Thursday, February 4, 2010

Testing Athleticism

February marks another rite of passage for aspiring athletes. Every year, sports performance “gurus” prepare their athletes for the National Football League’s combine. Professional football prospects and team representatives descend upon Indianapolis, Indiana. There the athletes are put through a battery of physical drills and psychological tests attempting to identify elite players, determine their draft status, and predict eventual success on the field. Yet, according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Kuzmits and Adams, 2008), there is no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance. This is consistent with studies in other sports, such as handball (Lidor et al, 2005), rugby (Gabbett et al, 2007), and ice hockey (Vescovi et al, 2006). These studies noted that only the players’ skills, not their physiological characteristics were predictors of their playing ability. In other words, the only true measurement of an athlete’s performance on the field… is his performance on the field.

This is not to say that testing of athleticism does not have its’ place. Vern Gambetta defines athleticism as the ability to execute athletic movements at optimum speed with precision, style, and grace in the context of the sport or activity. These characteristics are all related to movement efficiency. Therefore, athleticism, by its’ very nature, aids and fine-tunes the performance of sports skills.

Analyzing athletic properties can provide a profile of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. This is particularly true if the results are compared to the player’s performance. For example, let’s say that a right-handed pitcher is tested in the “5-10-5 Agility”. His score is rated as average when compared to other players of his performance level. However, further investigation notes that this pitcher is 0.1 seconds slower when moving to his left compared to the right. In terms of performance, the pitcher’s coach routinely works with him on locating his fastball to the far corner of the plate. One explanation of the pitcher’s poor performance on this task may be a lack of hip mobility when rotating his pelvis and trunk to the left. Decreased hip rotation can disrupt the sequential timing of events needed to place the throwing arm in the correct position to execute the throw. This ultimately results in poor efficiency of the movement and limited precision of the outcome (i.e. the inability to hit the outside corner of the plate).

Although athleticism may not predict future success in sports, it can be a useful tool in the enhancement of the skills needed for successful sports performance.


  1. Although testing is most commonly thought of to benefit the athlete as a marker of their athletic ability, it serves the program through improved accountability and creating a competitive environment.

    The NFL example is interesting. It suggests that the players of that NFL ability are more similar than they are different in basic athletic qualities (strength, power, speed, etc...) I'd imagine that if the study compared NFL players to non-prospect college players, speed and powers measures would be much greater...

    In baseball (especially the pro game which I work most closely with) we have to ask, "What is the purpose of each tests?" Here are some options below:

    1)To test basic athleticism.
    2)To test program effectiveness.
    3)To test athletes commitment to training.
    4)(You may have another reason)

    Once you make this decision, it is easier to choose the most time efficient test for your athletes to achieve your goal (i.e. 10 yds VS 60 yds sprint; 300-shuttle VS 1-2 mile run; etc.) Another interesting point is that the more we test athletes, the more we learn about what testing is necessary. This is the growth of our field.

  2. You're exactly right. I have seen at least 3 studies that speak to a couple of your points. Two of them suggest that although testing does not predict future success, it is a good indicator of draft status. In other words, the players that test well tend to be drafted higher. This brings up another possible discussion of "teaching the tests" rather than training for sport-specific improvement or on-field performance.

    The third study did compare drafted vs non-drafted players. Just as you surmised, the drafted players did perform better in the tests than the non-drafted players.

    Finally, I agree that the more we test, the more we learn. By developing a "profile" of what the professional player looks like, we can identify general training needs for individualization.

    David Yeager, ATC, CSCS