleticism for elite performance.
Now with that understanding, we can take football’s neural control signals and how the afferent/efferent signal feedback loop works, we can recognize that we can train the combine events with the removal of much of the afferent signals, dealing almost exclusively with the efferent signals.
Here’s how we apply that to combine preparation for football.
What Are The High School Combine Events?
Right away we need to identify the key events. Typically at most football combines we are talking about six different events: 40 yard dash, 5-10-5 shuttle (or opt out and do the longer shuttle), bench press rep out (185 lbs. for the high school level, 225 lbs for the college/pro level), vertical jump, broad jump and the L-cone/3 cone series.
Now as strength coaches we need to optimize the strength training program to turn an athlete into an animal in these closed skill tests. One of the key factors is understanding the transfer of training and how it relates to each event.
40 Yard Dash
This event demands an athlete be explosive off the start. In addition, the athlete must be mobile in the start position, possess absolute strength off the blocks, be extremely dynamic and be able to go from a strong static position into a drive phase with optimal mechanics being performed into the finish. Running is pretty complex when performed optimally. It is pretty complex when performed poorly, but that’s another discussion.
Simply broken down, the 40 yard dash demands speed, mobility, strength and technique.
Like the 40 yard dash this event demands mobility, speed, strength, and technique. In addition, it requires lateral speed and puts an emphasis on change of direction; in this manner, it tests rapid acceleration and change of direction.
Bench Press Rep Out
This event is a little bit easier. It focuses primarily on strength and strength endurance. However technique does play a role and can be optimized for higher performance.
Vertical Jump and Broad Jump
We like to make things a little easier and combine these two because they are pretty similar tests. One has a vertical projection and the other has a horizontal projection. Both demand absolute strength, the ability to absorb force, how to reuse force and puts a precedent on a high rate of coordination. On top of that, mobile hips and technique are necessary.
L-Cone/3 Cone Drill
We need to be fast, explosive right off the start, have mobility and technique. All skills that transfer between many of the events, especially in the 5-10-5 shuttle drill. Additionally, elements of strength and high coordination are present in performing this event.
All of these closed skill events need to be approached from a technical mindset. We need to emulate how shot putters, weightlifters and other closed sport athletes and coaches develop skill sets for execution. From this mindset, we argue that the most important aspect is technique.
With the viewpoint of technique being the most important aspect, we need to establish a technical mindset for each and every event. We have to know the phases of the forty, the points of coordination and the steps that will be taken in the 5-10-5. Every single football player that does the 5-10-5 should know EXACTLY how many steps they need to take because every extra step adds time. And added time means a slower time.
The bench press rep out is pretty simple. That being said, the movement still demands technique. Athletes need to understand how to manipulate the test. The broad jump and vertical jump may be based more around athletic capability; still, they are trainable. The L-cone/3 cone, we have to know how many steps forward, back, around and exactly which foot is being put where.
With all of the events laid out and the understanding of all the events/tests being closed skill athletic demands, strength coaches know the elements needed. Strength coaches know exactly what needs to be done.
But where to start? How to approach everything?
We don’t know about you, but the 40 yard dash always seems to turn heads. We would also argue that the bench press creates quite the water cooler conversation. Even if people say the bench press isn’t a big deal, the conversation around it begs to differ. From there, we believe the vertical leap comes in a close third.
Regardless, all of the tests are important. But if we sit there and say, “The 40 yard dash is the priority,” we can focus on how the 40 yard dash transfers to other events. For instance, focusing on a starting position, knowing the start and drive phase, basically the first 20 yards, are key, we can see those same aspects in the 5-10-5 event with the cuts repeating the start and drive. On top of that, the L-cone/3 cone as a similar skill in the start, and it also has reciprocal elements to the lateral work performed in the 5-10-5. Meaning that all three of these events can be covered with focus on the drive phase and starting position.
Fortunately, for the 40, all of the time that can be made up is in the start and drive phase. Here is a little sneaky one. The vertical jump and broad jump receive secondary transfer skills through training the start and drive phase. By performing exercises to try and improve the start and drive phase, we may have athletes perform snatches, power cleans, pause back squats and single leg squats to enhance explosiveness. On top of this, we know we need hip mobility and a posterior chain that can recruit very, very, very quickly. Hang power cleans and hang power snatches tend to fit the bill pretty well for mimicking that drop and go dynamism of the vertical jump, training the body in the counter movement and go.
From there, we can formulate what strength movements in the weightroom will have the best transfer to the closed skills the combine demands. We don’t stop there though. From there we must bring in all the important technical aspects. For instance, we can calculate how many steps are needed in the drive phase in the 40 and how many steps until maximal mechanics. We need to know every single step. Every single step has to be taught. Same thing with the 5-10-5 and L-cone. Everything needs to be factored in and understood, including what the athlete is doing with their upper body, arms and trunk when they're in the air with the vertical jump and broad jump (and when they’re running for that matter as well).
Understand that we are going to be training closed skills. We need to analyze the transfer of training from the strength exercises, dynamic exercises and technical exercises that will be prescribed. Then we need to establish a technical model for every single event. From there everything will start to fall into place. Next thing, the kid who everyone counted out is dominating at the combine and is ascending to higher levels of competition because they master all the technical components, understand the strength components and the technical coordination of all the tests. The trajectory of the kid’s whole life changes. We sure know how great that sounds and feels.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.