If you are big football fan, you likely enjoy following the NFL combine. Have you ever watched and wondered how you would do under the pressure of combine testing? Under Armour and IMG provided me that opportunity, sending me through their Combine 360 Assessment testing at the IMG Performance Institute in Bradenton, Florida. What follows is an account of my experience, one that left me in greater awe of what it takes for elite athletes to remain that way. It was hard, inspiring, and fortunately for me, an entirely vomit-free experience (unlike some others).
Fear and Loathing in Bradenton
On a Sunday, I arrived at the IMG Academy, a place where some of the best athletes in the world learn how to get even better. I flew in at the same time as two other writers who were also uncertain of what this was going to be like: Kevin Owens writes for Slam Magazine, Hugging Harold Reynolds and originally in his own blog, Waiting for GoDunk, which documents his often funny journey as a 6'10" basketball player making his way around the world. Andy Haley is Associate Content Director for Stack Magazine, a publication and website billing itself as "For the athletes by the athlete" whose focus is on providing quality information on improving athletic performance.
Kevin and Andy were fun people to go through this testing with, but they have actual athletic skills. Me, not so much. My athletic background involved playing various rec sports in school, and now continuously trying out the latest fitness trends in an attempt to not devolve into a sciatic-pained, slope-shouldered blogger.
When we arrived, we had little idea on what to expect other than that it was going to be "fun." I will tell you now: an athletic trainers' ideas of fun might be different than yours.
Combine Challenge Workout Is, Uh, Challenging
The next day, we woke up early and were told we were going to go through the Combine 360 assessment process.
Before that began, we witnessed a bunch of personal trainers attending the IMG Global Training Symposium go through their own Combine Challenge Workout led by Todd Durkin and Steve Hess. Durkin is head of the Under Armour Training Counsel, runs his training center, Fitness Quest, out of San Diego, and trains numerous NFL and MLB players, most notably Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson. Steve Hess is the strength and conditioning coach for the Denver Nuggets.
As evidenced by all the trainers queuing up outside the bathroom to hurl, it was a rather strenuous workout. It was enough to make me worry about just getting through the assessment, especially since the Combine Challenge Workout was, well, challenging to professionals who do this for their living.
The idea behind Combine 360 was to couple the latest in training techniques with a way to measure and improve performance. The IMG Academies is responsible for the former -- training top athletes in the latest performance techniques in an effort to take them from elite to the best. Under Armour is involved in the latter -- the Combine testing of athletes in different sports to create a way measure relative performance. And Combine 360 puts these training and measurement components together to create a way of improving performance of youth athletes, elite athletes, and regular people who don't train for a particular sport but who just want to be healthy.
To get a better sense of this, I put together a music remix describing the Combine 360 process. It shows trainers going through a part of the Combine Challenge Workout program. It's not just rep counting and weight pushing -- there's a huge focus on sports-specific movement and balance, stability and range of motion.
Hey, that video was my shot at making this entertaining. Just be thankful I don't do autotune.
My Future As a Basketball Player Is Likely Over
Usually, most fitness assessments look at your height and weight and maybe the results from a few fitness tests. The Combine 360 assessment looks at the entire person -- not just their strength but also their vision, character, communication skills, balance and various skills relevant to their sport.
We were told we were going to go through the Combine 360 Basketball assessment. Here's a video of me going through a lot of the assessment. I fast-forwarded it and added music to give the illusion that I have some actual athletic ability and speed.
Just going through the assessment made me sore for four days. I need to move more.
I scored fairly well on my nutritional knowledge, communication, character and vision. Not surprisingly, my "foundational athleticism" and "sports-specific movement" didn't test so high.
But a big part of that is training and priorities. As was discussed when we were going through my results, I haven't done a lot of these tests since I was in junior high. In my day-to-day life, having great straight-line speed or a high vertical jump isn't a big priority. If I trained to improve those skills, I could easily improve my Combine 360 score.
Working on the Difference Between 1st and 2nd Place
The most amazing thing about walking through the IMG Performance Institute is how many remarkable athletes train there, how hard they train, and how many staff members work with them to keep them at peak performance. Elite athletes can sacrifice and do all the right things but success is never guaranteed. When we attended some of the Combine 360 Global Symposium sessions, we learned about a number of the things that these athletes do to get an edge over the competition.
Vision training. Vision for sports performance isn't just 20/20 eyesight, but how well the eyes function. A person can move their eyes faster than they can twist their head. So improving visual skills like peripheral vision, depth perception, recognition and hand-eye coordination can be the difference between great and elite.
We underwent just a portion of the vision testing, but part of what they do is not just train the eyes to see faster but train the brain to process visual information more efficiently.
Bite adjustments. A number of athletes, like the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, use what is called Under Armour Performance Mouthwear with ArmourBite technology. Most use mouth guards, but this is custom-fitted mouth gear that is supposed to improve performance. I was skeptical but the studies they have suggest that when athletes clench their teeth together, it increases tension and the release of cortisol in the body.
In various sports, coaches preach relaxation of the mouth. Easier said than done, especially when, for instance, a football player is about to get popped. It's hard not to clench your teeth together when giving maximum exertion, and the theory behind the Armour Bite mouth gear is that by putting the lower jaw in the position for peak performance (slightly forward, it turns out) it reduces tension and increases airflow. Their studies have shown that an Under Armour mouthpiece improves strength, duration of exercise and reaction time. Who knew.
Trigger Point Performance Therapy. The last day we were in Florida, I meant to sleep in but couldn't because I was so blasted sore. I figured I should try to work out the kinks by attending the first class of the day -- something called "Trigger Point Performance Therapy" that started at 6:30 AM and was run by Cassidy Phillips.
The therapy uses different equipment to apply the right amount of pressure (also called self-massage) to different parts of the body. Apparently, it helps "release tension and stimulate blood flow." I can't say it was the most comfortable thing to do when your body is very sore, but after you finish it, you body feels lighter, more relaxed. I tried the therapy on my right leg and when I lifted it afterwards, it felt noticeably better than my left leg.
Performance beyond athleticism. The scope of the Combine 360 Global Training Symposium goes far beyond what I can write about here -- nutrition, communication, mental training, balance ... it's not just plain athleticism. Combine 360 preaches that whether you are training for a sport or training is your sport, to improve athletically, you have to improve the entire self. After my experiences, it's hard to argue that point.
* Check out Kevin's Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 detailed account at Slam Magazine