Should we have combines?
Athletic testing is somewhat controversial in sport, as the ultimate indicator of performance will always be the athlete’s sport-specific skill level. The reigning NBA MVP and 4-time NBA Scoring Champion Kevin Durant failed to do a single bench press repetition at 185lbs during the 2007 NBA Draft Combine, yet he is currently one of the game’s most dominant figures. It is clear that despite his lack of physiological strength, his exceptional skill level allows him to compete and dominate at the game’s highest level.
In spite of this, testing remains crucial in terms of strength and conditioning. Testing is a strength coach’s first step in a gap analysis, that is, a comparison between an athlete’s current ability and the level at which is ultimately desired and considered competitive as determined by competition standards and the desires of the coaches and athletes themselves. Testing, therefore, provides overall direction for the training program by highlighting areas in need of improvement and the prioritization of training elements.
Benefits of Athlete Testing
Regular testing allows for monitoring of the effectiveness of the strength and conditioning program, and allows for adaptation and adjustments to the program. As a result, it is advisable for strength coaches to facilitate athlete testing at various points throughout the season. Testing at the onset of the off-season establishes a performance baseline, allows athletes and coaches to set goals for strength development, and facilitates accurate, guided programming; testing at the onset of the pre-season will help determine the effectiveness of the program to date and allow for adjustments and the refinement of the program prior to the regular season; testing periodically through the competitive season will assist in monitoring recovery and physiological readiness; finally, testing immediately post-season will illuminate detraining that has occurred during the season, and highlight considerations for training elements that must be adequately maintained while in-season.
Testing may also assist in the injury management process; if an athlete suffers an injury that requires extensive rehabilitation, coaches can use the pre-injury testing data as a benchmark for return-to-play. The data gathered from athlete testing can also be utilized objectively by coaches for personnel matters such as team selection, the distribution of playing time, or the appointment of particular positions or tactical roles.
Suggested Testing Battery
In order to ensure the validity of testing, it is suggested the following tests occur in the order in which they are presented to prevent the accumulation of unnecessary fatigue from rendering an inaccurate measure of physical ability. While the following testing procedure may be considered comprehensive, it may not be necessary, efficient, or feasible to perform the entire range of tests for every team, based on the availability of resources. As a result, strength coaches should use their basketball needs analysis and the current status of the athletes in order to determine the combination of field tests that would prove most effective. It is also imperative that athletes are warmed up adequately (but not excessively) prior to testing in order to obtain accurate values of their maximum abilities and also to mitigate the risk of injury during testing.
The first aspect that should be measured and confirmed during testing phases are anthropometric measures including height, weight, standing reach, wingspan, and body fat percentage, as well as making note of the athletes’ positions. This will give context to the physical scores obtained later in the testing battery, and shed light on aspects such as power-to-weight ratios, and may help determine the degrees of emphasis on strength training, conditioning and nutrition, respectively. In subsequent testing periods, it may be unnecessary to repeat anthropometric measures other than percentage body fat, unless an athlete is still experiencing vertical growth and development. Active and passive range of motion tests may also be appropriate during this time, which may identify areas that may be prone to injury, and help direct the implementation of flexibility training.
Vertical Jump: Vertec
The vertical jump is an excellent measure of explosiveness, as Bevan, Bunce, Owen, Bennett, Cook, Cunningham, Newton, and Kildupp (2010) found that a simple bodyweight jump expresses the highest amount of peak power. The optimal way to test the vertical jump is via the Vertec. The Vertec provides an external target for athletes to reach for, which is important insofar as research has shown that performance is increased when the athlete’s focal point is external (Porter, Ostrowski, Nolan, and Wu, 2010). The Vertec also allows for a variety of different jump variations, such as single-foot or two-footed jumps, either with or without an approach. This is useful because of the number of different jumping requirements in basketball. Having this versatility is advantageous in order to obtain an accurate measurement of athletic ability based on specific game scenarios and individual athlete differences.
Sprint Ability: 20-m Sprint
The 20m sprint is an excellent indicator of speed, acceleration, and lower body explosive power. Athletes start in a static position on one baseline, and upon their own initiation, sprint as fast as possible to the opposite foul line. Test administrators should stand at the opposing foul line, starting the timer when the athlete first initiates movement, and stopping the timer once the athlete’s chest crosses the plane of the finish line. As with the vertical jump, two or three attempts may be given, with adequate rest in between attempts, and the fastest recorded time can be considered as the final score for the 20-m sprint. Of note, it may be imperative to measure the sprint distance prior to conducting testing, as not all basketball courts are constructed with exact dimensions. Furthermore, depending on the infrastructure surrounding the courts, the deceleration zone following the finish line may not be adequate in order to slow down quickly or safely. Therefore, it may be advisable to setup crash pads on the opposing gymnasium wall to mitigate the risk of a collision injury.
Agility: Lane Agility / 5-10-5
Agility is the measure of an athlete’s ability to accelerate/decelerate/reaccelerate and change directions. There are several standard tests that can be used to measure agility, including the pro-agility test, and the lane-agility test. The lane agility test is the standard used in the NBA combine, and involves agility in all planes of movement in a rectangular pattern around the key area. Athletes begin at the foul line elbow, facing the basket. Upon the start of the test, athletes sprint forwards to the baseline (19-feet), then shuffle laterally to the right across the key (16-feet), backpedal to the opposite other elbow (19-feet), and shuffle laterally left to the start position. At this point, the athlete must touch his hand down at the starting marker and then reverse directions around the key. The test concludes when the athlete reaches the start position a second time after completing the course in both directions. It may be important to instruct athletes to perform the lateral aspects of the lane agility test with correct defensive sliding technique. This will give an accurate representation of the athlete’s ability to play defensively on the perimeter in a stance, rather than merely covering distance quickly.
