After SimpliFaster posted our series of Vermeil weightlifting articles, several coaches wanted more information on other topics, not just the Olympic lifts. A few wanted updates to the transfer chart posted on Twitter, and many sports medicine professionals were adamant about learning the training side of athlete evaluation.
This article is an outline of the five key biomotor abilities organized in an applied format. While it covers screening, it also reviews sport testing and athlete profiling. None of the information will be brand-spanking new—it’s just more practical than listing tests and hoping coaches will get value out of it. If you are committed to helping athletes reach their potential, this article adds wisdom to the knowledge and experience you likely already have. It also adds a nice twist of applied science that we now have.
The Five Biomotor Abilities
Before we begin talking about the testing qualities of athletes, specifically biomotor abilities, we need to address the elephant in the room. One recent controversy in sports performance occurred over the very provocative article by Mladen Jovanovic. In a few paragraphs, he basically threw the entire training theory concept out the window. Jovanovic was very aware that biomotor abilities interacted in a “complex systems” manner and isolating variables is very theoretical. Thus, can we still use the approach evangelized by Frank Dick or should we start from scratch?
I believe we need to embrace the purists’ point of view, yet be realistic that we can’t isolate any real quality in a reductionist model. Conversely, we need to eventually write a workout, and this is why I still use biomotor abilities in my training. Let’s be careful not to prune so much from training theory that the tree dies.
The next iteration of training theory builds off of Jovanovic’s great points, determining how gross qualities interact with each other and how to evaluate the characteristics of an athlete. Sure, saying an athlete is fast without seeing how speed interconnects with endurance and skill assumes the qualities are almost mutually exclusive. That is far from the case, but just doing a few sprints will not help a marathoner finish under two hours, either. The goal with biomotor abilities planning is to create a usable framework, not to try to segregate qualities in a vacuum. Again, if we are quick to call old-school coaches reductionists, we are likely tossing the baby out with the bathwater and not being resourceful with older information and knowledge.
So why do I still use biomotor abilities? They are still useful for testing and planning training. Maximal strength has a skill component when testing, and it can be increased from plyometrics and sprinting, and it’s worth evaluating. Another example is an athlete who is of average fitness scoring really well on a Yo-Yo IR2 because they have amazing speed and running economy.
I have had an athlete with only a moderate level of fitness set a record in soccer at a club, but his score was outperformed by an athlete who was built with an amazing aerobic engine and just had enough speed to capitalize on his genetics. Both found success on a fitness test coming from opposite sides of the spectrum, but the endurance-type athlete took only one season to make that leap because I had access to more data from day one. The goal with biomotor abilities is to create a framework, but the recommendations by Jovanovic must be adhered to or we won’t get the most out of our athletes.
How to Assess and Screen Athletes Smarter
The point of this section is to explain the value of performance testing and training for screening an athlete. If an athlete is prepared to play the game, they will test well enough because they are likely more resilient than those who pass a physical but end up getting hurt in a matter of days. I am not against physical examinations and medical evaluations—it’s just the lack of injury doesn’t mean an athlete is healthy. Instead, it means they either have been blessed with good luck or they were handled properly in the past.Athletes with a combination of good genetics and solid training will always outperform athletes who rely on monitoring and load management, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In order to really make progress, sports medicine and high-performance managers need to embrace training history as a strong predictor of longevity and injury prevention. Those with a combination of good genetics and solid training will always outperform those who rely on monitoring and load management. Without a physiological buffer or reserve, you are hopelessly dependent on resting athletes and have nearly no wiggle room during times of high demand. Resting is a path of retreat only, not in managing load, but holding your breath during heavy periods and waiting to pull the trigger on pulling back athletes. That is part of the equation but not the entire formula.
Over a year ago, Al Vermeil reached out to me because he wanted to give more advice to young coaches about screening and evaluation. He understood that the process required an interdisciplinary approach to sports performance, and he was concerned that the medical model some teams use is, ironically, backfiring. Those teams that are concerned with injuries to the point of being overzealous actually do more harm than good.
