Without pointing too many fingers, it seems like in the last few years everyone has become an expert on the 40-yard dash in both training and analysis. While a few legitimate experts exist, we are seeing a race to the bottom. We can debate the importance of the test or argue what ways best prepare athletes for it, but the cardinal sin of the test is the reliability of the measurement due to the technology used and the culture of the sport.
Even today, in the year 2021, a billion-dollar sport such as American football has staff who bring out a stopwatch once a year to determine the fate of a young talent during the draft season. In this article, I cover why we need to fix the 40-yard dash now and how to do it inexpensively.
NFL Combine Woes and Scouting Days
Just to make sure people know in advance, I will spend most of my time here talking about timing and not the justification of the test or interpreting it properly. While I agree with a few companies appreciating the integrity of track times (by creating a service of scraping times from track meets for football teams), I will spend my time on how we must upgrade the process. Therefore, let’s talk about the NFL Combine’s faults and what to do to fix the problem.
The NFL Combine is hosted in January and February, save for the 2021 Combine, which was cancelled because of the pandemic. While this technically shouldn’t have been a big deal, the NFL Combine does have assessment services other than performance, such as mental and medical tests. Holding it in the middle of the country at a consistent location helps create a fairer and more standard process, but let’s be honest: They still time with a hand start and report two confusing times in some sort of last-ditch effort to show accuracy.
While Zybek reports three decimal places, I have yet to see a real validation study supporting this precision, especially for how we determine true “initiation” of a sprint. It’s not that the current market of hardware isn’t useful, it’s just that the profession has to agree on what a start is. I explained this in detail in my earlier article on why this is a problem, and recently I had to fix this with new protocols and custom hardware for training and testing.A good set of field tests is not the bane of scouting; it’s really a way to make sure the video and now player tracking are compared and contrasted to the raw athleticism of the players. Click To Tweet
Pro days are really why this article was written in the first place, as they are a Wild West of standardization and have no oversight. Rumored enhanced surfaces and the legion of stopwatch brigades turned a reasonable assessment into a real problem. The NFL is an entertainment league and not the IOC, so talent identification doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be better. Still, a good set of field tests is not the bane of scouting; it’s really a way to make sure the video and now player tracking are compared and contrasted to the raw athleticism of the players.
Simple and Inexpensive Solutions That Work
Multiple cameras—even a good smartphone—are better than any stopwatch if you use the technology correctly. While automatic timing is useful for real team results, the issue with it is you won’t see it used properly and you won’t have everyone in college use the same protocol and system. I can time a sprint to within a hundredth of a second, provided the camera is set up properly and the markings are measured with transparency and with multiple instruments beyond the reliable tape measure.
I am not opposed to having electronic timing as a way to help the appraisal, but the migration away from video is one of the reasons we struggle to assess athletes. How they move as well as how fast they move is everything, and separating them into two distinct assessments is a travesty. With the three video resource articles provided on SimpliFaster, specifically the need to have the right camera setup for video analysis, this is not a big challenge that can’t be fixed with a few hundred dollars.
So, the question is, why isn’t this being done now? Well, with any measurement comes gaming the system or trying to sabotage the process. The overarching problem is that everyone involved—from management to former performance coaches to, of course, the athletes themselves—wants the times to be fast. Nobody wants to turn the sport back a tenth or more, as it’s a bad look. While it’s great to be on the receiving side of things, it’s simply not fair to the athletes who get unjustly assessed from having a time error affect their draft status. I realize this is not a perfect solution, but having cameras—sometimes multiple cameras—and the “power of the crowd” is far better than relying on one option or a gang of stopwatches.
Scouts Are Not Going Away
Now you can say with all of this technology that a scout will become obsolete. This is hardly the case, as they will be even more important later to help keep the college data collection up to par with evaluating simple things like the length of sprints and even the slope and hardness of the field. Scouts should also be there to see how the event was run, meaning did the athlete limp afterward or did they run it without proper warm-up?
Such small contextual issues outside of the time itself is important, as sometimes mannerisms after the athlete has left the college program can hint to how an athlete is likely to handle themself in the future. Scouts should be there to film from the stands or inspect the process rather than be hand timers.
As you can see, it can get messy. What about footwear? Don’t get me started with cleats now, as everyone got distracted with the marathon and forgot that other sports have their issues with footwear.
Now for the new scout: the online reporting services mentioned earlier. They are, in my opinion, one of the most overrated data sets that college and professional teams buy. College football and professional football are big business, so the price of winning isn’t cheap, but the fact that people are paying for data that is freely available is shocking.Expect an open source feed to disrupt the scouting service market and track and field reporting to be a little shrewder on how meet directors share performances in the next few years. Click To Tweet
I do agree that large volumes of records are helpful, but the success of the process is yet to be determined. Expect an open source feed to disrupt the scouting service market and track and field reporting to be a little shrewder on how meet directors share performances in the next few years.
The Dash Is Straight Cash
Nothing is sexier than a fast 40-yard dash time. For years, it was clear that Al Davis craved speed and sometimes at the expense of other qualities, but he got the rings to prove it wasn’t a terrible approach to building a team. Speed is not a sin, provided the other qualities are up to par and are not sacrificed for an artificially better time.
The median time in the NFL for a receiver is a 4.5 for a reason; you don’t need to be a burner to play at an elite level, but great hands at 4.9 isn’t useful either. The countless interpretations of the draft prospects each year will always fail to predict success, likely because athletes need more than even talent and skill to succeed at a high level. Athletes must dedicate themselves and have passion for the sport and even enough character to stay in the league. The 40-yard dash isn’t going anywhere, and it’s exciting to see how we may see it evolve in the future.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF