By Matt McManus
Every year, thousands of high school and college football players travel across the country, don their favorite under armour gear, and take part in what some have dubbed the “Underwear Olympics.” Scouting combines, once conducted in private for a handful of scouts at the professional level, are now broadcasted live, complete with commentary and analysis. They’ve also precipitated down to the high school level, where teens travel for a few weekends in the spring in the hopes of turning the heads of college coaches with test results.
Because so much is at stake at the higher level combines, these tests have been studied, experimented with, and picked apart to find the one best, most efficient way to do each one. In each, the 40, pro agility, L drill, broad jump, and vertical, there are certain intricacies you must know in order to attain your best result. These tests are about efficiency. In each there is a specific, proven, undisputed best way to cover the given distance in the fastest possible time. Improving your ability to play football should always be priority number one, but if you take part in one of these combines it is imperative that you know some of the “tricks of the trade” to run these tests most efficiently. Knowing these tricks can make or break your combine.
Pro Agility- The Crossover Step
This is perhaps the most important trick there is. If you watch any college combine or pro day 99% of the athletes there will run their first five yards with a crossover step. With the crossover step, instead of turning and sprinting the first five yards of the test, the athlete stays square to the coach and crosses their trail leg over. Since the turns are the biggest time sappers in this test, the crossover step helps by eliminating half of a turn at the start and another at the first line, saving precious hundredths or tenths of seconds. Below is a video of former Notre Dame cornerback Mike Richardson performing a blazing 3.97 pro agility with the crossover step in preparation for the 2007 combine.
This step can be unnatural at first, but given some practice should yield a faster time.
40 Yard Dash- The Start
There are too many vital components to a perfect start to talk about here, so I’ll just touch on a couple of the simple ones.
Tucking the hand- Most of the time, whether the 40 is timed manually or electronically, it is started by hand. This means the timer is going off your first movement. It is imperative to make sure the first movement you make is one that actually propels your body forward. Your goal should be to give as little indication as possible to the timer that you’re about to take off, thus shaving precious hundredths of a second via their reaction time. Starting with your off hand high in the air is essentially like waving a flag in the air and saying “Hey. I’m about to go. Are you ready?” It gives something more for the timer to watch and the opportunity to start the clock before you’ve actually even gone anywhere.
Staying low- If you watch a great 100m sprinter they will frequently not bring their head up and run fully erect until they are 30-40m down the track. While your top end speed is not as high as Usain Bolt’s, and thus will not take as long to reach, staying low for this long is not necessary. Maintaining your forward lean and keeping your eyes down is essential for the first 10-20 yards of your 40, however. This will optimize your acceleration mechanics and help you reach your top speed faster.
Vertical Jump- Stretch the Hip Flexors
This test is about strength and power, plain and simple. Improve relative strength and your ability to produce force quickly and you’ll be able to propel your bodyweight higher. There is one trick we can use, however, and it comes down to the principle of reciprocal inhibition. During any movement, certain muscles are working in one of three ways:
Agonists- The muscles that are contracting to do the work
Antagonists- Muscles that work opposite the agonists and oppose the movement
Stabilizers- Muscles that act to stabilize joints so force can be applied more efficiently
Muscles act as antagonists as a defense mechanism. It helps ensure that muscles aren’t stretched too far or contracted too quickly during a movement, which helps prevent against injury. If we can “turn off” these antagonist muscles, or at least dampen their response, however, it allows the agonists to work uninhibited. Static stretching, when done immediately prior to an explosive movement such as sprinting or jumping, has been shown to lessen the power output of these muscles. During jumping the prime movers are the quadriceps and glutes. The calves also contribute minimally and the hip flexors are the antagonists. By static stretching the hip flexor on each leg for ten seconds prior to testing the jumps, you can essentially put these muscles to sleep, allowing your powerful hip extensors to work without opposition. We aren’t talking about a magic increase of three or four inches here. An inch or an inch and a half is the most you’ll get, but in a combine environment where every bit matters, this can make a big difference.
These are just some of the biggest nuances to these tests you must know to turn heads at your combine. In order to do well you’ll need to practice. A lot. Don’t expect to walk in on the day of your combine and try a crossover step for the first time. And remember, while a combine performance can certainly make or break a player’s draft stock at the NFL level, college coaches will always lean on film more than test results when evaluating a high school player, so improving as a football player should always be your first priority.