The first line of defense against injuries is paradoxically not screening, but good training. The best screen in the world during preseason is too late, as exhibition games and the actual competitive schedule are only weeks away. Therefore, the best way to screen is to see if an athlete is doing their homework, based on their “reading level.” Still perform orthopedic evaluations and use conventional screens, as a test will sometimes identify a real threat, but if you want to see whether the pipes are leaking, you need to run the water.
For years, coaches have made efforts to prevent injuries by using movement screens. The issue with most of the movement screens that Vermeil has had a problem with is that they lack speed, load, and similarities to the actual injury patterns seen in sport.Most of the movement screens that Al Vermeil has had a problem with lack speed, load, and similarities to the actual injury patterns seen in sport, explains @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If you want to reduce ACL tears in the sport of soccer, many of them are non-contact deceleration injuries. How a hurdle step connects to that mechanism is beyond a mystery, and this is why the functional movement screen has failed to be a solid predictor of injury. Even testing jumps and other activities is limited, and that’s why teams monitor training load and physiological recovery. Isolated tests alone are not enough—we must equate for genetics, sleep, and nutrition as well. Screening is a process, not just a series of tests packaged neatly in a course.
Can the Athlete Play?
The most obvious question that strength and conditioning coaches must ask is if the athlete is good in their sport, especially on the skill side. If an athlete struggles to understand the game or make plays, strength and conditioning may not make a big dent.
Many athletes have been known for being athletic and a hustler, but skill and talent for the game still matter. Several less-talented athletes have historically made an impact and been Hall of Fame players simply because they knew the game and could execute plays due to skills and tactical experience. It is also common for talented athletes who are undertrained to respond great to strength training. How many times have we seen athletes who had all the right tools make the leap from a serious off-season composed of quality training?
Strength training transfers to talented athletes who are deficient in “sweat and iron” more than to the grinder athlete who is good but maxed out. Often, the less-talented athletes made training their priority early in their career because they couldn’t get by with what they inherited from mom and dad. Talent is a huge wild card and differentiator in team success. Talented athletes make all of us coaches look like geniuses, but we can’t allow talent to rule the roost too much, as many gifted athletes learn to be lazy when everyone else caters to them.Coaches of talented athletes don’t need to push the limit, but they can’t be so conservative that they end up barely training at all, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Coaches must get the most out of the athlete and not just resort to “keep them healthy” or “just don’t screw them up.” Not handling an athlete who is talented with respect to the profession of strength and conditioning won’t keep them healthy or prevent a screw-up. The coach of talented athletes doesn’t need to push the limit, but they can’t be so conservative they end up barely training at all. This is a timeless problem in elite sport—because talent is scarce, it’s overprotected to the point it’s self-defeating.
Is the Athlete Really Strong?
Modern sport needs conventional strength and conditioning more and more. Ironically, in the last 10 years, technology and statistics have actually put foundational qualities and indispensable strength coaching into a dark age. The culprit is overthinking, where it’s far more marketable during the hiring process to talk about the esoteric than it is to demand basics. Conversely, while it’s popular to chant “mastering the basics,” are we seeing more and more polished lifts than ever before? Or are we still seeing ugly lifting videos, weaponized from social media?
If you want to be progressive, find a way to sell fundamentals with sexy terminology. My recommendation is to use reserve performance strength, as RPS is a nice acronym for selling the idea that you need to have greater-than-sufficient levels of maximal strength. I don’t care what you use or how you say it, you just have to sell strength levels that pad the athlete’s bank account, not hold your breath when you write a check.
Now comes the innovation and the history lesson. Al didn’t like loading athletes in the weight room unless he had experience working with those athletes. Even after years and years of working with an athlete, it still creates a bit of uncertainty in the gut when the weight starts to bend the bar. Therefore, isometric testing may be great for those worried about athletes who spent an off-season with a private coach, as it removes most of the risk.
