Does off-field speed transfer to on-field speed?

This month’s theme on HMMR Media is transfer of training, and to kick it off I thought I would take a timely example of just how complex transfer can be. What you think has carry over to your sport is not always as simple as it seems.

Sunday’s Super Bowl marked the end of the American football season. Now the next major event on the calendar is the NFL combine next month, where teams will scout out the next generation of players. Players will undergo a variety of tests – such as the 40-yard dash, broad jump, vertical jump, bench press, etc. – which teams will evaluate and use to predict on-field potential. But do these abilities actually transfer? To see if that’s the case, let’s take a look at the most basic ability: speed.

If you look at all the combine tests, perhaps the 40-yard dash most resembles the game. For this reason, sprint results generate the most headlines and are considered the most valuable metric from the NFL combine. But does off-field speed transfer to on-field play? That’s up for debate.

Does off-field speed transfer to on-field speed?

Let’s keep things simple to start and look at whether the ability to run in a straight line at the combine has a strong relation to running in a straight line during a game. The main differences are that in a game athletes wear about 5-pounds of padding that adds weight and somewhat restricts movement. Additionally, arm action is altered when carrying the ball and athletes are more pre-fatigued. But overall the movement pattern is very similar to that of a sprinter and you would think that these minor changes would not affect who is the fastest. But therein lies the complexity of transfer.

For decades football coaches have claimed there is a difference between track speed and football speed, but the later has been more difficult to quantify until recently. Over the last two seasons the NFL has placed chips on players and balls in order to get more data about the game. The results are interesting. This season, the fastest player was Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette, the 240-pound power running back from the Jacksonville Jaguars. During a game earlier this season he reached a speed of 22.05 miles per hour (9.86 meters/second).

The reason this is interesting is that he is far from the fastest in traditional tests. At the 2017 NFL combine, 53 players and 10 running backs posted times faster than Fournette’s 4.51 second 40-yard dash. And that just included other rookies, not the veterans he is now competing against. His time was also slower than the defender left in his dust.

Obviously someone running a 6-second 40-yard dash would have trouble moving fast on the field. Some basic element of speed is required to run fast with the ball. But the transfer from off-field to on-field is not as direct as one might think. Even the elusive Bill Belichick has said as much:

“So a player’s running a ball or running full speed covering a kick or running the ball and there is people in front of him and people trying to tackle him, it’s a little different speed than running a sprint on the stop watch . . . We’ve seen a lot of fast guys not be the first guy down on kickoff coverage. We’ve seen a lot of guys that aren’t that fast be the first guy down on kickoff coverage and so forth.”

– Bill Belichick

Does off-field speed transfer to on-field success?

But success in football is even more complex than how fast you can run with the ball. Speed is one factor, but size and strength plays a role in the ability to break tackles. And agility is key in avoiding tackles in the first place. Running fast is of little use, after all, if you get hit or have to slow down significantly to change directions. As Dave Tenney mentioned on the GAINcast last year that the fastest players in soccer often just get offsides faster.

Fournette’s numbers also show the relation is weak for him: he was the fastest on the field, but just barely squeaked in the NFL’s top 10 in total rushing yards in 2017. While extremely good for a rookie, it hardly made him the league’s best. In other metrics, he ranked even lower. In yards per attempt, a better measure of effectiveness, he was just 30th in the league.

Bigger datasets also bear this out. In an comparison of 40-yard times to career yards per game, one recent study by Paul Park showed no correlation for wide receivers and a weak correlation for running backs. One has to assume the correlation is weaker for quarterbacks and other positions, especially if you take Tom Brady as an example. You might be surprised that wide receivers had such a little correlation despite being seen as the ultimate speed position, but Jerry Rice’s pedestrian 4.71 sprint time did not prevent him from becoming perhaps the greatest receiver in NFL history since he knew how to move, not just sprint.

The complexity of transfer

I’m drawing a lot of conclusions here from small sample sizes, but individual cases help demonstrate the complexity of transfer. Being fast doesn’t necessarily mean you will be fast on the field, and being fast doesn’t necessarily mean you will be good at football. So what does this mean how to train speed in practice? Should coaches shift their focus on how they train speed?

Not necessarily. As I mentioned, speed still plays a role but knowing what type of speed is needed can help orient training. One coach to change his approach in this regards is Fiji rugby strength coach John Pryor, who we interviewed after his work with Japan at the last World Cup. The Japanese players were demonstrable slower in traditional sprint tests, but rather than trying to focus on that he focussed on increasing on-field speed and being able to execute more skills at that speed, what Pryor called their options project:

“We lost our obsession with linear 20-meter and 40-meter speed. I didn’t have quick guys in the first place; you need some wingers possible of reaching 10 meters/second to finish plays. Our guys were running 8.5 m/s and we were able to get them up to 9.5 m/s, which was good enough if they kept the options. And we did that without any sophisticated approach to linear speed. The options project was more significant because we looked not just at linear speed but catching, passing, and agility speed.”

-John Pryor

You can learn more about Pryor’s approach in our webinar on his robust running approach.

The transfer mindset

All this shows us that transfer is not an easy thing to figure out, even in cases where it looks like it might be. The lesson learned from this is not that everyone should change their training, but that everyone should keep their eye whether what they are doing is actually making them better at their sport. By focusing on this John Pryor changed his training to help his team reach a new level of play. His approach might not work for everyone, but the mindset that got him there can benefit everyone.