In preparation for the 2019-20 football season and the return of Keith Grabowski’s (@CoachKGrabowski) Coach and Coordinator podcast series, “Deliberate Practice,” I wanted to write a blog to get our minds back down the rabbit hole of how to develop the most skilled players on the field and the critical details that live within skill.
This time of year is great for videos. With NFL and college training camps going on and with a 24/7 news cycle and social media, clips of practice are everywhere. When watching these clips, you often see amazing athleticism and sharp, quick drill reps. Players exploding around cones, bending and leaning around hoops, and chopping and punching bags. What’s most interesting is that inside all these beautiful drill performances, half those players will never even play. At the NFL level, half of them won’t even make the team.
So what separates players when the physical gifts and drill execution often look so even? The answer is usually reading the game. When we think about reading the game, it is usually from a tactical standpoint. Does the player have a good football IQ? Do they know the scheme or understand the opponent’s scheme? Do they process plays quickly?
What often doesn’t get talked about is reading the play in terms of technical aspects – reading the play for skill. What are the threats and opportunities? What skill should I use to capitalize? When do I initiate the skill and how do I vary it to fit the situation? These are all important items that are read from the play.
If we are looking at reading the game for skills, two items must be addressed in practice: accuracy and timing.
When it comes to developing player-to-player skills, (ignoring ball skills like throwing, catching and kicking for the moment) two of the most critical aspects needed to be successful are accuracy and timing. What makes these two traits so interesting is that by nature they are the most open and dynamic aspects of our skills. No matter how hard we try to shape the environment, the traits of accuracy and timing will always be determined by the opponent.
If we start to look at accuracy, we see there is a fixed goal. “Hit this target." The coaches teaching will give the desired landing place for the punch, strike, club, chop or tackle. While we have a target to reach and we teach this idea, it can be easily understood in an almost block-like concept. The act of hitting that target is completely dynamic.
Everything the opponent does changes the action of hitting the target. The opponent being slow/fast, wide/tight, close/far, hunched/upright, turned/square makes the path to the target different. Plus, the opponent will probably have a different combination of the above play-to-play. We know what to hit but doing it will require tons of adjustment and alteration as each execution is unique. By its very nature the definition of accuracy in football is a completely open skill.
It is with this in mind that coaches should address developing accuracy like trap skeet shooting, not precision target shooting. We are always aiming for a target yes, but the target is always moving at different angles/speeds/distances.
The obvious question then is how valuable are stationary and/or predictable targets for developing dynamic accuracy?
For me, stationary target drills are not totally wrong in themselves, it’s just wrong to think they develop accuracy. Static drills can be useful in introducing the technical model for the skill. In the stationary target drill, the coach is showing what the punch/strike should look like or what body mechanics we want to have. That can be valuable, but it does not prove if the player CAN be accurate on game day by simply demonstrating that they know what you are looking for.
To develop accuracy related to the game, I believe we need dynamic targets in our training – highly dynamic. To build the ability to hit any spot in time and space, we must have exposure to a huge bandwidth of situations and scenarios where the body can organize the skill and practice accuracy on a variety of paths. If we were a boxer, we wouldn’t want to only be accurate if the opponent is right in front of us. We must be accurate near/far and from any number of angles and orientations. The same holds true for football.
Many coaches already use some form of moving targets but set very strict limits on where/how the opponent moves. Picture a player holding a pad walking toward an offensive line player working pass protection. Yes, the target is moving, but is it varied or predictable? Often it is always on the same path, at the same prescribed speed, at the same target height and the bag holder always has the same body lean. Bandwidth is not being developed. Only one path of accuracy is being trained and it may not be the angle/speed/height they will see on game day. It becomes predictable target shooting, not open, dynamic clay trap shooting. It’s only training the jab, never the hook or overhand.
Continuing with our shooting analogy, let’s look at timing. If you were practicing precision shooting, you would get setup perfectly behind the rifle, go through all your fundamental mechanics, see the target clearly, breath and when ready, execute. The goal is perfection. Timing is not stressed.
A lot of drills are like this. Our athletes set up in the perfect posture and position. The target is put out in front of them in the form of a bag. They find the target with their eyes, prepare, breath and either when ready or on coach’s command, execute a perfect technical model of the rep.
Now, thinking about our skeet shooting dynamic, chaotic model of football analogy: the timing of when to execute the skill is totally dependent on the opponent. Being able to do the skill perfectly often results in a loss on the play if the skill is initiated too early or too late.
Let’s look at an example. The old jump cut drill where a step-over bag is set laterally on the ground and runners jump cut in front of it and around a cone - a staple of many practices. While this drill might teach the footwork and lower body mechanics of how to jump cut, is it teaching when? And how critical is timing to that skill?
If we jump cut too early in front of a defender, they have time to readjust, reaccelerate and react to still make the play. If we jump cut too late, we are already in the tackler’s grasp. So yes, how to jump cut may be important, but more important is the timing of when to do so.
Digging deeper, the when is determined by the defender. Is he stationary or moving toward me? How fast/slow is he moving and is the space between us disappearing? How fast/slow is he generally? How tall or long is he? What is his tackle range? What angle is he coming from?
All these factors determine when the jump cut should be initiated by the athlete. Therefore, by nature, timing is also an open dynamic aspect skill. Furthermore, it needs to be trained as such so that athletes know, in a wide variety of situations similar to what they may face on the field, when to initiate that skill. Exposure is key for athletes to start to know their own personal abilities and when to trigger the skills based on their body and capabilities.
So, ask yourself, “When should an offensive line player initiate his first strike on pass pro? When does the defensive line player initiate his swipe and chop? When do you trigger a form tackle vs. a thigh and drive tackle?” It’s easy to start piling up the examples. Hopefully the need to train variable timing of skill execution is clear.
How do we train the timing aspect of skill? What drills do we do for timing? Are our drills dynamic enough to cover the wide variety of situations or is it a predictable tempo of speed and spacing? Is it even at enough speed/intensity to carry over to game day or are we always training at such a controlled speed it is practicing for a timing they will never see in a game?
Realistically, players do get great reps of accuracy and timing through group and team periods. The question that needs an answer is what about the individual period? If the goal of individual period is to develop better individual player skills, shouldn’t these items be addressed instead of waiting for team? Could drills programmed with more variety and bandwidth help bridge the gap to the team training environment and increase learning of accuracy and timing? To me, the answer is simple – yes.
The basic principle is that we must be exposed to enough situations in practice that we are developing true accuracy and an understanding of our personal timing in our skills. Because accuracy and timing are open, dynamic skills dependent on an opponent, we must train it that way. Static will not develop dynamic when it comes to accuracy and timing. Closed will not transfer to open when it comes to these two traits.
Yes, through decades of football we do know there are some biomechanics principles and postures associated with positive outcomes and we work on those. Let just be careful not to train perfect biomechanics so much we forget the need for accuracy and timing within the skill. Let’s not forget the need for accuracy and timing to be open, varied and vast to meet the demands of the game. If we want athletes to be the best they can be, they must be accurate and in time.
This article was highly influenced by an amazing podcast by Doug Kechijian (@greenfeetPT) on his Resilient Performance Podcast (resilientperformance.com). This podcast features world-class shooting instructor Bill Rodgers, who discusses training dynamic skills like accuracy and timing.