Ex-NFLer uses mar­tial arts prin­ci­ples to train play­ers

Lever­age and con­trol among fun­da­men­tals

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY NORA PRINCIOTTI

Scott Peters de­cided he would play in the NFL when he was 14 years old. Be­tween then and 2006, when Peters was a vet­eran of­fen­sive line­man for the Carolina Pan­thers, most of the con­ven­tional wis­dom he’d been taught had to do with be­ing big, fast and strong.

So, when an an­kle in­jury landed him in a mar­tial arts gym try­ing his hand at Brazil­ian ji­u­jitsu be­cause it could be prac­ticed on the ground and off his feet, Peters was sur­prised when much smaller men were kick­ing all 300-plus pounds of him from here to Sun­day.

“I’m like, what are they do­ing? I was a big, strong, NFL player,” Peters said. “How was this pos­si­ble?”

That ques­tion led Peters to his even­tual ca­reer af­ter foot­ball and, ear­lier this month, to Red­skins Park where he worked with the team’s of­fen­sive line­men for two days.

He coached tech­niques for en­gag­ing in con­tact rooted in the prin­ci­ples of lever­age and con­trol that al­lowed mid­dle-aged men with of­fice jobs to de­liver so many un­ex­pected butt-kick­ings.

The most im­por­tant byprod­uct of Peters’ train­ing is that, when it sticks, play­ers who make their liv­ing in the col­li­sion-zone along the line of scrim­mage stop lead­ing with their heads.

“I don’t think head con­tact is ever go­ing to be fully elim­i­nated, but there’s cer­tain ways to, I mean, when we’re pass-pro­tect­ing, we want to keep our heads out,” said cen­ter Spencer Long who, with other re­turn­ing guards and cen­ters, worked most closely with Peters.

Head-on col­li­sions have al­ways been part of the game, and Peters needed a cir­cuitous route to even con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that they could be elim­i­nated.

When Peters re­tired from the NFL af­ter the 2008 sea­son with the Ari­zona Car­di­nals, he opened a mixed mar­tial arts gym in Scotts­dale called Fight Ready. There, he learned about the tech­niques un­der­ly­ing var­i­ous dis­ci­plines, and the more he learned, the more he won­dered if the same prin­ci­ples could be use­ful in foot­ball.

In 2012, Peters got his first big op­por­tu­nity to teach those tech­niques when the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton hired him as a strength and con­di­tion­ing coach. The Huskies went on to have the best rush­ing sea­son in team his­tory. Peters was thrilled by that re­sult alone. Then, a trainer called to tell him that UW had had no di­ag­nosed con­cus­sions or neck stingers that year, which the trainer had never seen hap­pen be­fore.

Safety wasn’t Peters’ orig­i­nal fo­cus but, like most play­ers, he’d had con­cus­sions and wor­ried about them.

“The funny thing is when I played it was like very few of us had, it wasn’t that of­ten you’d get a di­ag­nosed con­cus­sion,” Peters said. “But when you learned about the symp­toms, learned what is a con­cus­sion, you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a con­cus­sion? I think I had one on ev­ery play.’ You know? So that’s scary stuff.”

When he re­al­ized the same prac­tices that could help line­men play bet­ter could also keep them safer, Peters changed di­rec­tion. He started Safe Foot­ball, a skill devel­op­ment pro­gram that teaches play­ers how to block, beat blocks and tackle by us­ing their hands and lever­age, not their heads.

Safe Foot­ball works with NFL teams on down to youth pro­grams. This off­sea­son, Peters has worked with the Colts and Browns as well as the Red­skins, and is plan­ning to visit with the Steel­ers.

Peters was in­vited to Ashburn by Red­skins of­fen­sive line coach Bill Cal­la­han, who found out about his work through leg­endary of­fen­sive line coach Jim McNally. Cal­la­han vis­ited Peters’ gym in Scotts­dale, and de­cided he wanted to bring him up to work with play­ers.

“It was great to have him in there be­cause he’s mas­ter­ful, and it’s great to have a per­son that has mar­tial arts ex­pe­ri­ence and that can ap­ply it to foot­ball,” Cal­la­han said. “A lot of guys have mar­tial arts ex­pe­ri­ence but can’t ap­ply it to our game.”

One way in which Peters dif­fer­en­ti­ates him­self is by mak­ing sure that ev­ery drill he runs with NFL line­men is de­signed with an eye to­ward their par­tic­u­lar scheme.

“He’s go­ing to be a hell of a coach and I’m cer­tain that some­one is go­ing to hire him in this league be­cause he brings that value to the team,” Cal­la­han said.

For now, youth and high school teams, though, are Safe Foot­ball’s main fo­cus. If Peters can teach safer tech­niques ear­lier, play­ers don’t have bad habits to cor­rect later. More im­por­tantly, they spend fewer years of their foot­ball lives tak­ing un­nec­es­sary hits.

At the col­lege level, be­cause of lim­ited prac­tice time and the em­pha­sis on pro­duc­ing play­ers with traits that will get them to the NFL, strength and con­di­tion­ing is pri­or­i­tized over skill devel­op­ment. Play­ers get big­ger, faster and stronger with­out learn­ing how to use their bod­ies ef­fec­tively or safely.

“Guys are just run­ning around like trains out of con­trol or run­away beer trucks hit­ting each other, and of course you’re go­ing to get more guys scraped off the ground and more in­juries,” Peters said.

Just by watch­ing a game of col­lege foot­ball, Peters can tell which play­ers have been coached to un­der­stand lever­age. A line­man who leads with his head has not been; one who fin­ishes a game with a clean hel­met likely has.

Peters likened good coach­ing to teach­ing a player to swim in­stead of throw­ing him a life raft. The way he de­scribes it, though, it sounds more like teach­ing some­one to swim in­stead of telling them to walk through neck-high wa­ter: the move­ments may not feel as nat­u­ral, but they’re much more ef­fi­cient.

“We need coaches to step up a lit­tle bit,” Peters said. “A lot. And re­de­fine what [coach­ing] is. You can’t just yell at a kid and throw your hat and curse him. You have to ac­tu­ally teach him.”

Pro­fes­sion­als tend to be more re­cep­tive than am­a­teurs, in Peters’ ex­pe­ri­ence. If he can show them that his tech­niques work, NFL play­ers will be open to try­ing them.

“You’ll find the old­est, crusti­est guys — these guys that don’t want to hear about it — I can win those guys over be­cause I’ll go, ‘Hey, you can tell me this is soft but I’m go­ing to ask you to feel it and tell me if it’s soft’,” Peters said.

The game check is ul­ti­mately the most pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tor. If Peters can prove that what he preaches will lead to bet­ter per­for­mance, then play­ers will buy in.

Fo­cus­ing on safety with­out con­sid­er­ing per­for­mance is point­less, Peters said, be­cause NFL play­ers are far more will­ing to sac­ri­fice the former for the lat­ter than to do the op­po­site.

“You can’t tell them ‘Hey man, you’re go­ing to die a day af­ter you re­tire.’ They’ll be like ‘What­ever, I’m do­ing it.’ You can­not con­vince these guys,” Peters said. “That’s not the idea. The idea is look, this is bet­ter, and it is. It truly is.”

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