Another valid test for agility is the pro-agility test. In this test, three cones are placed on lines evenly spaced lines measuring 5-yards apart. The athlete starts straddling the centre line, and initiates the test volitionally in their preferred direction. The athlete must first sprint 5 yards in the initial direction and touch the corresponding line with their hand, then quickly change directions and run 10 yards in the opposite direction. After hand-touching the opposite far line, the athlete changes directions once more and runs 5 yards across the middle start/finish line.
Power and Strength: 1RM Clean, Bench & Squat
Weight room testing is important to measure an athlete’s maximum power and strength levels, and data gathered from testing can provide guidance for the prescription of volumes and intensities throughout the periodization program. For strength testing, the NBA combine employs a maximum-repetition bench press at 185 lbs in order to gauge muscular strength and endurance. However, repeated upper body muscular endurance against a moderate load is not a common requirement for basketball players. Furthermore, as this is the only weight room test present in the NBA combine, it neglects to consider the lower body strength requirements of the sport. Therefore, it is advisable for strength coaches to employ a small range of 1RM tests to obtain a comprehensive depiction of the athlete’s maximum strength capabilities throughout the entire body.
In sequential order, this guide suggests that coaches test the 1RM power clean (lower body explosive power), 1RM bench press (upper body strength), and 1RM back squat (lower body strength). During these tests, athletes load the barbell progressively to determine the maximum amount of load (lbs or kg) they can lift in one repetition. Athletes may continue to load the bar so long as they continue to lift weights successfully. However, to mitigate excessive time being spent on weight room testing and to prevent injury and non-functional overreaching, coaches may want to cease testing in each lift after two failed attempts of a given load. It should be noted that limiting attempts for the power clean in this manner may not elicit a true maximum test, as often times failure in the power clean is due to flaws in technique rather than limitations in strength and power.
As for safety considerations, as mentioned above, the power clean is a highly technical lift that requires familiarity and practice in order to test accurately. Consequently, it may not be appropriate for inexperienced lifters. In such cases, the test should be omitted from the individual athlete’s testing battery until they can demonstrate proficient technique in the lift. Similarly, untrained individuals may not have adequate range of motion or technique in even basic exercises such as the bench press and squat, and poor technique may be exacerbated by the heavy loads in a 1RM test, increasing the risk of injury exponentially. As a result, it may be more appropriate for relatively untrained athletes to perform a lower intensity test (e.g. 5RM) in order to mitigate risk, yet still establish baseline strength measurement. Using this data, coaches can then perform a 1RM calculation or use a standard repetition-maximum/%1RM table to estimate the athlete’s maximum strength capability.
Aerobic/Anaerobic Fitness: Yo-Yo / 300-m Shuttle
As outlined in the needs analysis, aerobic and anaerobic endurance are vital in basketball. Often times, teams may use a standard timed distance run over 1.5-2 miles in order to gauge cardiovascular fitness. However, such tests are unadvisable due to the intermittent nature of basketball and the repeated sprint ability required. Furthermore, athletes may not be familiar with appropriate pacing strategies for the run, and may be unaccustomed to the running environment, particularly if the test is conducted outdoors. As a result, it is suggested that strength coaches administer indoor field tests to create testing conditions that will simulate the sporting requirements.
There are multiple field tests that correspond well with VO2 max including the 300-m shuttle, beep test, and the yo-yo intermittent test. The yo-yo intermittent test may be the most appropriate test, given the distance covered, as well as the recovery time provided between each stage, which replicates the intermittent nature of basketball. Inherent in the yo-yo intermittent test is an acceleration component to the test, perhaps making it a more valid test for perimeter players. In contrast, the 300-m shuttle run is continuous over a set distance, and may be more appropriate for post players as acceleration and repeated sprint ability are deemphasized in favor of continuous movement.
Alternatively, the beep-test (i.e. multi-stage fitness test) can provide a good overall marker of aerobic ability, though it may lack specificity insofar as the lower stages may be at a pace that is too slow to provide relevance. Moreover, in the beep test the rest periods become shorter as the duration of the test increases, thereby deemphasizing repeated sprint ability and anaerobic power in favor of aerobic endurance. However, research by Abdelkrim et al (2007) found that the physiological intensity of a basketball game actually tapers and diminishes greatly near the end of the game, and “plasma lactate determinations show a large contribution from the anaerobic energy systems towards the end of the halves” (pg. 74). This evidence suggests that either of the aforementioned anaerobic endurance tests (i.e. 300-m shuttle and yo-yo intermittent test) may be a more appropriate choice.
Conducting a gap analysis via athlete testing is important for planning an effective strength and conditioning program. Based on the needs analysis of basketball, basketball combines should emphasize testing alactic anaerobic qualities. In an optimal scenario, testing would occur periodically throughout the macrocycle and include a battery of assessments including anthropometric and flexibility measures, vertical jump, sprint ability, agility, 1RM tests for upper and lower body strength/explosivness, and aerobic/anaerobic fitness.