As strength and conditioning coaches we often stick to that label, but I do very little strength coaching and almost no conditioning coaching at all. The vast majority of what I offer to both teams and private clients is power and speed work. Speed work can often be mistaken for just sprinting, and that’s where the premise of this piece comes in- is he (or she, I work with all sports, genders and typically ages 10-40) really that slow? Or do they just process the game slowly in real time?
For all of the ‘defensive genius’ labels thrown on Manny Diaz, his defense was on far too many offensive draft picks’ highlight tapes at the 2021 NFL Draft. The Miami Hurricanes defense plummeted into an all-time low against the UNC Tar Heels near the end of the 2020 season. The ‘Canes looked slow, but are these players who were once putting up crazy combine numbers in high school suddenly... less athletic? Or were they just unable to flash their skills because of other limiting factors?
If you watch that UNC game (and I saw the All-22 film of it, woof) Miami’s defense was piss poor psychologically (the culture issue Coach Diaz has had reared back up, guys quit), technically (defensive ends don’t know how to wrong arm?) and tactically (blown assignments, open gaps pre-snap and a lack of safety rotation in the run game).
When I’m developing an athlete, I use the pyramid above as a guide. Sure we do intake questions and I like to watch someone move around a bit doing my warm up to investigate if they have any idea how to move or not. Of course we do things like goblet squats and resistance band overhead lunges to see stability and mobility, too.
The bottom of the pyramid is built up on health and wellness. This is what Anatoliy Bondarchuk called “General Preparation Exercises.” Can your athlete squat, lunge, jump, and do your warm up without being out of breath and / or injuring themselves.
From there, we move up to the physical and mental aspects of S&C. These are the items that your strength coach is responsible for. Hitting an absolute strength baseline before converting that into enough power and then speed, so that your athlete can dominate on the field or court.
I like the Olympic Lift variations for just this reason. I think they put mental pressure on the athlete and performance pressure on them, too. Others think they’re a waste of time but I use them for the aspect of having to think parts-of-whole, and then having to use ‘flow’ during the actual lift in order to maximize your wattage output.
As you can see in the graphic above, If you want to create a sweet spot of speed-strength and peak-power it can’t be done with loads too heavy (80% and above) or too light (below 50%) for too long. Do we use max and supermax loads? Oh yeah.
But in small ‘minimal effective’ doses. Do we use loads that are sub 50%? Yes. During the peak block of my periodization cycle I’ll work at 30-50% on all of the highest power developing lifts (RDL & Shrug, Hanging Power Snatch and Clean, and clean or snatch grip high pulls, to name a few).
At the top of the pyramid, the technical, tactical and elite performance pieces- those are typically leaning towards the sport coaches. If I’m not coaching a sport, I will involve myself a little bit in the technical portion. I have some COD/Agility drills that work on tracking a ball carrier, avoiding a tackler, stealing and returning to a base on a pickoff move, and those that react to a ball being lofted overhead for soccer or softball fly balls. But the vast majority of technical and tactical performance will be on the sport coaches.
If an athlete is struggling on the field, the chart above from Keir Wenham-Flatt (@Rugby_Str_Coach) is a simple ‘yes/no’ model to follow for performance.
1- Does he play slow? We wouldn’t be here if he didn’t, right? Because if he’s balling out like Warren Sapp, Dan Morgan or Clinton Portis we’re probably not here.
2- Is he in the ballpark physically? I mean hell, he’s a Power 5 athlete on a roster that’s above 50% Blue Chip Ratio. I’m assuming the answer here is yes. It’s in there, it just has to be developed at a maximal level by the S&C coach and then molded for the sport by the sport coaches. In my piece, “I like the way you move” I discussed some of the shortfalls of the ‘Canes when it came to movement on the field.
3- Does he understand the game? Now we’re getting into a sticky situation. When it comes to football I can be considered someone that could help you in most position groups with the actual game of football. In my COD/Agility sessions we do work on pursuit, breaking on balls (both offensively and defensively) and step and jump cuts.
