What is the most important trait in a football player? Reasonable minds disagree. It depends on the position being played, the system being used, and several other factors. I'm going to write about one trait that applies across the board in all sports, and it is a trait that won't take away from other abilities. I'll discuss the advantages in youth sports, as well as the NFL. Yes, you read the title. I'm talking about endurance.
If you are more interested in the NFL level, skip ahead a few paragraphs.
Part One - Youth Sports
Folks who have kids getting into sports often ask me what their child should be doing to get prepared for a season in a particular sport, and my first answer is always, "Ask the coach". The reason is that many parents want to help their kids improve, but the way they go about it sometimes conflicts with the coach's desires.
- Depending on the age, coaches may want the kids focused on having a good time and not being worn down by well intentioned parents putting too much emphasis on a sport. For instance, whenever I'm around small children in a city league type environment, I tell parents to let the child focus on the sport during practice, and to leave the sport alone in the child's time away from the league.
- At older ages "parental" training can often ruin a good team training program. For example, if I am coaching a team where I use running to build an aspect of an athlete's abilities, I want that athlete running every other day, NOT daily. It's not uncommon to see a kid wearing down in practice, only for me to find that he or she is getting "extra" help at home that doesn't allow my athlete to recover and rebuild between running days.
After that, my second piece of advice is, "You can never go wrong with endurance training in the offseason." Whether the kid is a big offensive center or a wiry cornerback, or if she is a gymnast or a soccer player, and (believe it or not) whether a kid takes part in debate or chess, endurance is a big helper across the board.
That said, during the offseason of a sport consider endurance running. A good program includes building the ability to jog for distance over time 3 or 4 days a week, with a break in between each day. The benefits are numerous. Some of the best include:
- Cardiovascualar health (a better heart and better lungs, an increased ability for the body to use oxygen efficiently, an ability to better respond to other forms of excercise, creates a blood chemistry metabolism more responsive to fighting illness and feeding muscles during other excersices, lessens risk of heart disease and obesity, allows the athlete to be fresh while his opponents wear down, allows the athlete to "jump start" faster than his opponent).
- On the field (let's use football), the other team feels like they are in the fourth quarter, but your crew feels like they just took the field. Less gasping for air, more focus (increased oxygenated blood to the brain), and less need for your team to rotate. Lessened threat of a "no huddle" offense ripping up your defense.
- The ability to use oyxgen better in the athlete's metabolism makes football equipment less of a factor in impairing a player's ability to run faster and longer. His tackling (and other skills) don't decline as much the longer he stays on the field.
- Unlike some other traits, endurance can be built for ANY player, regardless or position, body type, or former training. ANY player in any sport can learn endurance. (Some people don't have the build to become big or strong, some people are just not fast [you can't coach speed], some people will just never become agile, and you can build knowledge but not intelligence).
- That richer oxygenated blood to the brain not only helps with focus and concentration (chess, debate anyone?), but also leads to less injuries because the athlete is focusing on plaing safe the way he/she has been taught (like "keep your head UP when tackling").
I'm a speed guy myself when building a defense (if the players are available). But if I was or wasn't (and some years I didn't have the speed to fit a system and had to resort to what fit my guys) I ALWAYS build endurance.
My training put most of the time on the basics (stance, tackling, etc). A little less time was placed on more advanced concepts (responsibilites in different plays). It depended on how bright the group was. But over half of our physical training was geared towards endurance no matter what. As a result, people thought we had the best second half team in the area. It wasn't that we got better as the game went on, it was that everyone started sucking air and our kids felt rested the entire game.
Working in the weight room needs to be a year around pursuit, because it won't improve a kid much in a few short weeks. Endurance can be built fairly quickly. In fact, I had just about every kid (even the "big uglies" on the lines) jogging for an hour without walking by the end of each season, and did it without killing anybody. The program was so effective I was asked to use it for the offense (I was a defensive coordinator), and was asked to use it for many of the school's other athletic teams. I became a distance track coach in large part because the training I used for the football team was noticed by the head track coach.
I got most of the program from a book a doctor recommended to me, and I highly advise anyone who wants to build a good program for themselves or for a team to check it out:
Part Two - Endurance in the NFL
Just how critical is endurance in the NFL? Consider the urgency of endurance for a team like Denver.
