A.J. Green might be the best receiver in the world. No, he’s not as celebrated as Calvin Johnson. But then again, Green has 22 touchdowns over the last two years. Johnson has 17.
If that’s true, then Julio Jones might be the game’s most underrated receiver. Yes, he is a star, capable of racking up 10 touchdowns and nearly 1,200 yards like he did in 2012. He is a Pro Bowl-talent. Everyone knows that. But look what happened to the Atlanta Falcons without Jones for 11 games last year. A terrible season. No playoffs. Bandwagon empty. Jones is back for 2014 and the team suddenly looks like playoff contenders again.
EXOS performance coach Nick Winkelman has worked with both of them, as well as other all-world talents like J.J. Watt, Robert Griffin III, and Randall Cobb. For the last eight years, the speed trainer has served as the director of EXOS’ Combine program and produced an online educational guide on linear speed called “The 0.1 Second Difference.” He is also currently completing a Ph.D in motor learning and sprinting.
With the NFL season underway, I caught up with Winkelman to talk about training NFL players to be faster, why you need to be more like Houston’s Watt, and what separates athletes like Green and Jones from everyone else.
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Describe your training program.
Nick Winkelman: The first thing, obviously, is defining where the athlete’s weakest links are. We do that in a number of ways. One way we do it is to look at their sprint speed. The splits I collect are 0-10 yards, 10-20 yards, and then 30-40 yards. Even now, sometimes we’ll look at a 0-5 split. In doing so, we basically have four categories where an athlete needs to improve their speed.
Category one is actually the first three steps out of their three-point stance. I’m looking at their time and the technique they used to get there. We’ve been looking at Combine data for the past 10 years and have a really good idea what to expect based on the size of the individual, the position that they play, how they’re going to hit that mark in the race.
Category one we call that their primary acceleration. Then I’m looking at their 10 and 20-yard times, their secondary acceleration. What’s their 0-20 and their 10-20 splits? We’re trying to get an idea of when they’re breaking down – are they breaking down early or late in that 0-20? Oftentimes there are multiple factors for why they’re getting an error.
From there, from 20-40 we’re looking at how fast they are, the actual max velocity, your absolute speed, but frankly when you’re dealing with a 300-pound lineman, the reason why there are four categories is because you might also need to work on their speed endurance. Many big linemen from 30-40 yards just coast when in fact if they want to get the time they need, they must continue to try to increase their miles per hour over 40 yards.
In reality, in the 100 meters guys aren’t actually slowing down until 70 meters so I shouldn’t have a 300-pound guy slowing down at 30 meters. I break down their needs for start, acceleration, maximum speed, and speed endurance.
So you break down different parts of the race?
NW: That brings in what I call the 3P model of position, pattern, and power. When you look at the bottom of this period called position, that’s basically asking can this guy get in the necessary positions to run? Do they have enough deflection, hip extension, rotation in the right places? We screen that by using a functional moving screen. Do they have the anatomical capacity to get into these functional positions that you’re asking for. If they don’t then you know that’s a limitation on the field. Then they’ll work hand-in-hand with my physical therapist to get their hip mobility back, their shoulder and spine and all that. Most of these guys are beat up after their season so a lot of the movement errors are just them needing some time to recover. If they are things they’ve been struggling with throughout the year, then we have to smash the errors. That’s level one. That can cause a virus in all aspects of the race.
Level two is pattern. Pattern is getting in position A with deflection and getting in position B with extension, but do you know how to move from A to B? Do you know how to coordinate effectively? Most of these guys who are elite athletes are fast, compared to the normal population. But it still doesn’t mean they employ the best technique, and likely the guys without the best technique have a history of injury.
I’m the driving instructor. My job is to teach them how to drive their car more effectively. Assuming they have the wheels bolted on, they have the shock absorbers and everything, we address that right on the field with coaching.
Finally, I might have someone check their patterns and function but their times are still slower than I want in those specific speed zones, yet my coaching isn’t hitting the bottom line. What’s going on? Then I have to go to the next one, which is power. For acceleration and the start zone, relative strength is the name of the game. The stronger you are pound-for-pound, the better you’re going to be in that initial zone. Once you’re upright past 20 yards, at that stage it’s simply about how much force you can put into the ground. A guy that’s not good at acceleration still might be good at speed because he might be really strong.
From an athlete’s perspective, they could spend eight weeks in the weight room and their number one speed coach is lifting weight. That same athlete, their number one speed coach is also my nutritionist because if I can drop useless body fat, increase the engine, increase the total weight of the person, instantly they’ve gotten faster.
What’s it likes getting these guys ready for the Combine?