Al was clear that training the athlete will reveal how their strength interacts with their durability, and that means record-keeping rather than going for records with an unknown athlete. So many programs are weight room deficient and coaches seem scared to do single rep loads; therefore, I find load velocity training a better option than just guessing that a percentage table will do everything. Sure, you can reasonably extrapolate lower loads with repetition testing, but single rep measurement does more than extract maximum strength—it shows faults in both preparation and LTAD (long-term athlete development). Training with real loads and recording the data is testing, but make sure you ramp up carefully, so you don’t test without a plan afterward.
How Much Speed Is the Athlete Working With?
Athlete velocity testing is about getting to the heart and soul of most success in sport, and that means speed. Fast athletes are always valuable, provided they can play and know where to be at the right time. Athletes who are only fast and never learn the game frustrate team coaches, as they waste opportunities to score or make a play.
Coach Vermeil loves looking at change of direction abilities and jumps in addition to linear sprints. Often, an athlete is fast because they have great rate of force and can overcome inertia. Unfortunately, due to poor elasticity, they seem to be good for just a few steps and are lost later in the play. Elasticity is also important for endurance, as running economy tends to show up later in the game or with maximal conditioning tests.
Coaches need to know how fast an athlete is in different directions and how to make them better or keep the star athletes fast. Sophia Nimphius and her colleagues, including Tom Dos’Santos, have made tremendous strides in helping coaches understand the change of direction deficit. However, Al was quick to point out that, due to the tests being old, they were useful in making comparisons to previous tests. He wasn’t in any way saying that their progress isn’t valuable; he was pleased to see a formal approach to making comparisons to linear speed and change of direction.
Coaches looking to screen athletes by jump distance alone miss out on kinematic information required for asymmetry, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
More than enough information exists on jump testing, but it’s perhaps good to talk about horizontal jumping more and also talk about reactive work. Coaches looking to screen athletes by jump distance alone miss out on the kinematic information required for asymmetry, and the battery of tests needed to profile an athlete can’t come in the form of a single vertical jump. Athletes and coaches are sometimes afraid of timing because of pulling muscles. If you are worried about injuries, I recommend testing 20-meter sprints and adding in reactive strength index (RSI) tests, such as the Scandinavian rebound jump test, to see whether athletes have a fifth gear. Nothing replaces actual direct measure, but with basketball, sometimes there is no room for actual speed in small practice gyms.
Testing speed can help sports medicine staff see the obvious. This past year, a few NBA teams wanted to get early departure velocity with athletes because they knew that the first 3-4 steps of a sprint matter with basketball so much. If an athlete can’t run fast for 7-8 steps, or a 10-meter sprint, over the course of a game, it’s going to be ugly.
You can add in tests for symmetry and even pressure map, but if their times stink, they are not ready. Contact grids, lasers, timing gates, cameras, or just racing head-to-head all reveal so much because you can’t cheat pure speed. You can game the game, but in the sport of track, the dash always tells the truth.
How Mobile Is the Athlete?
Flexibility is a distant second place to mobility now, as joints and soft tissue seem to drive health for training rather than performance. In the past, athletes stretched their way to improving theoretical qualities, such as working on stride length from static stretches rather than working on speed. Restrictions from genetics have shown to be actual advantages for speed, but they compromise training at times. For example, look at ankle dorsiflexion with sprinting velocity, an area that we love to see when we watch a sprint race, but hate to manage when squatting the athlete.
Postural issues we see from time to time that make overhead movements more demanding require a lot of resources, but are worth addressing because they give coaches more options and create a reserve with mobility. If you literally have room to work with, it’s far easier to train an athlete who has mobility than dance around issues for a career.
Al Vermeil and I both believe that many contraindicated exercises on paper are just common mobility issues that are inconvenient, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Al Vermeil believes, as do I, that many contraindicated exercises on paper are just common mobility issues that are inconvenient. Take the earth’s environment, for example. For the most part, we love the convenience of tossing consumables in the trash rather than repurposing and reusing plastic bags and paper cups. The same goes for committing to highly demanding exercises such as behind-the-neck presses and overhead squats.