If we are thin at any position (like DT), it is critical that we hold down rotation rates for players by having players with the endurance to stay on the field longer. A weakness of the former "Run Contain" system was the need not only for big DTs, but several of them to rotate through. The system is a good one, but was hard on a team with few big d-tackles to hold the line without back-up DTs to rotate in.
Players, regardless of size and responsibility, can and do build endurance in the NFL. The best players come into camp during the summer having kept up that training. Other lesser players start the season a little slower and build up their play as the season goes on. Players known for a good work ethic (Rod Smith, John Lynch, Champ Bailey) are players who come into camp each year looking strong. One player known for keeping up in the offseason was Shannon Sharpe.
Let me share a couple of examples of the urgency of endurance over most other training regimens.
- US Special Operations forces place more emphasis on distance running and hiking than any other excercise. When I was a medic back in the late 1980s I was not in Special Forces, but I did serve in a medical support capacity for Special Forces during much of my time at Ft. Bragg and Camp MacKall. I provided much of the medical coverage for the Qualification Course and SERE, as well as some other phases of training. One of the first things I noticed was there were no Schwazenagers or Stalones, but instead a bunch of lean guys built like runners. Delta and British SAS qualifications place mental and physical endurance at the center of initial qualifications, requiring candidates to keep moving for superhuman distances with seemingly no end in sight.
- I don't have the textbook anymore, but there was a battle I used in one of my lectures each year for a history class I taught (I can't recall the minor battle as it was a small part of a larger lecture). The battle was a skirmish between two sides that took place on several boarded sailing ships. One side used large swords to hack their way through lighter armed naval infantry. But as the battle wore on through the day the tide turned, and the worn down troops with the heavier swords were overwhelmed by men with lighter swords who had not tired from slashing away with a two handed grip. Good fourth quarter victory huh?
Why do defenses wear down faster than an offense? Good question (heck, I asked it)!
The first reason is that offenses have the advantage of knowing what is coming and get to commit to a direction of movement first. In contrast, a defense not only doesn't know the snap count (so they have a slight disadvantage having to focus on the ball), but doesn't know in advance how the play is supposed to unfold. The defensive player is thus typicaly in a stance whilst physicaly tense for the entire count, and then has to commit to a direction of play often having to change direction as they see their responsibilities change as the play moves on.
Second, imagine being a heavy lineman and not knowing whether you will have to penetrate for a pass rush or having to tackle if the play turns into a run. Either way, you very well might be about to get pounded by an offensive line knocking you on your butt on a run play. The offensive line doesn't have the same guess work. They already know if they will be doing the hitting or the pass blocking.
The QB and receivers even know where the ball is supposed to go. The CBs have to keep with their guys and react (which takes more energy than running a route from memory like a receiver does).
Endurance is the equalizer for a defense. If you have depth you can rotate in guys, but not if the other team goes no huddle. Endurance allows replacement players to stay on the bench longer, and allows starters to recover and get back in the game more quickly.
Sometimes folks wonder about a player's ability if he isn't "big enough". Keep in mind that a more slender player probably has two traits going for him. One, slender guys are usually faster. Two, they usually last longer (endurance). As a drive wears on, it is the slender guys who start to dominate.
In a "bend don't break" philosophy used in some systems (like the en vogue "cover two"), the smaller CBs, LBs, and D-linemen capitalize on mistakes by the defense more and more as drives wear on. Turnovers and penalties plauge the offense because they have more plays in which to make a mistake. The lighter defense is less winded, and more quick to pounce on a fumble or jump in for an INT.
Irregardless of the philosophy, system, side of the ball, and player types a team uses, it is clear that endurance is a crucial part of being ready for game day. Beyond that, folks can differ on speed, strength, size, etc. A good strength and conditioning coach knows this, and makes sure his players know it too.
Any questions on this story or anything else about football? There are many experts here at MHR ready to chime in with answers. Simply visit the comments section below and chime in. No question is to simple, and no opinion ignorant (unless it is hateful).
I focus on systems, schemes, plays and player responsibilities (Xs and Os). Other folks have a knowledge of those areas too, but we also have members with vastly more knowledge than I about about issues like the draft, team history, cap issues, etc as well.
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