What Does It Take To Train Top Athletes?

Posted May 29, 2007

An insider perspective on getting faster, stronger, and the role drugs may or may not play.

Speed and performance specialist, Scott E. Pucek, has personally trained a host of current professional athletes from the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, pro golf, pro tennis and the NHL. He is the founder of an elite training company, Xplosive Speed, and also serves as the Sports Performance Coordinator for the Athletic Performance Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has acted as a speed and performance consultant to the NFL's Miami Dolphins, North Carolina State football and basketball programs and Velocity Sports Performance.

Coach Pucek is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA), earned a Masters in Exercise Physiology from the University of Virginia, coached with the Miami Dolphins and worked with some of the top NFL agencies in the country. Scott's area of expertise lies in the field of explosive speed and power development and his NFL Combine and Draft Preparation training has produced 16 first round draft picks. Current NFL players train with him during each off-season to tap into his knowledge of speed and strength development and total performance training.

Coach Pucek has become one of the nations' most respected Combine Specialists and trainer of NFL athletes. The Xplosive Speed NFL Combine & Draft Preparation program is not exclusive to any single agency, and athletes such as San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Eric Johnson of the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington have greatly benefited from Coach Pucek's expertise to dramatically improve their NFL Draft Stock.

CFN: Why do today's aspiring professional athletes seek out the support of a professional trainer like yourself instead of staying with their on-campus trainer?

SP: I think they realize they need more individual attention to meet their specific goals and needs. The strength coach's primary concern and attention is focused on the kids that are still currently with the team. Also, I want to be fair and respectful when I point out certain limitations of on-campus trainers. It's not just that these trainers often times lack the necessary experience and knowledge base (specifically speed and movement skills), but rather more likely a lack of time to devote to an individual's needs. There truly are only a select few competent coaches with a tremendous wealth of speed and movement knowledge which is one of the main reasons to search out an experienced, trained and true speed and performance specialist. Teaching speed and movement skills is one of the most difficult tasks and should not be an afterthought when it comes to performing at the highest levels of the game.

CFN : To get the most of your services, what should an athlete know (or do) before he steps into your facility?

SP: One of the most important things an athlete can do is just get into decent shape before reporting to our facility and engaging in our programs. We will undoubtedly get you in the best condition of your life while you are here, but our training program is admittedly challenging and quite intense, so to make the most of your training experience you do not want to report out of shape. Trust me. I've had athletes vomit during their very first speed session from my warm-up protocol.

CFN: Is it harder to make a kid stronger or faster?

SP: It is much more difficult to make an athlete faster than it is to make an athlete stronger. Strength is a direct function of proper systematic progressive overloading. It can be complicated, but generally speaking, with time and effort, almost anyone can become stronger. Strength is vitally important as one of the foundational spokes of the performance wheel. Speed, however, is a synergistic neuromuscular integration of all the other spokes of the performance wheel (ie. technique, balance, coordination, strength-endurance, power and mobility) that culminates in an elegant, skillful expression of "speed". All of these ingredients must be properly balanced to elicit an "explosive speed" training response – which everyone wants.

CFN: How much time do you typically need to really have an impact on an athlete?

SP: There are so many factors that it truly is difficult to quantify, but some key factors depend on the following: How far away from the goal is the athlete starting? How disciplined is the athlete in precisely following the training system? And are there any physical or cognitive limitations in this person's genetic potential, and the list goes on and on. Having said that, I think that a minimum of 4-6 weeks is crucial. Anything less than that doesn't truly allow an athlete to "master" many of the techniques he needs to learn with proper repetition and feedback from a qualified coach. However, an athlete can make a positive impact on his performance in less time if he can follow through on what he learned during his limited exposure.

CFN: Is there a huge difference between training a football player and other athletes?

SP: There isn't a tremendous difference when it comes to speed and movement skills. I try to keep things consistent as most laws of human movement are universal. The real separation and differences between sports is at a higher skill level, and you consider the different energy system demands and uniqueness of each sport or position. Without sounding overly simple, my core training philosophy focuses on developing the fastest, most explosive and powerful, agile athlete I can, regardless of the sport.

CFN: Can speed be taught?

SP: Absolutely speed can be taught. Speed development is a skill, just like any other skill. Hitting a ball, throwing, kicking... are all skills that can be developed to an advanced level. Genetics do indeed play an obvious role, however, everyone can get faster. Period. Just how fast is the ultimate question, and that's what's limited by the genes. And no one truly knows the answer to that.

CFN: How much of speed is related to technique?

