Whether the moniker is mat drill, winter workouts, or coach’s circuits, they’re essentially the same, just a horse of a slightly different color. Mat drills have been a spring football right of passage in a high percentage of college programs since the mid-eighties and the validity and subsequent use of mat drills will be a debate till the end of time. Whether you are an opponent or proponent of mat drills, there is one thing that I am confident in: they are not going away!
College football coaches will argue with their performance staffs on how vital the drills are to building a program. College strength coaches will argue with each other on the validity and ramifications of mat drills with respect to the development of their athletes. Proponents of mat drills will steadfastly dig their heels into the ground on the basis that these drills are necessary to develop mental toughness, even though there is no quantitative proof of this—any statement otherwise is purely anecdotal.
Till the end of days, you will never convince either side to change their colors. In thirty years of mat drill use, no one has offered a solution that would be agreeable to both sides of the argument—or, more importantly, an alternative solution that would better benefit the athletes as well as the team.
What is Mental Toughness?
I am a firm believer that mental toughness is a conscious choice. Former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink has said as much, stating: “If you want to be tougher mentally, it’s simple: be tougher!” Sports scientist Dr. Erik Korem goes a step further, claiming: “Mental toughness is task specific.”I am a firm believer that mental toughness is a conscious choice, says @TheKurtHester. Click To Tweet
Toughness, then, is highly situational. Different situations will develop different degrees of mental toughness; consequently, toughness in one situation does not result in toughness in another. In his book The Governing Dynamics of Coaching, James Smith quotes a scene from the movie Man on Fire: “There is no such thing as tough. There is trained, and untrained. Now which are you?” The more an athlete is physically and mentally prepared for a situation, the more that athlete will exhibit a higher grade of toughness in that domain. An athlete that is ill-prepared for a particular situation will exhibit a heightened stress response from that lack of preparation. If mental toughness is a key objective for a program, then they should be prepared for the task at hand to the highest degree.
From a logical point of view, the key to developing a tough team would be to set a system in place where the athlete is trained to a standard that matches how they will compete. This raises some questions: if we are not going to compete against another program in mat drills on Saturdays, why do they need to be so tough? And why should we even waste a month or more of valuable time executing them?
Now here is where I am going to lose my newfound fans that are opponents of mat drills: all teams, young and old, will not achieve a championship season if they are not held to the highest of standards in training, practice, academics, and social life. Mat drills are a modality that facilitates a high standard of training in a team setting with the entire football staff. Alone, the entirety of this setting cannot be replicated by the performance staff. Standards are set and upheld in every facet of the workout, and key factors are graded. Such factors include:
- Body language
- Conscious intent performing the drill
- Competitive spirit
The discipline of rising to the standard over and over in each drill is an expression of mental toughness. Everything that is graded can be taught to and accomplished by each athlete, if communicated in the right manner. Each athlete will have an opportunity to make the choice to compete—especially if they understand that competing at the highest level will directly benefit them.
The Purpose is the Bond
I feel that mat drills serve an important purpose in building team culture. Studies have shown that males will bond to a higher degree when they go through a mentally and physically taxing situation. The more stress they endure together, the tighter their bond. This is why I lean towards being a proponent of mat drills. Why do so many companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to send their employees to ropes courses?
Because it helps individual employees become a tribe.The more stress the athletes endure together, the tighter their bond, says @TheKurtHester. Click To Tweet
Here is where most performance professionals will disagree with their football coach brethren: these drills in no way enhance the physical capabilities of the football athlete. Most drills selected are basic, poorly performed change of direction drills that in no way develop the athlete at their respective position. There is zero technical information that is given to the athlete or processed by the athlete, just a lot of yelling to move faster.
These drills might include:
- 20-yard pro-agility shuttle
- Basic bag drills
- Zig-zag drill
That is why buy-in from the athletes is not very high. Most athletes want to compete and they want to outwork other athletes and other programs, but they want to do it while getting better at their position.
The Importance of Drill Selection
We only have 15 spring practice days a year and we only have 25 fall camp practices. The NCAA is currently talking about dropping it to 20 fall camp days. Out of 365 days, we have only 40 days to hone the football skills of our athletes as a full staff.
Most programs will initiate between eight and fifteen mat drill sessions per off-season in February/March leading into spring football practice. Time is an expensive commodity when it comes to developing a collegiate football team. With the short amount of time a staff has to develop a team, it stands to reason we should think through every opportunity. Why then, in the collective field of football and performance coaches, are we prescribing basic drills that do not carry over to the game when we could be getting a jumpstart on technical football training before spring football starts?Time is an expensive commodity when it comes to developing a collegiate football team, says @TheKurtHester. Click To Tweet
Performing eight to twelve days of individual drills before spring ball begins will enable the football staff to decrease the amount of individual drill time and expand more team drills. It will also cut down on long practices—thus keeping the players fresh—and it will decrease the chances of injury because the athlete would not be in a continual state of fatigue. The previous statement will not make football coaches happy because if you have 120 minutes to practice then we better damn well use all of them. Out of the 120 minutes of practice, you could at least alleviate 20-30 minutes of useless filler drills that only fatigue the athlete and increase their load. If you make practices faster and sharper with fewer mistakes and your athletes come out of it healthier…I think you won the day!
What constitutes a useful tool in the development of an athlete at each position? The archaic rules instituted by the NCAA will hamper us somewhat because of the lack of hand-held shields and the use of a football. This is where the art of programming, a deviant mind, and collaboration with the position coach comes in.
