Game For A Change

Why would a member of the Tennessee Titans be tossing a football into a garbage can? It's part of a trend toward using carefully designed games to increase agility and improve conditioning.

By Guillermo Metz

Guillermo Metz is a former Associate Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 13.4, April 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1304/gamechange.htm

Two professional football players face a wall marked with a single line at a height of about three feet. On the floor, a trapezoid-shaped court is marked off that widens as it gets further from the wall. Standing about 25 feet from the wall, one of the athletes throws a tennis ball just above the line. The other races to catch it and, in one swift motion, fires it back at the wall. They keep at it until one of them fails to catch a rebound within one bounce or can't throw the ball above the line.

Sounds like fun, right? Well, it is. But it's also a highly functional training drill used by some of the NFL's finest players. That's right, NFL. It's an agility-oriented, fast-paced game Steve Watterson, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tennessee Titans, calls Wall Ball, where 300-plus-pound linemen and wily receivers try to outmaneuver each other without tripping over their own feet.

Watterson has become a leader in designing drills that are fun, functional, challenging, reactive games tailored to target specific needs. He created Wall Ball to make his athletes more ambidextrous-after they get the hang of playing the game with both hands, he makes them play with only their non-dominant one. Being able to play handball with either hand isn't really the point. The point is to develop balance, coordination, quickness, and agility. And within a few short weeks, Watterson says, his athletes are doing just that.

Design Stage
The impetus for using these types of new drills varies from coach to coach. Some use them to address a particular deficiency on a team, others focus on appealing to the athletes' competitiveness, and still others design them as a dynamic warmup. But all coaches agree that every drill must be functional and purposeful-every drill must be designed with a specific end-goal in mind.

"The design of the program is a little more sophisticated than just coming up with a game to play," says Watterson. "We find a need and then we try to match it with a functional activity. If that functional activity can be a game or a fun, competitive activity, that's even better."

Two years ago, when Watterson was completing his postseason evaluations, he noticed that the majority of his players were what he calls "unilaterally dominant." "If a guy was left-handed, he was more left-handed dominant-they were not very ambidextrous," he explains. "I first noticed it specifically with the linebackers, but I also saw it when I went back and looked at other positions."

In response, Watterson invented Wall Ball. He took handball as a template and modified it to address his players' deficiency. "When they get the ball, they have to catch it and in a continuous motion take a shot back at the wall," says Watterson. "They can't bat it like in handball, because that would be too easy. And they can't stop, turn, re-set up, and take their shot. We start out with a tennis ball, because it's a little slower, and move up to a racquetball." (See "Changing the Rules" below for more of Watterson's drills.)

Jeff Connors, Assistant Athletic Director for Strength and Conditioning at the University of North Carolina, also spends a lot of time making sure his drills carry over to the field. "You have to have a goal and a purpose for any drill you're going to do," he says. "When I look across the multitude of drills that are being published, I see very few that have specific applications. Most are general and not closely enough defined to the objective and purpose for the athlete.

"For example, foot quickness is different from linear speed and from change of direction," he continues. "We try to make training as specific to the activity as possible."

Connors uses a series of drills for quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, linebackers, and sometimes defensive ends and tight ends that he calls "competitive reactives." Each pits an offensive player against one or more defenders, fine-tuning their ability to react quickly to their opponent. "Basically, what we're trying to do is two things," Connors says. "We're trying to help our offensive athletes learn how to shake a defender, and we're trying to help our defensive athletes come to balance." (See "Competitive Reactives" below for more on Connors' drills.)

Cal Dietz, Associate Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Minnesota, also emphasizes the importance of competitive drills. "Every drill we do is set up as a race, whether it's conditioning, speed development, or agility," he says. "You can time each athlete separately, but I find it's better to set it up as a race between people.

"A big motivator for any type of drill is chasing," he explains. "When you get chased, you run a lot faster. It makes everything more intense and more game-like. If you get caught, you owe me a push-up. If the chaser doesn't catch the guy, the chaser owes me a push-up. You might say, 'a push-up, no big deal.' But you don't want to be that guy."

Kevin Ebel, Director of Strength and Conditioning at Performance One Athletic Development in Columbus, Ohio, who works with many NFL players, designs his drills as a warmup to the weightroom work. He uses a lot of agility ladders and cones, then adds games of catch or visual or verbal commands to work on his athletes' reaction time. All of it is aimed at helping his athletes maximize the impact of their lifting programs.

