By Carl Valle
The biggest trend now is athlete testing, also called combine testing, which is big business and will continue growing. To stay competitive, facilities are adding more tests and more testing equipment. This article covers the essential changes you can make to local and regional performance testing and makes recommendations that are current and scientific. Years ago, I attempted to help coaches who were using Freelap timing to run a pro-style testing day—boy has technology changed since then.
In this article, I cover all you need to know to provide an internal school combine, offer a testing service to teams, or run a local combine for athletes of various abilities and sports. If you want to test a few athletes or run a combine with hundreds of athletes, this article is for you.
The Past, Present, and Future of Combines
The NFL combines are an athletic circus (or a consolidated Olympics) for football—a demonstration of athletic ability that is both entertaining and big business. For decades, the NFL has formally tested athletes’ ability to run, jump, and perform drills. Some research has pointed out interesting relationships with draft position and combine performance, but most of the attention is on how much or how little the field tests matter to success in the game. Many current “movement coaches” have shown the combine’s limits in projecting success, which we can attribute mostly to problems with prediction and the difficulty of only using film with players. So many things matter beyond a 40-yard dash, or any test for that matter.
The NFL Combine has saturated the market for preparation, which has led facilities to focus on ways to lure more agents to use their services over their competition. Nearly every major city has a combine preparation service for athletes. It seems there are more combine trainers than athletes getting ready for testing at Indianapolis or the Pro Day at collegiate venues.
Major changes in the NFL Combine over the last few years have to do with how the event is covered and monetized, not the actual tests. The vendor show is an example, where companies showcase their technology or services to teams and other influencers. Also, the media now makes the spectacle even more exciting by adding features like the Dartfish simulcast and more interviews with the coaches involved.Video and sensor #technology will slowly help teams discover why an athlete performs a specific way, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The future is going to creep forward slowly as the legacy of test data—like the runs by Bo Jackson and Usain Bolt—needs to remain for the fans and the scouts. While the hand start and electronic finish are far from perfect, they are fairly repeatable. And the splits between are helpful, especially the last ten yards. I predict that video and sensor technology will slowly help teams discover why an athlete performs a specific way. Keep in mind that athletes are tested in ways other than physical tests, including medical evaluations and blood analysis.
In about ten years, I expect athlete data will be more granular and more useful. But due to the resistance to train, the NFL Combine will always be behind the national training centers of Europe and Australia.
Optional Tests to Make Available
The NFL Combine is a sprint, jump, throw, and lift exhibition. And while the change of direction tests and linear speed tests are crude, they’re not embarrassing or foolish. Every year, several coaches point out the faults of global capacity tests like sprinting in a straight line or vertical jumping from a countermovement. The real issue is how to interpret the test results better—not what the tests fail to do.
Video 1. Personal testing or mini-combines are great ways to assess athletes who are looking to get started with a private coach. Assessing athletes is a big business now, and a testing battery can deliver a better training service over guesswork.
An NFL lineman bench pressing 45 times is impressive while showing up and doing 13 reps shows something else. The tests are more like a screen, a process that may catch a few problems or a few hidden talents. If a team can’t transform a large athlete (who can catch) to run routes and run fast, what does that say about coaching in general? Combines are not crystal ball events. They are a nice summary of athletic talent. How a team uses the talent potential is another story.
In American football, the trend is to measure distance in meters as well as yards. The best way to migrate US coaches and athletes in sports outside of football is to provide measures in meters and yards at the same time for comparison.
Vertical jumps. We can layer measurements, so an athlete has both instrumentation quality data and a field testing solution; for example combining a force plate and a Vertec device.
Standing broad jumps. Measurements for distance are easy, but adding limb length and other simple data points can help make the test fair; 5’7″ running backs and lanky pass rushers are hardly comparable.
Strength tests. We can use isometric testing or add a VBT device to prepare for power methods down the road.
Position and change of direction. Video record the tests to see how an athlete performs the test rather than just getting a number.
Conditioning. We rarely see testing options during combines, as most athletes love sprinting but few like enduring the pains of running back and forth continuously. When running a commercial combine, I recommend having the test available at the end. If you’re testing your team internally, consider testing on another day or give the athletes a break from the anaerobic tests. Testing everything on one day is tough, though you can do it.
Consider Adding These New Tests
There are a few more tests I recommend adding for lower body strength and power that are simple to perform and easy to administer. While I’m a fan of upper body power and preparation for all athletes, the 225 for reps is ok—not great—for the NFL. And for soccer, it’s just not useful. The NBA uses 185, but when Kevin Durant failed to lift one rep, did it hurt his career?