You don’t need a shield or pads to teach offensive lineman stance, stab steps, redirection, hand placement technique, or striking skills. You can utilize rugby balls, tennis balls, bricks, or HECOstix to perform ball security, catching, and throwing drills. For defensive tackling drills, incorporating the USA Football tackling system and adding tackling drills with a rolling doughnut will get the basics laid down before spring ball starts. Most position drills will be dictated by the system that the individual position coaches instill in spring and fall practices—a staff is only limited by their imagination and technical ability (or lack thereof)!
Setting Standards (or “The Way”)
I believe mat drills have a place in college football because they help build a tribe and cement standards. However, the drills do not do the work. Most football coaches believe that the culture of the team is set during mat drills and carries over through the fall season, but this is not the case. Coaches will say things like “We won X amount of games because of mat drills” or “We won conference because of mat drills.” Unless these coaches have exceptional athletes, they are probably going to be looking for jobs in January because mat drills don’t win football games, athletes do.
The standard is set the first day the athletes return from break in January, during off-season winter training. This standard allows for more technical training to be accomplished during mat drills, as well as solidifying the culture. The standard is then kept up through off-season summer training, allowing the performance staff to advance training schemes to ready the athletes for fall camp. This allows the football staff to progress the team faster in preparation for the first game. This process is repeated each week in preparation for each opponent. The standard is the standard, and is never lowered throughout the year. Some call it “The Process,” some call it “The Way.” It does not mater what it is called, as long as it is enforced year-round.The standard is the standard, and is never lowered throughout the year, says @TheKurtHester. Click To Tweet
The standard starts with how they enter the field, with strong body language and positive verbiage. If a player walks onto the field or doesn’t have a smile on their face, they are sent off to return appropriately. This progresses to the focus and attention to detail in the warmup. If one athlete is not focused, then the warmup starts over. Things fall apart when a coach gets lazy in paying attention to the details and the standard. The standard is the standard! If a coach expects an athlete to be mentally tough, then the coach should be mentally tough in upholding those standards. Every drill should have a communicated standard and it should be upheld. For example, the following is a list of things a coach should look for during a drill:
The drill: OL medicine ball stab step
- Technical proficiency
- Speed of movement
- Competitive spirit
- Positive leadership talk
- Backstage coaching (older athletes coaching younger athletes off drill)
Every drill should be filmed and graded during each workout. Athletes could be put into different colored jerseys depending on how well they performed in that particular workout.
My biggest pet peeve with coaches running their drills is when an athlete does everything right but the drill itself and the coach doesn’t reprimand the athlete for it. The athlete moved fast, competed, and finished strong…but half-assed the drill. This translates into this same player giving an unbelievable effort in a game, but going the wrong direction during the play. Mental toughness is being disciplined in focus and action, repetitively, within a task.Mental toughness is being disciplined in focus and action, repetitively, within a task, says @TheKurtHester. Click To Tweet
The Art of Programming
It is difficult to convince the football staff that two mat drill sessions per week with position-specific drills would situate a team to take full advantage of their fifteen allotted spring practices. It is an easier sell to the staff if your programming during your winter training block can follow the same lines as the mat drill training block.
It is possible to correctly program around accomplishing two mat drill sessions per week without significantly decreasing the absolute strength and power outputs of your athletes. You will see decreases in speed and that will be tough to mitigate, but it can be done without skipping a step for the most part. Test your athletes in the vertical jump and a flying 10 every Monday before their lift throughout the mat drill training block. You will get a better feel for the training adaptations of your athletes and will be able to adjust your programming to keep the athletes progressing.
Technical skill before competitive will. What I mean by this is that technical skill should be taught when the athletes are fresh. An athlete will not perform the basics with any technical ability while fatigued. Once the athlete has mastered the basics, then initiate fatigue and stress. Technical drills should be performed in the early periods and competition/high intensity drills in the later periods.An athlete will not perform the basics with any technical ability while fatigued, says @TheKurtHester. Click To Tweet
There are many ways to skin the mat drill exercise. The more position-specific, the better the drill. I suggest working with each position coach on selecting drills that they would program into a practice schedule, and then writing a standard for each drill. Again, the standard at which the drill is performed is an aspect of mental toughness. To satisfy football coaches that want high intensity, effort, and strain, program change of direction drills or agility drills halfway through the workout and ramp up the intensity. There are several ways to format the training session, and the length of the session could be between 60-75 minutes to satisfy all parties.
By programming drills that directly affect the abilities of athletes in their respective positions, there is far greater buy-in from the athlete. With this increase in motivation, I have seen greater effort from the athletes, as they feel their intensity and focus is being rewarded.
The above mat drill scenario is not perfect and can be programmed to a higher level, but it is a start. Mat drills should involve micro-doses of speed work at the beginning of the session, then progress through a few agility drills before moving into position-specific drills and ending with either a position or team competition. Your athletes would therefore not lose any gains in absolute strength, power, or (more importantly) speed during the mat drill training block. You would then have something proponents and opponents would be happy with.
As a field we can always do better. Deconstructing and reconstructing mat drills is just one instance, though it is one that would loom large for a program. The key is to educate the football staff, and if they refuse to listen, do everything in your power to mitigate the adverse physical effects of mat drill sessions. As coaches, we owe it to our athletes and to the field to be better, do better, and progress from what has always been done.
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