With football back in action, we’re returning to watching our favorite teams play every week. While we enjoy watching the final product on game day, I don’t think there is enough appreciation for the preparation leading up to competition. Football is a very difficult game to prepare for and players and coaches have a lot of interacting parts and phases of the game to consider. With that being said, follow along every 2-weeks for the next couple months as I analyze common preparation methods and offer suggestions on how we as a movement community can improve upon the status quo. It’s also important to keep in mind these suggestions transcend age. After playing collegiately and professionally, coaching collegiately, and now coaching and consulting for a wide range of age groups, I’ve noticed a lot of the same issues exist at every level. I aim to provide broad solutions for coaches to take and apply more specifically to their particular situation.
Let’s get this series kicked off by addressing the warm-up.
One could argue that the warm-up is the most under-utilized period of time in pre-game/practice preparation. This time is typically spent doing monotonous static stretching and general dynamic movements without any specific focus or intent from players or coaches. It ends up with players going through the motions, unengaged, and not getting much out of it. Additionally, most head coaches hate these 10 minutes and usually rush to finish it without considering its potential value.
During an NFL season, teams will likely warm-up ~80-100 times before practices and games. With those periods lasting roughly 10 minutes, that equates to 800-1000-minutes of time spent warming up (roughly 13-17 hours). That’s a lot of precious time being wasted on activities that don’t sharpen skill or help reduce the likelihood of injury.
With this in mind, I’m challenging coaches to revisit their warm-up routine and consider what it could be missing. First, we have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of these ten minutes? Is it solely to increase core body temperature, slowly go through larger ROMs, and heighten the nervous system? If that is all that is trying to be achieved, I believe coaches are leaving a lot to be desired.
The warm-up period should not only physically prepare athletes for the practice or game, but perceptually, emotionally, and psychologically prepare them as well. We as coaches need to begin using this time more wisely by paying respect to the relationship between the athlete AND the environment they compete in. Instead of implementing a poorly designed warm-up, imagine if each position group had activities designed with the intent to expand each athlete’s movement toolbox, and couple said movement to specific perceptual information. This time could double as a mini-individual period that the position coach and players collectively build and have ownership and autonomy over. I have found that including athletes in the activity design process significantly increases buy-in and engagement.
For example, at the NFL level, many players conduct their own warm-up prior to participating in the team warm-up. I’d be willing to bet most players wouldn’t do that if the team warm-up actually included creative and authentic activities that were designed to truly prepare them for competition.
Below is a sample of a warm-up period that a group of offensive players and defensive players put together to start our practice.
Not only does this type of warm-up satisfy the objectives of a traditional warm-up, (increase body temperature, slowly increase movement complexity/speed, prepare tissue to absorb force, etc), it also exposes athletes to specific types of information they will interact with during competition. They’re exploring and expanding potential movement solutions all while utilizing activities that look, act, and feel like football. I have no doubt these athletes will be far more prepared to compete following this modified warm-up compared to athletes who participate in a traditional style warm-up.
As a coach, where could you begin to make changes?
In my opinion, I believe the two best places to start are exploration and calibration. The exploration portion would be dedicated to increasing movement abundance and exploration of potential movement solutions. Again, this should be position-specific. Some groups might be doing ground-based exploration movements, while others may be doing dynamic exploration movements, and the QBs are exploring different arm slots and arm actions.
Here is an example of how QB’s can add exploration into their warm-up throws.
Next, the calibration portion would be dedicated to athletes scaling (calibrating) their movements to specifying information. As you can see in the video above, athletes are organizing their movement to types of specifying information they might encounter in the game. Phatak et al (2020) suggests that “warm-up routines used before competition or during training may benefit from being closely related to the specific sensorimotor tasks that athletes are required to perform in their respective sports and positions. The requirement of recalibration seems to be particularly relevant to highly trained athletes and the necessity of prolonged, task-specific warm-ups for highly trained athletes before competition.”
If you go to play a round of golf, why do you hit the driving range and practice green before playing? I’d argue you do so to calibrate your stroke around various interacting constraints. It’s no different for football, as each position requires movements that need to be calibrated daily.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this doesn’t only apply to elite athletes as the effect may be even greater in non-elite or novice athletes. According to the research, novice athletes show greater variability in their movements compared to athletes with a higher level of qualification (Button, Macleod, Sanders, & Coleman, 2003). This calibration period may help novice players actively explore different motor patterns to achieve greater success (Handford, Davids, Bennett, & Button, 1997; Shmuelof, Krakauer, & Mazzoni, 2012).
While teams prepare for games each week, the warm-up period may not receive much thought. However, if some slight changes were made, it could be a period that contributes greatly to advancing skill adaptation and improving performance during competition.
- Button, C., Macleod, M., Sanders, R., & Coleman, S. (2003). Examining movement variability in the basketball free-throw action at different skill levels. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 74(3), 257-269.
- Handford, C., Davids, K., Bennett, S., & Button, C. (1997). Skill acquisition in sport: Some applications of an evolving practice ecology. Journal of sports sciences, 15(6), 621-640.
- Phatak, A., Mujumdar, U., Rein, R., Wunderlich, F., Garnica, M., & Memmert, D. (2020). Better with each throw—a study on calibration and warm-up decrement of real-time consecutive basketball free throws in elite NBA athletes. German Journal of Exercise and Sport Research, 1-7.
- Shmuelof, L., Krakauer, J. W., & Mazzoni, P. (2012). How is a motor skill learned? Change and invariance at the levels of task success and trajectory control. Journal of neurophysiology, 108(2), 578-594.