Optimizing Athlete Readiness in American Football

Discover strategies from NFL expert to optimize athlete readiness, focusing on training load, recovery, and metrics for peak performance.
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I had the pleasure of working in the NFL, working for the Buffalo Bills for four seasons and witnessing these athletes up close firsthand. It is such a fascinating challenge from a sports science perspective because, yes, you have such a physically demanding sport. And, of course, the game is the pinnacle of that. But there's one game a week, which means you have six other days generally in that week to prepare and plan, getting the balance right between training, load, and recovery. 

Given the demands of the sport and the contact that's involved, we need to recover and recuperate from that contact, but that is also a period of time where we need to give another stimulus in the gym and on the field. Managing the athletes is a real big challenge, especially when you consider the roster size tends to be 50, 60, 70, 90, and even in college settings, 120 athletes. A real focus in this sport is recovery and readiness and trying to get that balance between training exposure and stimuli, balanced well with enough recovery as well. The measures that may matter most in American football are those that can help us with this management during the training week so I'm thinking about measures that help us quantify readiness to train.

How To Test Readiness - Countermovement Jump

One of the most commonly used assessments for readiness is a Countermovement Jump (or CMJ), generally with hands on hips because we just want to focus on the capacity of the lower limbs. Now, the counter-movement jump is popular because it's a simple test. There's not much familiarization involved. It's quite a natural triple-extension movement, particularly for athletes. It can also be a really time-efficient way to assess the lower limb capacity. So with Output Sports, enable the assessment of countermovement jump using this simple device, which you strap to the foot easily. This device can measure and track counter-movement jump output. 

We'll be looking at the jump height over time. We're probably going to look to assess this on a weekly basis, maybe two days, if not three days, after the game. Generally, the day after a game, the athletes, of course, are significantly in need of recovery - they are sore, they are fatigued and so their counter-movement jumps are going to be pretty bad. That may not be the most useful time for us to quantify just how they're recovering from a game, as it is almost too close to the game. But often, two or three days after a game is a good assessment of that recovery time course. How are the athletes returning to their baseline norms, and therefore, how may we want to adjust our training load either in the weight room or on the field to help them recover and continue to train in preparation for the next game.  

Velocity-Based Training

Given football is such a physically demanding sport, we must maintain, at minimum, the strength and power capacities across the course of the season with our athletes. Now, of course, a 1RM test (1 rep max) in-season is probably not feasible and probably not necessary given the other options that we have available to us, one of which is Velocity-Based Training). 

VBT is a way to really get tons of useful information during an athlete's training session without the need for additional testing. Velocity-based training quantifies lifting output by measuring the speed of the bar. This information allows us to understand the intensity at which the athlete is training because as the load increases, the concentric velocity of that movement decreases in an almost linear fashion. Traditional percentage-based training and prescription rely on the athlete's one rep maximum. This capacity, their maximum capacity, actually fluctuates day to day. Velocity-based training allows us not only to quantify this capacity but then also adjust our training based on these day-to-day fluctuations. This approach to training is known as autoregulation. 

One of the easiest ways to integrate VBT into your training session is to use warm-up sets. A key lift that is done regularly in your program by the athletes. If you have them do that lift at a fixed load as part of their warm-up set, then you can assess the real-time velocity compared to their historic data and make decisions there and then about whether you need to up-regulate or down-regulate their training for that day. Output Sports’ interface, for instance, provides all of this information to you in real-time, making it really simple to individualize training, not just to each athlete, but to where the athlete is at on that specific day by using this velocity tracking during a warm-up set of a fixed exercise and a fixed load.

How To Test Athlete Wellness 

So far we've focused on objective measures of readiness for our football players. We talked about tracking countermovement jumps in a readiness test perhaps once a week. We talked about tracking the velocity of a fixed exercise as part of a velocity-based training approach in the weight room. Another measure, in my opinion, that matters is to try and quantify readiness from a subjective approach. And for me, that involves using a wellness questionnaire

Now, people can get quite opinionated about wellness. They seem to love it or hate it. I'm definitely in the ‘Love It’ camp, and I'll tell you why. Physiology, like performance, is complex, and yes, although these measures that we talked about—jump height, velocity-based training—can give us one piece of the puzzle, there is a lot going on in the body in terms of how it's recovering, how it's responding to training. And for me, a wellness questionnaire, it's simple. It should be a time-efficient approach that also gives the athlete a voice. It gives them an opportunity to tell you how they're feeling, so our program is not just guided purely by objective numbers. It also gives them that communication pathway. Particularly things like stress, soreness, pain or symptoms of illness that may get told to a member of staff or should then be reported to the medical room. But as we talked about, particularly in American football with these large rosters, players can slip through the gaps. And so for me, a wellness questionnaire is a measure that matters in this sport. We don't want to be just adding more burden onto our athletes and asking them to do more things. We need to make the process as streamlined as possible, as simple as possible. Technology that doesn't work or is too long or too clunky or they don't feel like it's making a difference can alter their approach to it, and their compliance. A system like Output where it's simple, and the athlete can go in each morning and just fill it in within seconds, and then all that information is also collated together with the other data, is the ideal system. 

Measures that matter in American football are those that help you to manage training load and recovery by quantifying recovery, readiness, and wellness. Especially given the size of the squad, the roster is up to 120 athletes in the college setting. This information is key for us to understand how they are all responding to their training program. We are triangulating a mixture of objective and subjective measures through our countermovement jump height, through our velocity-based training in the weight room, and then through our measures of self-reported wellness, fatigue, sleep, and mood. And then a system like Output's hub brings that information together for us to be able to analyze it, to disseminate it, to interpret it. We can also use dashboards that give us the information that we need to act quickly and simply, often using some sort of alert or traffic light system that helps guide us and other key stakeholders in our decision-making around the programming and the interventions for both training and recovery in the coming week.

About The Author: Jo Clubb

Jo Clubb is an international Sports Science Consultant with extensive experience in elite professional team sports. With a Bachelor's in Sport and Exercise Science from Loughborough University and a Master's in High Performance Sport from Australian Catholic University, as well as over a decade in applied sports science, Jo has worked with top teams including the Buffalo Bills (NFL), Buffalo Sabres (NHL), and Premier League clubs Chelsea FC and Brighton and Hove Albion FC. Her expertise includes athlete management systems, training load monitoring, and physical profiling, collaborating with sports medicine professionals, strength and conditioning coaches, sports psychology, and sports nutrition practitioners. Jo is now the founder of Global Performance Insights, offering bespoke sports science consultancy services to help athletes and teams achieve peak performance through evidence-based methods and innovative sports science.

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