Training Day: Learning the 40 with an Olympian

Up through the NFL draft, Shutdown Corner's Kristian Dyer will be training at TEST Sports Club in Martinsville, N.J., along with roughly 20 players. All of these athletes are prepping for the NFL combine, different pro days and of course, the NFL draft in April. A former college soccer player, Kristian was a playground legend at quarterback back in middle school but never played a down of organized football. He will be blogging about the life of training for the NFL draft and a career in the league as he lives it firsthand.

MARTINSVILLE, N.J. - The toughest part of the combine and NFL draft readiness isn't necessarily the daily weightlifting routine or getting ready for the Wonderlic Test. Instead, it might be trimming hundredths of a second off one's 40-yard time.

Through two weeks of living — and lifting — like a player getting ready for April's draft, I've only once been tested in the 40-yard dash, clocking in a less than impressive 5.95 seconds, easily the slowest number among the athletes training at TEST Sports Clubs. I can take some solace in the fact that I am eight years older than many of these athletes and not exactly coming off my senior season of football, so I can hardly be expected to be in peak shape. But when I see Jamahl Williams of Kean University blur by me during training, it is humbling to say the least.

And when every single offensive lineman in the group is nearly a second faster, well, I need to get my tail in gear and do it fast. Sorry about the pun.

NFL scouts place such importance on the 40 that it can make or break an athlete's draft status, meaning that the trainers at TEST spend several sessions a week just on speed training. This past week, Ato Boldon was brought up to central New Jersey (we say just Jersey) to work with the athletes.

Yes, the Ato Boldon who won a silver medal in the 100m at the Sydney Olympics, one of his four Olympic medals won in a long and storied career. Imagine the advantage these athletes have in learning at TEST how to sprint from a world champion and one of the fastest men of his generation? But taking football players and making them sprinters in time for the combine or a pro day is a tremendous challenge for Boldon.

"A football player's natural instincts are almost the opposite of what sprinters learn. With a football player effort and teeth gritting, so to speak, is what works — it is part of the culture," Boldon said. "The best sprinters are relaxed as can be. Combine that with movements of arms that almost never happen on a football player and it's a lot to teach in seven weeks."

Tad Kornegay, a star in the Canadian Football League who works during the offseasonat TEST as a speed instructor with a secondary role as court jester, said that my form is "well, all wrong." My starting stance is not low enough, my stride is short and my arm technique "is sort of there."

"If you're not being efficient when you run, you're wasting steps. You want a long stride," Boldon said. "Your first step should be long and your arms in full swing, with your fingertips coming up at your eyes. And you must finish strong and not come up short."

As Boldon works through this with me, it strikes me as rather odd that the NFL places such an emphasis on the 40-time. After all, how often does a player run 40 yards straight on the field with twisting and turning or getting knocked off stride? The only times a player might do that is a broken play and it would be very rare. How often does a player run straight in a game of football?

"Not often but it isn't about that, it is like the SAT's in that the 40 is a level playing field for teams to judge how fast an athlete is and get an idea about his speed. It's not perfect because it doesn't necessarily translate to the field," Boldon said. "I know my athletes are grasping concepts when the new information becomes a part of them. When I go watch receivers run routes and they need to separate from a defender or close on a ball that's maybe a bit overthrown and they instinctively bring their hands up to their eyes to get every inch out of their stride, I know that I haven't prepared that athlete to run 'some 40's' at the combine/pro day, I know I have taught that athlete how to be faster. That transfers to everything he'll do as long as he remembers it."

Then Boldon makes an interesting analogy about prepping to sprint at the combine.

"It's like when I was learning to drive and my instructor told me to hold the steering wheel at the '10 and the 2' position. He said that no one really drives like that but I needed to do that to pass the test," he said.

"Getting ready for the combine is like that, you need to learn to drive the way the instructor will grade you and not any other way because you want that license. When it's done, then you can do what you need to do on the field to make the play just like you don't always drive with your hands at the '10 and 2' position."

I've got some things to work on over the next couple of weeks before I get tested again. That stride needs to be lengthened and my arms need more discipline — I'm running very tight and short against my body like my baseball hero Lenny Dykstra used to do back in the day. I'm not relaxed, and everything about my movement is stiff. If I can lengthen my stride, Kornegay thinks I can shave tenths of a second off my time.

It will be tough as I don't have a fast-twitch muscle in my body but like the athletes training alongside me, it is all a part of living the dream and training for the draft.

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Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer

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