I have almost 20 years of experience coaching the game and am a former head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator, and have coached every position on the field. But when it comes to, say, basketball, I’m not out there acting like an expert. When it comes to hockey- the same thing goes. So I will stop at single and small group integrated drills (see graphic above, also from Keir) with those sports, while with football I can dabble more into position drills.
4- Can he do it by himself? I’m assuming that DJ Ivey can go through any variety of defensive back every day drills in an indy period and excel. He’s an athletic, P5 athlete at Miami. Ivey can pedal, shuffle, break, and accelerate. But while Ivey or Bubba Bolden can play a cone or a ball in indy, where’s the break down when the bullets start flying?
5- Can he do it in a 1v1? I’m assuming the answer here is yes! Ivey, Bolden, and anyone else taking a load of crap off of fans and bloggers alike (yup, me too!) can work 1on1’s with the wide receivers and tight ends and make plays. Those are more natural and instinctual drills.
6- Can he do it in a team setting? This is where we start to see the break downs on the field. When the tactical and tactical-psychological aspects start to come into play. If you watch the All-22 (and even at times on the TV shot) you can see DB’s confused, even arguing, right before the snap. Miami blows more coverages solely on two defenders, even on the same side of the field, not being on the same page. The CB is in cover 2, the safety is in Man free and is helping in the middle of the field.
Every human has an OODA Loop (above) when it comes to their field. Is your DB observing, orienting, deciding, and acting in a timely manner? Much of this has to become instinctual and happen without thought during play. How do you develop the OODA Loop? With situational drills that are as close to game-like experiences as possible during your practice sessions. Pass skel with no rush probably isn’t close to a game like situation while pass under pressure is much closer to reality.
7- Can he do it under intense pressure? Ah, the true meaning of “Mental Toughness.” It isn’t who can do the most up downs or gassers, but who can maintain mental focus on the mission objectives under duress. Players don’t false start on 3rd and 2 from the opponents five yard line because “they suck.” They do it because they lack Mental Toughness (MT).
MT something that is 50% genetic, 40% choices/actions, and 10% circumstances / influence. Just like happiness, Grit and basketball skills. In order to be great at basketball it helps to be tall, powerful and fast. It also is important to come from a household of gritty people. After that it’s choices: do you skip practice or workouts to screw around with your friends or do you hang out with people that are equally as dedicated and hang at the gym shooting and lifting?
What does this all mean?
Now you’re wondering what this all means, aren’t you? In my teaching and coaching methods I use Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” (above). Today’s WHAT is performance on the field. The HOW was that I was intent on breaking down the performance models from Keir and the OODA Loop.
But WHY?! WHY teach it and why tell you about this? Because fans and bloggers are inclined to blow someone off with a, “He’s slow.” But we don’t really mean foot speed. What we mean is that said player is slow to play the game. The reaction time LeBron, MJ and Kobe had doesn’t exist in every player. The reaction time Ed Reed had at safety to make him one of the best in NFL history isn’t in every player. Why not?
The S&C staff’s job is to create powerful, fast, visually capable, cognitively reactive athletes. The position coaches’ jobs are to get those players to understand their technique and tactics, ie. running the proper tempo on a slant versus a post for a wide receiver, or zone vs. man turns for a cornerback, or the difference between the footwork for a RB on an RPO versus play-action.
While I believe many college athletes do not get faster throughout college, I put this on the “grind” mentality and mental toughness drills ran. Is the head football coach’s focus on performance or ‘how it’s always been done?’ But are the ‘Canes players that much physically worse than UNC’s? Absolutely not. Look at the recruiting ratings with an aggregate eye and Miami is ahead of the Tar Heels. But did UNC play the game faster? Absolutely.
This off-season Miami has to work on developing technically and tactically, so the ‘Canes can close and continue their OODA Loop while focusing on disrupting their opponents’.