In fact, pressing from behind the neck in a squatting position safely and effectively could be an indicator of variability from a preparation standpoint rather than an orthopedic perspective. I personally don’t use behind-the-neck pressing, but I think screening it is intriguing. We can advocate wall slides as a solution to mobility, but freak out when we add a miniscule load. I think it takes enormous resources for some athletes to achieve those positions, but if they have the anatomy that allows it, removing those motions only leads to a path of restrictions rather than the conservation of mobility.
The key mobility tests are squatting and pressing, and the Javorek Complex is probably the best way to see how much conscious effort an athlete makes in training. Without load, many athletes resort to body work to get range of motion, then find the lack of conditioning and strength ruins both the investment in therapy and in money. Biomotor abilities in isolation work fine, but when thrown into the fire, everything is connected, so a holistic program is required.
Is the Athlete Conditioned for the Game?
Field testing conditioning is a lost art, as only a few clubs do a shuttle test and hope that it leads to something valuable. Athletes rarely push themselves because, in reality, most of them use games and practices to keep fit, rather than general training to maximize conditioning. Does anyone think teams in the NBA really see an all-out performance with players during preseason testing?Athletes rarely push themselves because, in reality, most of them use games and practices to keep fit, rather than general training to maximize conditioning, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
It’s very hard to test athletes at the pro level as many of the players won’t continue improving their conditioning, so we see pass or fail with court and field tests, rather than solid landmarks to athlete fitness. Usually, the outcome of testing is either a rush to get them fitter with “extra work” or a general compromise in the early part of the season to patiently progress them with readiness to perform. Coaches sometimes treat athletes who are “out of shape” like injured athletes and follow return to play protocols to prevent them from getting injured.
Athletes who don’t respect fitness or clubs that feel they need to manage what they get incoming every preseason are budgeting fitness, rather than investing their resources. The underlying success for team sport athletes lies in their attitude to training or attitude in general. Fatigue makes cowards of us all, but an athlete who improves their concentration during moments of stress will succeed with what they have (conditioning-wise).
Coach Vermeil was clear that he didn’t do a lot of conditioning tests with the Bulls, but draft picks did go through the motions of conditioning to see whether they were willing to work and if they had some semblance of pride. Toughness, mental fortitude, or whatever is the buzzword, is difficult to extract from athletes, but it’s okay to train hard and get tired. It seems that severe near-punishment style training has confused the difference between negligent and training hard, and we need to know what is demanding and what is reckless. Screen athletes with cardiac evaluations, then if they are cleared, ramp them up safely and test them.
What I learned the most from Coach Vermeil was that you need to tame the “wild horses” with exposure to stress, not let them avoid the uncomfortable, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I use shuttle tests to reveal character and possibly build it. I have seen many kids originally viewed as troublemakers or behavior problems become respectful only after they learned to respect something greater than themselves. The “Gods of Sport” will always win in the end, as every athlete will retire. Many will become ambassadors of sport or coaches, but a career is never for life, so conditioning must be done in some way to build core values.
Nobody needs to suffer to be disciplined, but if training is comfortable all the time, soon competition will be poisoned. What I learned the most from Coach Vermeil was that you need to tame the “wild horses” with exposure to stress, not let them avoid the uncomfortable.
Assess and Evaluate Wisely
The takeaway with all of the testing and screening discussion is simple: Get athletes evaluated pronto. If you are unable to test, for any reason, that problem alone is in fact a test. Athlete availability isn’t about games, it’s about the training before and during the season that feeds into athlete health and performance for competition. This piece contains enough information that can help a coach in high school or college, and even the pro level. Just administering the assessment can help athletes understand the connection between being prepared and how their body drives success in the long term.Just administering an assessment can help athletes understand the connection between being prepared and how their body drives success in the long term, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In summary, the tests recommended by Al Vermeil offer more than just numbers. They tell the story behind the story with the human element of emotion and character. Using Al Vermeil’s system isn’t revolutionary, but staying committed to the process is a vital resource for developing and protecting athletes.
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