"Yeah, they're going to develop foot speed," Ebel says. "Yeah, they're going to develop quickness and body control. But we're really using it as a warmup. If you get someone who's kind of sluggish and uncoordinated on the ladder drills, they're going to be uncoordinated on the lifting platform that day as well.

"It's a three-step process," he continues. "If you think about an Olympic lift, you have to move as fast as you can in a controlled fashion. That's the same premise behind agility drills. If you get someone doing agility drills well, they're going to have a good chance of success in the Olympic lifts. And that way we'll get the most out of those lifts, which translates to improved performance on the field."

On leg days in the weightroom, Ebel's reactive warmup drills focus on foot and hip speed, with a lot of forward and backward motion and some bounding. On upper-body days, he has his players work primarily on hip mobility and upper-body quickness rather than foot speed.

Even though they're used for warming up, Ebel doesn't downplay the design of the drills. He stresses the reactive element above all. "You can easily have a pattern of drills and footwork, whether it be on the agility ladders or with cones," he says, "but then, all they're doing is memorizing specific foot patterns. Unless they're being forced to react, it's not going to transfer well to sport. You have to build reaction into it, whether that's to a sound or a visual cue."

All in the Implementation
Some words of warning: Don't run out and have your athletes play Wall Ball as soon as you put down this issue. A key element to making these types of drills work is to ease your athletes into them.

"No matter if an athlete has been with us for a month or for five years, they always start off with the most basic drills at the start of the off-season," says Ebel. "We generally start with an emphasis on foot speed, and as that increases, we get into the bounding drills and the more reactive types of things and the change of direction."

Throughout the progression, every time a new drill or twist is introduced, Ebel and his staff make sure the athletes know exactly what is expected of them and what they're trying to get out of the drill. "Whatever they're doing, we always explain the drill first and give them three or four targets to focus on," he says. "We're very critical, very hands-on, constantly giving them feedback. And if we see something that's absolutely horrible, we stop everybody and re-emphasize things again. 'Focus on this. Take a step back. Slow it down.'"

Ebel tells his athletes that the ultimate target is being able to run the drills as fast as they can, but the only way they're going to reach that point is by learning to move intuitively. "The emphasis is always on feeling it," he says. "I tell them, 'Don't think about what you're doing. Feel what you're doing. I don't want you staring down at that ladder. I want you feeling that foot speed-feel the rhythm, feel the balance, feel the control. Then, find that border where you're just about to get out of control and then live on that edge.'"

Connors also breaks it down for his players. "I demonstrate the proper body stance and position, how not to false step out of that position, how to accelerate out of that position, and how to use the whole body," he says. "For many of these drills, the first thing the athlete has to do is learn how to come to balance in a proper stance, with his feet in a position where he can easily reaccelerate. They need to have good power angles at the hip and knee joints."

Dietz expends a lot of effort making sure his athletes are doing the drills correctly, too. "I'm looking for them to keep their feet low during the acceleration phase, and maintain good body position and awareness," he says. "I'm also analyzing what they can do to become faster. For example, some kids will take improper steps-instead of making it a two-step change of direction, they'll take three or four steps. That's what I'm looking for and trying to eliminate."

There are two schools of thought about just how important perfect form is when performing these types of drills. For some coaches, accepting imperfect form means less efficient movements and an increased chance of injuries. "I don't think there's any place to accept improper technique, whether it's in the weightroom or on the field," says Connors. "If you want athletes to be productive, technique is going to be very important. If you're willing to compromise on technique, they're going to suffer."

Other coaches will accept near-perfect form because they believe that maximum intensity will yield greater results. "Some people are too concerned with making sure the kids have perfect form and doing everything just so," says Dietz. "The result is that the kids don't run hard. They're more worried about doing the drill correctly than about the drill being done with as much intensity as possible.

"In sports, there's nothing that's done the exact same way each time," he continues. "So, I don't think you should be such a stickler and make sure that everything is done exactly the same way every single time. Once they get the form down, it's more important to get some intensity out of them. They'll get to the point where they're running it efficiently, because their performance in the drill will be better."

A longer version of this article appeared in our sister publication, Training &
Conditioning.


Sidebar: Changing the Rules
Steve Watterson, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tennessee Titans, is getting a reputation as a strength and conditioning coach who incorporates some pretty off-the-wall games, drills, and activities in his program. He's had his NFL athletes involved in everything from yoga to Jane Fonda workouts. But the drills he is most proud of are those he's created or adapted to address specific needs on the team.