NW: Here’s the anatomy of an NFL Combine week. When it comes to speed development, we do acceleration, work from 0-20 on Mondays and Fridays. The reason we do that twice a week is because neurologically, it is less demanding and the athletes can handle a greater volume of that distance than they can of the longer distances where they’re running as fast as they can. I tell people you lose the race in acceleration and you win it in absolute speed. If you make a mistake in those first five yards, it’s going to be wicked difficult to get back just because the race is so short. Frankly, in the sport, if you’re messing up in the first five yards, you’re getting tackled or missing a tackle.
The first half of the session we are working on technique so we do a lot of wall drills. We do a ton of harness-based work. The partner is holding the leash. They work on marching, bounding, and sprinting. Oftentimes, people see us doing harness work and think we’re working on resisted running. You’re trying to improve their strength. That’s the farthest thing from the truth. When we’re doing harness work, the number one thing we’re actually doing is unloading their body weight. They can hold that superman but not having to hold up a 250 or 300-pound bottom. The second I off load that vertical force, it allows them to become more effective at pushing back and generating horizontally force, which is what they need to accelerate wickedly fast. We do a lot of sled and harness work to teach them how they should generate force relative to the ground.
We do absolute speed every Wednesday. It takes these guys 72 hours to recover from a max velocity session.
What else do you do differently than other trainers?
NW: I’m a purist. I believe to run fast you need to run fast. It’s a dumb statement but it’s an effective one because if all we ever do is drill and these guys have incredible technique that’s great. But if no one’s ever gone to fifth gear, they’re not going to execute at the Combine. While there’s also a technical aspect that we need to improve, there’s also a physiological aspect that we need to improve so these guys can get enough full-speed reps each week. We look to average six to eight full-speed repetitions on that Monday and Friday. Those can be full-speed sled pulls or full-speed sprints.
Most people typically think that with acceleration, you’re only going to work over 10 yards but the shortest distances I’ll work with these guys on will be 15-20 yards. Acceleration is 0-20. It is not 0-10. If you look at the velocity of these guys, even if the guy is 350 pounds, they are aggressively accelerating all the way through 20 yards. If all you ever do is teaching acceleration 0-10, you end up teaching people to accelerate through 10 yards. You don’t teach them to accelerate through 20 yards in the context of a 40. That’s very different. Imagine racing your buddy over 10 yards. You can dang near slide into home. You can superman past that 10-yard gate, but you’re doing that without the concept that you’re going to have to keep going. If they’re only used to running 10 yards, sometimes the techniques these guys develop don’t prepare them to transition into absolute speed. They have to play catch-up. We do a lot of 15-20 yard acceleration sprints because it really teaches these guys to take the velocity they’re generating in the initial phase and converting it seamlessly into absolute speed.
We do a lot of things from a motor learning standpoint to really teach the explosiveness that teachers love to see, but also teaches them how to maximize horizontal force.
Those sessions on Mondays and Fridays are about 60 minutes, and only the last 30 is spent doing full-speed stuff. They get a lot of rest because we need to make sure everything is at 100 percent. On Wednesdays, we have a track environment. You warm up for about 35 minutes. Skipping patterns. Building patterns. I’m very big on that guys need to be able to move with multiple rhythmic patterns, associating left and right. The more variation in the warm-up that we have, the better they can apply that.
We don’t run 40 yards. We run 50, and the reason for that is speed endurance. Since we started doing 50-yard efforts, our times have dropped significantly. Significantly. Guys learn to finish the 40 rather than checking out at 35 yards and coasting. You see this all the time in the NFL combine.
We have guys on the zero line that are in a 2- or 3-point stance. We have cones set out over the first 20 yards. We call that the “build” zone. I have a set of gates at 20 yards, a set of gates at 40 yards, and another set of gates at 50 yards, which means their goal is to build up. When they hit those gates, my timer starts up to get splits, so I’m able to see what are their actual 20-yard times and whether they can sustain that from 40 to 50.
People joke about the linemen and say that they hate doing this, but the linemen love it. It’s a competition. These guys have never felt fast and now we’re allowing them to truly open up their body and run in space. The best tackles now in the NFL, when you watch them run in the Combine, they’re running sub-5 seconds now. They’re moving. They’re high-speed athletes.
We do that once a week because everyone is toast after that. Wednesday is a pool day, hot and cold. Relax. We recycle and repeat the second half of the week starting on Thursday.
You’ve worked with a lot of really, really talented receivers. What stands out about them as athletes?
NW: This is going to sound weird but I’ve seen it enough. Odell Beckham and A.J. Green and Julio Jones… actually Odell Beckham reminds me of A.J. Green except he’s shorter. A.J. was able to juggle and Odell could literally take a soccer ball – I’d watch him in training – and do some kind of movement with the ball like he was Pele. I asked him if he’d ever done that before and he said no. Even though they can’t articulate how they do it, their body awareness is ridiculous, and their ability to see a skill-set and apply it in their own way is incredible.