I see way too little sport science in professional combines, and it must drive the scientists from other countries bananas. Instead of bashing the combine and giving up, the lower level and smaller regional combines can offer the same tests plus additional ones for those who want the opportunity to look more valuable.Lower level & smaller regional #combines can add value by offering anaerobic tests to provide more information, says @spikesonly. #technology Click To Tweet
Take the athlete who jumped out of the pool from San Diego years ago—hardly a field test. But displays and feats of athleticism do wake up scouts. When you’re not worrying about drafts and just want to help with recruiting and awareness, a few additional tests can help, especially when they’re optional and placed at the end of the testing battery.
The three tests I would immediately add to any anaerobic evaluation are:
- A medicine ball throw for peak velocity and upper body power
- An isometric squat or pulling assessment
- A combined maximal force and jump test for lower body strength, which provides perfect context to the process. The Dynamic Strength Index (DSI) is gold, and I wonder if a reactive measure combined with a max force metric will become standardized.
Adding these three tests gives us the information behind the classical tests. The original tests that people feel comfortable with are more useful when we add sensors and create metrics. For example, the Change of Direction Deficit doesn’t require extra equipment—just the knowledge of how to extract more information from a conventional test.
Jazz Up the Tried and True
I’ve explained how to take the original tests and make them better scientifically, but remember your goal is to get the best out of the athletes, not just measure their abilities. If you run a set of tests like a morgue, don’t expect great performances. You don’t need to be a cheerleader or motivational speaker to get athletes to test—the very nature of assessment will raise their effort when tests have meaning. My point is that you need to get the environment primed just a little; adding something as subtle as a speaker for announcing athletes or offering RFID readers brings a level of professionalism and energy to the event.
Another key feature is a leaderboard to provide feedback. When athletes are listed and ranked on the leader board, a simple speed assessment turns into all-out war among them. Even the athlete on the bottom of the list will raise their game, as competition drives the entire roster when done well.
Leaderboards need to have context, so base groups on age, sport, position, or anything that allows a fair comparison. It doesn’t make sense to toss a 14-year-old tennis player with a college football group on a sprint test or to mix linemen with volleyball athletes for jumps. And it’s fine to have multiple leaderboards to raises the ceiling. Having mixed athletes at a local combine drives performance outside of conventional boundaries.Having athletes from different sports at local #combines drives #performance outside of conventional boundaries, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I’ve seen combines range from spectator events with coaching and parents to private testing venues with only the assessed athletes attending. Understand the difference. An athlete will perform better knowing that the next level of competition is watching, and sometimes parents add a vibe to a stable environment. Remember, athletes will rise—or fall—with their competition. Attracting the best athletes to your combine will improve the testing scores.
Although you don’t need a paid DJ or an announcer, keep in mind these events have become more frequent and just having an electronic timer is no longer a novelty. Tony Holler has promoted the concept of record, rank, and publish for years, and that practice is the very nature of combine assessments.
What About Sports Medicine?
From an ethical standpoint, a modern combine should test the neck and above. Concussions are serious matters that still don’t get the attention they need. It doesn’t help to tweet research or talk about athlete wellbeing if you don’t support current standard screening and evaluation practices.
You can add or outsource concussion testing. And you can perform isometric neck testing in a way that will ensure athletes can pass a threshold without resorting to a maximal effort that leaves many parents spooked. No magic numbers exist for neck strength or brain health, but getting baselines and addressing fundamental abilities are key. The health space for athletes is going to grow, with other risks like SAD and mental wellbeing expected to be standard in a few years. We also need to put thought into movement screens and other services, as these appraisals are often subjective and prone to validity issues.Offer a separate day for sports medicine and then unite the reports to show cause and effect, says @spikesonly. #combines #sportsmedicine Click To Tweet
I recommend a separate day for sports medicine so the appropriate people can be there. You then can combine the report to see a cause and effect. Often athletes who are suffering from lingering injuries perform poorly, and they need to have explained to them that they need to start or finish rehab. Parents are often fed poor information from professionals who don’t have a full grasp of a situation.
Because training has such a strong influence on performance, the great benefit of combines is that hurt athletes will learn quickly they’re not ready to play if they are slow, weak, and limited. This is not to blame anyone other than an unprepared athlete who is no longer in pain or has achieved a calendar milestone.At a #combine, hurt athletes—who are slow, weak, and limited—will learn quickly they're not ready to play, says @spikesonly. #sportsmedicine Click To Tweet
It’s important to add language to ensure the medical appraisal is not a clearance to play. Strangely, parents often look for a second opinion to override a caring medical professional. Don’t let them bait you into giving an athlete a sense that they’re “good to go.” Instead, explain the data is for informational purposes and is not a medical diagnosis or clearance screen. Even the assessments need to be labeled as general information since they’re only the first steps to give athletes access to more eyes and support.