"About six years ago," Watterson says, citing one example, "I saw that within the league, between the player's union and the NFL management, there were more and more regulations on what a strength coach could do with players, especially in the off-season. No helmets. No pads. No organized football activities. No other coaches on the field with plays or drills.

"It was limiting the physiological response that we could get," he continues. "So I tried to find new, innovative ways to still develop the fitness components I was looking for."

Thus, Powerball was born. "It's part rugby, part basketball, part dodgeball," Watterson says. The game is played across the width of the first 40 yards of a football field, with a large garbage can on either end, and five to eight players on a side.

The athletes pass the ball to each other and run with it, and they can even throw it to themselves. If they are touched while holding the ball, the ball goes to the other team. In some formulations of the game, if a player is touched while in possession of the ball, he goes to the other team. If the ball goes out of bounds, the last person to touch it goes to the other team. A point is scored by getting the ball in one of the garbage cans.

"There's no contact other than one-hand touch," Watterson says. "I don't allow picks, moving screens, or anything like that. Sometimes I pull in blocking dummies and put them strategically on the field of play so the athletes can use them as picks."

Every time a point is scored, the losing team has a penalty assessed, which could be anything from 25 push-ups to 50 sit-ups to a half gasser, or running across the field and back. And to keep things really interesting, Watterson changes the rules on an almost daily basis or puts obstacles on the field, like a large ring of PVC pipes around each garbage can. He'll also change the ball as the players begin to adjust to the pace of the game, from a football to a basketball, then to a tennis ball, and finally to the fastest of all, a racquetball.

Sometimes, Watterson prefers to develop certain skills with athletes working one-on-one, such as with something he calls neck wrestling. "It's basically Greco-Roman wrestling, but there's function to it," he says. "There's hand control and there are football positions. I've taken these to another level by having athletes run sprints between each 30-second-to-40-second bout.

"Along with that, we are using martial arts techniques to learn how to most effectively get someone else's hands off you," Watterson adds. "We're applying these techniques to offensive linemen, defensive linemen, wide receivers, defensive backs, linebackers, and tight ends. We look at how to defeat an opponent without getting your body off balance-how to redirect the opponent so you can continue your pathway."

Watterson also runs the more typical relay races and cone drills, although he carries them a bit further. "We'll have relay races with all sorts of functional drills like high knees, butt kicks, carioca, power steps, back pedaling, skipping, and hopping," he says. "That will be phase one. Then we get into implementing specific drills with cone touches. We'll run five or six patterns. Then we'll add hurdles to jump over. Then we'll have them navigate over and under an obstacle course-they go around a figure-eight pattern, pick up large water bottles, run 20 yards, put them down, go to a garbage can, pull out three 45-pound plates, put them in another garbage can, grab the water bottles, return them to where they were originally, and then sprint back to the starting line and tag the next guy. Each week, I change the course so they don't get used to it."


Sidebar: Competitive Reactives
Jeff Connors, Assistant Athletic Director for Strength and Conditioning at the University of North Carolina, has a whole host of drills he calls competitive reactives, where he pits one athlete against another. One plays defense, the other offense, as they run through various drills that push their limits of agility, quickness, and speed.

In one he calls the Cut-Back Drill, he sets three cones in a triangle, each 12 yards apart with two cones along a scoring line. A defender starts at one of the two cones on that line, while an offensive player starts at the third cone. The offensive player tries to cross the scoring line without being tagged. To make things more difficult, Connors will sometimes tie the defensive player's arms at the elbows to keep them down so that he has to bring his feet to the offensive player.

Another, called the Chase Drill, starts with a similar configuration, but Connors adds a second defender, about three yards behind the offensive player. "The offensive player has to avoid both the player from behind and the player in front," he says. "The defender in front is going to adjust not only to the offensive player but also to the defensive player in the back. They have to work together, so that if the player in the back moves slightly to one side or the other, the first defender will try to shade the other direction. Meanwhile, the offensive player has to watch them both."

A variation of this, called the Funnel Drill, involves two offensive players and one defender. But it has the added element that the field narrows to only about six to eight yards in width as it approaches the goal line. "I'll have a receiver come down the funnel with his hands behind his back and try to mirror off the defender while a running back comes behind him, like a perimeter running play," Connors says. "The running back has to try to score without being tagged, using the receiver as a shield. In this drill, the defender can use his hands to some extent. But it's just a movement drill. We're not tackling anybody or even reaching and grabbing them, we're just tagging."