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Shift Your Focus

by Melissa Witmer

The number one mistake teams make in their pregame warmup is too much focus on the muscles and cardiovascular system and too little focus on the nervous system.  There is too much focus on volume and too little focus on intensity of movement.  

Last year when I was coming out of retirement I enlisted the help of some speed and agility training professionals.  These guys specialize in training football players for the combine.  I had an hour session with them once a week for six weeks.  The first session I was shocked by how little warmup they had me doing before we went into trials of sprint starts.  The first exercises in the session was always sprinter stance starts.  Starting from a stationary position and accelerating as quickly as possible is a fairly intense activity.  This was preceded by a warmup that took less than 8 minutes total.  Most surprisingly this warmup did not literally warm me up.  There was little sweating involved.  There was no stationary biking, jump rope, slow jog, or jumping jacks.  We skipped all of that and went straight into the exercises that would be familiar to most teams doing dynamic warmups.  The difference was that they were done for distances of 10 yards or 15 yards, not 25 yard endzone’s worth.   The second, and most important difference was that there was sufficient time between plyos (high knees, but kicks) for sufficient recovery.  

The Physical Components of a Warm Up

Getting ready for sprinting is more about preparing the nervous system than it is about preparing the muscles.  The nervous system is what gets your muscles firing in a coordinated manner.  To get ready to play all out first point, the nervous system has to be excited and ready to go.

What I often see at tournaments are teams doing iterations of shuffles, cariocas, butt kicks, high knees, etc. with little rest between exercises.  If players are going a full 25 yards, by the end there is no way they are moving at full intensity and full speed.  Athletes might worry that it’s a sign of weakness to take a break between warm up exercises but think about what it is you are trying to accomplish.  You want to be ready for explosive movements and quick feet.  If you do your warm up exercises under conditions that do not allow for maximally quick feet, you are not ready to have maximally quick feet on the field.  If the purpose of the warmup is to get players ready to be quick, the warmup must allow them to be quick by using shorter distances with more rest.  Plyos are not the time to increase the heart rate.  This is the time to excite the nervous system and get ready for 100% focus and effort.  Trying to do both at once is counterproductive.

People tend to focus on the other biological systems in the warmup because those systems are more easily "felt."  You can feel when your muscles are warm.  You can feel when you’re sweating.  You can feel when you are breathing hard.  The nervous system is a lot more tricky.  It’s not something that’s consciously felt very well but it is what’s most important for being ready to go on the first point of the day.

The Psychology of the Warm Up

The first time I experienced such a short warm up before my sprint sessions I was nervous.  And for the next three weeks I was nervous every time.  Then I started to realized that if I could do zombie kicks and not pull something, I would be fine.  For the rest of the season if I ever caught myself wondering if I was ready or if my muscles were too tight, I would do a few zombie kicks as a kind of self check.  

Was there anything really magical about zombie kicks?  Are they a perfect indicator of readiness?  Probably not.  the point is, I felt that they were.  They put me at ease and helped me feel confident in my body’s capabilities.

This is the tricky part of a team warmup.  The physical part is important, but the psychological aspect will trumph whatever physical things you take care of.  Even if you could design the perfect team warmup up, if players don’t believe they are ready to go, it doesn’t matter.

This I believe is why teams focus on what they can feel versus what is actually best for them.  I would probably still be the same way if I hadn’t experienced for myself week after week the success of a short but intense warmup before my sprint workouts.  But now I know.

(VIDEO CREDIT: Tommy Riggs)
Final Thoughts

If you are in charge of your team warmups I’d recommend making minor modifications at first.  Move your team toward the direction of doing slightly less, allow slightly more time between plyos, and emphasize full intensity effort movement on footwork (cariocas, high knees, etc) rather than doing a lot of reps.


huddle issue033

Tue June 28th, 2011

Preparing for the Game at Hand
by Max Cook

Get Your Team on One Page
by Greg Husak

Routine Need Not Mean Redundant
by Matt Mackey

The New School Warm-up
by Tim Morrill

Find What Works For Your Team
by Chelsea Putnam

Three Warm-Up Fundamentals
by Miranda Roth

Team Pregame Warm-Up Routines
by John Sandahl

Shift Your Focus
by Melissa Witmer

We Will Laugh
by Ben Wiggins




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