I’ll never forget the year I had Dont’a Hightower and Nick Perry, who are similar in size. This was amazing. Dont’a hadn’t been able to train for a few days and he came out and he was improving his sprinting. But his patterning, the middle tier from 0-10 yards, wasn’t quite there. I’ll never forget the day that this happened. Nick Perry ran before Dont’a and Nick Perry at his size – a defensive end, linebacker, a tweener – I’ve never seen a guy that size run 10 yards so fast. He literally could shoot himself out of a rocket. That’s how explosive his legs were. I will never forget. Dont’a Hightower gets up after Nick Perry and he runs the same time all of a sudden, dropping .3 of time off his 40. What just happened here? It was like night and day. I’ll never forget, I said, “Dont’a, what did you just do?” These are his exact words. He said, “Coach, I saw Nick run. I saw how fast he ran. I figured I’m about the same size as him and I went ahead and tried to do it as fast.” It’s incredible because that happens more often that you probably think. If you condition these guys to watch each other, they can absorb more technical things than they can taking what I say and trying to apply it.
The whole body awareness of these guys, linearly and laterally, is incredible. Julio Jones has that same quality but he’s, by far just in terms of raw power and athleticism, one of the greatest guys I’ve ever seen move. Literally he can run and I’ll say, “Julio, can you run faster?” And he could drop his times every single repetition. It wasn’t because he was sandbagging it to save up energy. It was that this guy was so explosive, so powerful and athletic he had just never needed to challenge the top end of his capacity. That’s why, for me, when he went to the combine and jumped out of the roof, out of his shoes, and ran a sub-4.4 at his size as a receiver, there was no doubt why Atlanta went up to get him.
Obviously he has a lot of gifts that no one can emulate. But what can a younger player coming up take away from his training habits?
NW: You need to emulate J.J. Watt. You look at his story. He didn’t get a nod in his first go-around and then finally got to Wisconsin. That is a guy that works to no end. On his best day, he is never going to be Jadeveon Clowney fast. But he is going to work to make sure that his speed stays that way throughout the entire length of his career. I like to think of guys in four quadrants and this is probably the best way for kids to look at it, a balance between what you do off the field and your mindset and then just straight physical gifts. On the top left corner, you’ve got your golden athlete. You’ve got the one who is physically gifted and behaviorally off the charts. A.J. Green. Julio Jones was like that. Robert Griffin was absolutely and still is like that. They are so explosive, so athletic, but also “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” They are building up their teammates and jogging to drills. You can’t necessarily teach those two things.
But then to the right of that you have someone who might be physically average, but behaviorally they are off the charts, and I cannot tell you how many guys get into the league with that profile. They have worked so hard to get themselves at or just above average based on NFL standards. They’re not going to wow anybody with their speed but they’re so consistent with their execution. Their motor patterns and their physical resiliency is so good because they’ve done everything they can to protect their body and build it up, and behaviorally reinforces that because they have good habits. But also, they are a great leader, a great person. They build up others around them. They make those around them better. That is what the high school athlete has to look at. Their behavior is as much of a draft and collegiate possibility as is their physical. Obviously you have to have some level of physical gifts to build from and if they’re too low there’s no amount of work you can do. But frankly I’ve met a lot of guys who have worked to the level they’re currently at and it takes an incredibly disciplined individual, with a positive attitude, who’s going to be relentless in their pursuit of excellence, doing all the things they need to do for recovery, training, staying positive with teammates and in life to make sure there are no barriers to their success.
The other two categories are unfortunately people who are physically gifted but behaviorally are not. You’ll have those guys get drafted but because they’re so physically gifted, they haven’t worried about being on time, about doing the right things off the field. In fact, a lot of them do the wrong things off the field. Those are high-risk picks for a college or professional team. Obviously there are big question marks with those guys, same with the people with low physical and high behavior marks. There are risks in both situations.
Finally, you have someone who behaviorally doesn’t get it and thinks their gifts are better than they are, and that’s someone who is not going to make it.
Anything surprise you about working with these high-profile receivers?
NW: The best athletes that I’ve had, beyond their gifts, have been incredibly hardworking. Their work ethic eclipsed their athletic ability in every single case. In every case. A.J. Green and Julio Jones are both tall yet their change of direction was unbelievable. Another guy to watch out for this year is Jordan Matthews, the most decorated SEC wide receiver. He is 6-3, a fairly tall guy, and his lateral movement was unbelievable. Physically, there’s typically an inverse relationship between height and how well you change direction but as fast as these guys were from 20-40 yards in separation, they could create equal speed when they did other drills. These guys are elastic, and when you train your body to be so, and you can absorb and apply force very quickly, that’s going to help you change direction. That’s why they are such brilliant route runners because the second their foot is in the ground, it’s like someone threw a basketball against the wall. Elasticity is a critical quality. That’s why effective use of plyometrics with a proper strength development program, when combined, are much more powerful for improvement in speed than one or the other by themselves.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney