Football coaches know that selecting a player based on combine results is a crap shoot at best. In this article, Dr. Yessis evaluates the tests used to offer a possible explanation of why the combine results are such poor predictors of game play success.

It is well established in sports science that in order to test a particular ability, the test must duplicate the exact conditions under which the ability is displayed in game play. For example, the test should involve the same muscles, the same type of muscle contraction regime, and the same sequence of muscle actions. The test must duplicate the same technique as involved in competitive play (i.e., duplication of the same sports skills using the same energy producing systems as in game play). If we use these criteria, it is easy to evaluate the tests used in the combine that coaches rely on to select their athletes.

For example:

  • The vertical jump: Vertical jump height is often a good predictor of jumping ability and the display of explosive white fibers. Thus, it can serve a valuable role, especially if the execution of the jump is examined. Jump technique is also very important in how high you jump and should be evaluated by coaches, especially when on the run because this is when jumping occurs. It is very game specific.
  • Pass route drills: If the drills duplicate some of the more common drills used in game play, they can have value if the player is evaluated on how he runs the pattern and his ability to catch the ball. Perhaps even more important is whether the player is successful in getting away from his defender so he is free to catch the ball.
  • Standing long jump (broad jump): This test is similar to the vertical jump in relation to indicating explosive white fibers and the ability to leap well. Thus, it too can play a role and be predictive, although it adds little to the total picture.
  • Flexibility test: There is no questioning the fact that flexibility is important for a player, but it must be coupled with strength. In the test used, the athlete is measured for low back flexibility, which is usually an indicator of how loose the ligaments of his spine are. Thus, the better he measures in this test, the more stretched out the ligaments are and the more prone they may be to injury. That is unless he also has well-developed and strong lower back muscles, which, from my past experiences with hundreds of football players, is usually not the case. The increased low back flexibility is perhaps one of the reasons why so many players end up with low back problems. Understand that the hamstrings are stretched mostly after the low back is fully stretched.
  • Defensive line drill: This test may have some merit if we look at how well the player executed the turns. However, this is usually not the case. It is especially important to know with which foot the player pushed off when making a change in direction. If the player makes most of his turns on the inside leg, you can rest assured that he will be slipping quite a bit in game play and will not be very effective.
  • Route running drills: How well a player can run a particular route is usually immaterial if there is no defensive person in the mix. As with the defensive running drill, the most important aspect is how well the player executes his change in direction. However, most coaches merely look at whether the pattern is run, not how the pattern is run. If more attention was paid to the how, it would be a better predictor of ability rather than the simple execution of the route.
  • 40-yard dash: This is a great test to measure running speed, especially when the runner does not encounter any defensive players. Because this rarely happens in a game situation, a more effective test would be to have obstacles interrupt the player’s run to see how well the player can modify his run while still maintaining his speed. Many studies have shown—as many coaches have experienced—that the 40-yard dash is a poor predictor of player ability. Quickness is usually much more important, not pure running speed. (Quickness refers to agility, or the ability to make quick changes in direction while in motion, such as in running for yardage or making a touchdown.) It is also necessary to know if the times are recorded electronically or by hand. Keep in mind that those athletes who post times in the 4.2–4.3 range are “faster” than world record holders in the 100 m.
  • 20-yard shuttle: This test is perhaps the poorest one that is administered in the combine. Shuttle or side running is extremely important for quickness, which is the key to many athletes’ success in football. However, the shuttle test does not measure what the person does in game play. For example, in the change of direction, the athlete must touch the ground with his hand as he makes the cut. This never happens in a game except in very rare situations such as if a player slipped, was falling, and did not want the knee to touch the ground. If the test was performed with the player in an upright position as occurs in the game, it would be much more predictive. In addition, players should be required to look up or forward as they execute the changes in direction. This is what takes place in the game. In the game, players are not looking down to see where they are going or where they are running.

In conclusion, most of the tests used in the combine are poor predictors of player ability. Yet coaches rely heavily on them. This is the reason why so many of the players who they select do not pan out. Why keep doing the same thing and hoping for different results? Is this progress?

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