As the NFL season opens, you can go through every roster and point to the “You Gotta Be Kidding Me” injuries: Hamstring issues, quad strains, calf strains, groin pulls… you gotta be kidding me. The NFL season ended last January, you had five months before training camp in July. What were you doing? If you trained efficiently and effectively, there’s not a reason in the world you should be dealing with a calf strain or sore hamstring. Unless you took the offseason off.
At the end of every sports season, there should be a sign over the locker room door for every player to see as he or she exits:
OFFSEASON DOESN’T MEAN TAKE THE SEASON OFF. IT MEANS YOU’RE OFF ON YOUR OWN UNTIL NEXT SEASON.
There is no offseason.
If you’re serious about winning, if you care about your body, if you’re committed to being ready and available for your team, you have to be willing to work year-round. Not just because you’re told to, or because you’re paid to, but because you want those results so intensely that the work becomes irrelevant.
Plain and simple: The offseason prepares you for training camp. Training camp prepares you for the preseason. The preseason prepares you for the season. If you skip any one of those stages, there’s a good chance you won’t have to worry about the season; you’ll be on the bench. No matter how talented you are, if you’re not healthy or available, you can’t help your team. Now you’re already behind…because someone else outworked you and took your spot.
I know, everyone “works out.” But there’s a big difference between working out, and training like a pro. If you play in a helmet and pads, why aren't you spending some offseason time training in a helmet and pads? Why wait for training camp? Everything about your motion and balance and weight distribution changes when you put on the equipment. So first we’ll work at your own body weight, then body weight plus three pounds, body weight plus seven, plus 15 … so your joints and muscles and central nervous system are conditioned for the stress and impact they experience in game conditions. If you limit your offseason program to lifting and cardio, and you’re not conditioning your body to play with the extra bulk and weight and restriction of equipment, you can’t be surprised when you get to training camp and go down with a You Gotta Be Kidding Me. Or a torn ACL.
Football players have an extra offseason challenge, because it’s extremely hard to simulate the intensity of explosive physical impact. But find some way to use your body that prepares it for what’s ahead. Strike something and let it strike you: Boxing, wrestling, tumbling, diving … anything that creates impact. If the last hit you took was in January, you will not be ready for that first hit in July.
I’m not just picking on football players here; this is true for every sport. I can guarantee that around the first week of October, just as NBA training camps open, I’ll get half a dozen calls from players (or their frantic agents and GMs) who—oops!—just realized they forgot to train for the season. And it’s never the guys who just wrapped up the Finals in late June; they know what’s at stake and they typically keep working. It’s usually a handful of players whose season ended mid-April without a trip to the playoffs, and who still don’t understand why. Hint: What you do in the offseason is a pretty good indication of whether you’ll have a post-season.
If you want a great example of how being unprepared leads to injury, go back to the shortened 2011-12 NBA season that opened two months late because of a labor dispute. When the standoff finally ended, the league rushed back to work with limited workouts and practice, an abrupt preseason, and a condensed schedule that led to fewer days off and less time for rest and recovery. The consequences were immediately obvious: many guys were out of shape, poorly conditioned, unprepared to play ... and inevitably, numerous players suffered serious injuries. Everyone pointed to the same cause: There had been no time to get ready.
No time to get ready? There was nothing but time to get ready. I wrote about this in my book Relentless, and I’m writing it here again, because it underscores everything I believe in: All those months, waiting for the lockout to end—what else did the players have to do? When you’re a professional athlete, you have one job: Take care of yourself and your skills, get in shape and stay that way. Your body is your career. What difference does it make when the season is starting? A longer offseason should have meant more time to prepare, not less. Instead, we had some of the world’s greatest athletes putting in as much as effort as the guys at the local health club, waiting for someone to announce it was time to do the real work. For those who waited, it was too late to get in shape for the rigors of the season.
But you never hear players say they weren’t in shape. What’s the most common explanation for any injury that doesn’t have an obvious cause? It just happened. Freak accident.
Nope. There is no such thing as a freak accident in sports. Nothing “just happens.” If you traced every step backwards from the moment of the injury, examining what happened that day, that week, even the months before—you’ll find the cause. Overtraining, undertraining, fatigue, weakness, flawed mechanics, drinking, smoking, poor preparation, inadequate equipment, behind-the-scenes drama, fear. There is some unseen detail that allowed the injury to occur. True for you and true for the superstars; my clients are no exception. Wade’s knee, Kobe’s Achilles … there’s always a reason, even if you have to search back to the beginning of the career to find it. It’s not about pointing fingers or creating blame; it’s about resolving the issue and doing everything possible to make sure it doesn’t worsen or repeat.
I can’t accept an injury being written off as “one of those things.” One of what things? How did it happen? Why? What could we have done to prevent it? I’ll examine game film for hours looking for clues. You tell me you felt something unusual during a game or practice—I have to know where it started. Because the next time you feel it, we might be too late to do anything about it. And you’d better believe we’ll spend a good portion of the offseason preparing your body to minimize the chance of it happening again.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the greatest athletes are those who are always working at being even greater, even when their abilities already exceed everyone else’s. No one understood this better than Michael Jordan: His season would end with the Finals in late June, and he’d spend July and August focused on how he could improve his game, what he could add, refining his goals. Even when he was resting his body, his mental training never stopped. And when he was ready to get back to the gym, everything else stopped; all his sponsor commitments and international travel were finished by the end of August, because by Labor Day, he shut down everything else in order to focus on the upcoming season. Our day: Workout, breakfast, golf, lunch, workout, golf, dinner, sleep. Every day. No offseason. When training camp opened in October, he was already prepared for the regular season in November, while most players were still trying to pass their team’s conditioning tests.
Look, I’m not telling players they have to train 365 days a year; everyone needs time to rest, to relax, to have a life. It’s not about the offseason hours you put in, it’s what you do with those hours—not just working, but working efficiently. How you train must translate into how you compete; every exercise should have a specific purpose. If you can’t find the link between your work in the gym and your game-time performance, if you’re spending more time training on a ball or a mat than on your feet, it’s time to reevaluate your program. You play on two feet, you should train on two feet. Are your exercises for show or for go? Is your trainer trying to impress you with creative trendy gimmicks, or giving you a program the delivers results? Everyone talks about training at “game speed,” meaning practicing at 100% speed all the time. But actual game speed isn’t 100%; games are played at high intensity, low intensity, and no intensity. If you play at different speeds, then train at different speeds.
MJ used to say practicing hard made the game easier. No question: The harder the offseason, the easier the season. Anyone can get intense under the bright lights; it takes a true competitor to get intense about offseason workouts. You don’t have to love the effort. Just crave the results, and the effort becomes effortless.
Tim S. Grover is the CEO of ATTACK Athletics, world-renowned for his work with championship and Hall of Fame athletes. An international authority on sports performance and motivation, he trains elite athletes around the world, appears as a keynote speaker for corporations and sports organizations, and is the best-selling author of Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable and Jump Attack. Follow Tim @ATTACKATHLETICS on Twitter, and visit www.attackathletics.com for more.