The intricacies of the medical side of combines and assessments are beyond the scope of this article and a topic I don’t plan to write about. It’s a tricky subject because the attitude of agents and athletes toward testing is to look for cause, not to draft or recruit the athletes. True, if a team sees something they don’t like, they’ll look to the next athlete—the process of allocating resources for talent is an investment. An athlete with a very bad MRI who skips a test may be flagged. Or an athlete performing wonders may reassure that what appears in their medical image doesn’t support a doomed prophecy.
Monetizing the Extras
Now comes the business side that few want to talk about but we must discuss. Even if you’re doing internal testing for your team, paying for the equipment requires someone to write a check. In the public sector, asking athletes to pay for their testing is something I don’t like at all. Bake sales or cookie drives, however, don’t hurt when trying to pay for the cost of testing equipment.
Service style approaches where high schools pay companies to evaluate their teams are growing, and for good reasons. They can be a great solution for schools that don’t have much money and alleviate the worry of learning to use equipment and handling the administrative reporting duties. Not all schools have deep pockets, and boosters sometimes struggle just to keep uniforms looking like they’re in the same decade. Coaches are often teachers, so expecting combines to be self-funding is unrealistic and unfair to those already sacrificing so much. If you want to get good data on your athletes, you need to find a way to fund it regardless of your environment.To get good #data on your athletes, find a way to fund assessments regardless of your environment, says @spikesonly. #combines #funding Click To Tweet
Private facilities offer several options, including club teams and fitness centers looking to leverage their floor space. I find it shocking how many large training facilities fail to leverage what they have so much of—real estate. The ability to host a combine indoors and prevent cancellation due to weather is priceless.
I recommend working with an indoor track venue and splitting the revenue, so you don’t have to deal with poor weather when running a combine for profit. And be forewarned, if you’re going to run a combine outdoors, have a backup plan for inclement weather. Even if you’re in an arid climate, you never know when rain will come. I’ve seen entire venues resemble a climate disaster film with no alternative plan because they were spoiled with sunny weather year round. And hosting a combine with rain dates is not enough, as sometimes lightning strikes twice.
I’ve worked with people running events for more than 200 athletes. The key to turning a profit is to charge a fair exchange based on the market and the quality of service you’re providing. Some coaches and private facilities bank on the idea that testing will lead to clients. That approach, though, is a mixed bag—the same parent who wants assessments on their child is likely chasing club teams or is all over the place with tournaments instead of training.
If you’re a private facility, it’s worth investing in running a small combine for the testing day because it pays for the equipment. It also pays for your interns, so they don’t have to work for free. I don’t think combines should be a money grab, but it’s perfectly fair to exchange testing for profit.#Combines should not be a money grab, but it's perfectly fair to exchange testing for #profit, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
As mentioned in previous posts, well-produced t-shirts help organize athletes and promote your company brand, school, or sports team. What I used to think was a good option is now essential since anyone with a jump station and timing system can run a combine. Upselling parents and offering videos, deeper reports, and even complementary training evaluations are common for private facilities.
For school and clubs, showing parents the data provides a good wake-up call. Parents often think their kids are fast because they’re in a small town where a talent drought makes average athletes look immortal. Objective data that shows raw athletic potential removes inflated perspectives from a biased eye.Make the #combine worth the time and effort invested by everyone, says @spikesonly. #profit Click To Tweet
To summarize, monetizing is simply deciding how much money is enough to provide a quality testing day or time period. I’ve seen single-athlete and mini-combines work when athletes are curious to see where they are and need a gauge of their performance. Testing will never be perfect, but you don’t need to be. You just need to make the value worth the time and effort invested by everyone. And whether you test for free or charge a premium, make sure the information is accurate and represents what the athlete can do. If you are charging for the event and an athlete slips or needs to be retested for other reasons, give them another opportunity when bad luck comes their way.
The Combine Game Has Evolved and You Should Too
Don’t be cheap or lazy. Adding new tests is the future because they give more information and tell a better story of what’s going on. When you test athletes—be it your team or guests who are paying for the service—do a good job and provide solid data. You’ll also need to educate the parents, coaches, and even the athletes about why times may look slow (i.e., accurate) or why jumps look mortal.
Combines and athlete testing are accelerating, meaning we see more and more facilities provide testing services that are closer to an Olympic training center than the current NFL testing standard. Your testing doesn’t need a big-budget set of equipment, it simply needs to be organized and honest about what the tests reveal. And while combines are great ways to raise awareness of general talent, don’t forget that video analysis can capture actual “field speed.” The combination of raw general ability and granularity of actual games forms a superb union of information.