SP: It's often said one can only run as fast as his technique will allow. Technique is vitally important to maximize all of the other components required for producing fast movements. If technique is less than optimal, speed will be hindered even when tremendous strength is present to such an extent that strength can't overcome technical limitation. A simple illustration of this would be to think of pushing a stalled car. A person with superb strength that stands upright (approx. 90 degrees) and attempts to push the car will have markedly less success than another person with even below-average strength that creates leverage by lowering his body (approx. 45 degrees) and pushes the car. The person with less strength, but better technique and optimal leverage will undoubtedly be much more successful at pushing that car.

CFN: Has the importance of the 40 time become overrated?

SP: Quite possibly so. Unfortunately, the NFL has established it as the gold standard so the 40 time will be a very important number for some time to come. I think it is just another indicator of athletic ability, but not necessarily an accurate reflection of an athlete's football ability. It's an objective test to be used in comparison with other athletes so it's definitely a valid test, even though the distance may be somewhat arbitrary as to how it relates to the game. The athletes or coaches that tend to argue that it's overrated are typically those that are not that fast. Speed does translate to the playing field so slow athletes would still complain if they changed the distance to 30 yards and so on. They've made the 40 time a little more valid by noting the 10 and 20 yard splits of the 40 so you can better evaluate where an athlete is faster within that distance.

CFN: In your years, have you found one or two characteristics in an athlete that are the best determinations of future success in the NFL (tangible or intangible)?

SP: Two things come to my mind first, work ethic and hip mobility. Some guys, whether they're blessed with tremendous talent or not, just have an inner drive that is single-minded in purpose and seem to just get it. These guys possess a certain professionalism, focus and blue-collar approach that are hard to describe, measure or teach. I know it when I see it, because I feel it in their aura and energy. The other is physically fluid, smooth, loose and "useable" hips. This trait in an athlete allows him to harness the explosive power to use for speed, change-of-direction ability and force production. This physical trait may not be the greatest attribute to determine future success, however, I'm very confident in stating that an athlete that does not have this quality is going to clearly struggle at the NFL level.

CFN: With the advent of new, undetectable performance-enhancing substances, such as HGH, will the athletes always be one step ahead of the governing bodies in sports?

SP: Unfortunately, I believe so. It seems to be the case that the governing bodies do not have unlimited resources, and it's nearly impossible to cover such a broad band of those individuals who are intent on "getting around" the system. It's not unlike the proliferation of other drugs and illegal substances in our society. Cheaters will always find a way to try to gain an edge no matter if they are successful or not, but ultimately there will always be a heavy price to pay.

Now I don't know Barry Bonds personally, but if you look at the scenario unfolding today, we see this in effect. The public has already pretty much made up its mind that Bonds is (or was) using "something". That "something" may never be proven, but my point is this: my personal opinion is that he undoubtedly is one of the finest hitters in the history of baseball, whether he used something illegal or not. His ability is rarely seen on a baseball diamond. However, because of all these allegations, no matter what records he breaks or on field success he has, there will always be that dark cloud hanging over his head and it's a shame because of his unbelievable talent. Even if he did take 'something' , shame on him because he still would have hit an enormous amount of homers and qualified for the Hall of Fame on God-given talent alone.

CFN: Do you feel the use of performance-enhancing drugs is as prevalent in today's sports as we're led to believe?

SP: That's a very hard difficult question to answer. On one hand, I thoroughly believe that the media distorts our perception of this prevalence because it attracts more attention. Typically, negative news draws more attention than positive news . On the other hand, it's a definite reality that has been here for a very long time and will probably never go away. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is not a recent problem, since it has been around long before the days of the old Eastern Bloc countries.

The media would like us to believe that every single elite athlete is performing with the aid of some illegal substance, and I just think it's an insult and unfair to lump the majority of honest, hard working athletes into the pile with those that cheat. There certainly seems to be sports that would have a higher percentage of use than others, but, no, I don't believe that performance-enhancing drugs are as prevalent in today's sports as the media would like us to believe.

CFN: Are performance-enhancing drugs all about boosting strength, or can they help with speed, endurance and recovery time?

SP: I'm no expert on performance-enhancing drugs, but it's my understanding that the true benefits of these drugs are from a recovery or regeneration standpoint. In this case, human physiology simply dictates that if the body can recover quicker, then more work can be accomplished which in turn affects strength, speed, stamina, etc. That premise is a huge reason why ethical professionals, athletes and coaches alike, educate themselves to maximize training and regeneration methodology. Regeneration or recovery-oriented activities, such as nutrition, rest, flexibility and massage, should be a foundation upon which all other training is built in order to maximize the training program itself.

CFN: Over the years, there's been a steady push by some in society to legalize drugs. Do you envision a day when there'll be a similar voice to legalize performance-enhancing drugs?

SP: There probably already is a ‘voice' to legalize performance-enhancing drugs, but I thoroughly doubt this day will ever come. I trust our society will always discourage performance-enhancing drugs and other illegal drugs that we know have severe negative effects on human health and longevity.