After a recent SimpliFaster blog post of mine was published on prancing and galloping, I received a few messages and comments that made me pause and reflect on my own coaching style.
“Coach, how do you get your athletes to be motivated to and take doing drills seriously?”
I was pleasantly surprised that most of the feedback wasn’t from the anti-drill and “specificity only” crowd, but rather from coaches saying that they want to do this stuff but are having a hard time getting started. I understand that selling things like skips, crawls, gallops, and prancing to teenage football players may take something of a cultural shift, but this doesn’t mean it is impossible or something to avoid because of initial awkwardness.
I did get a few tags on Twitter with the comments linking a GIF or video of the famous “Prancercise” lady. I actually got a chuckle out of them because it shows how easily the look of a drill can turn a coach off, even if the function has tremendous value.
The fact is that whenever you introduce something new during a season, you are bound to get some quizzical looks and kids who pipe up and say something along the lines of “We don’t usually do this” or ask the dreaded question, “Why are we doing this?”
I am a huge advocate for drills for several reasons, all of which I will explain here in this article. As I spoke about in a previous blog piece, the research says drills work—they just don’t always work right away or in the way we hope they do.
Bosch lovers and followers of the dynamic systems theory are well-versed in using variations to further ingrain good patterns and solutions in athletes. Below, I offer advice that will give coaches confidence and present seven key methods for implementing drills beyond the speed ladder variety to create buy-in with their athletes.
1. Make Time for Drills Daily
Doing drills sporadically is one way to ensure that no one ever takes them seriously. Drills are a focus lesson in the same way that most classrooms start off with a small lesson. Doing them inconsistently is confusing and frustrating for developing athletes, and it becomes harder for a coach to calibrate drills to meet the needs of the athletes in front of them that day. Coaches and athletes both will improve their respective crafts and have some sort of expectations on different tasks.There isn’t much instant gratification in long-term athletic development…but I think the length of time it takes to saturate an athlete with this is greatly underestimated, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
There is not much instant gratification in long-term athletic development. It is really a long-haul type of endeavor. The descriptor “long-term” precedes “athletic development” but I think the length of time it takes to saturate an athlete with this is greatly underestimated. Drilling great movement is not something to throw your hands up at and proclaim, “Well, that didn’t work” after eight weeks.
Coach Mike Whiteman of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer Club routinely posts videos of excellent training montages of his athletes. His response when asked how he gets his athletes moving so well made me nod my head. What did he say? We slow-cook everything.
Specificity is much easier with a solid foundation of movement.
In a recent webinar, Coach Ryan Banta remarked that it takes about 500 hours for motor learning to really stick and for the athletes to be rewired via neuroplasticity. This kind of long-term development becomes harder when we skip daily coaching opportunities. Most of my coaching failures have happened simply because I sent mixed signals by not being consistent with training modalities.
The drill/warm-up sessions I lead are the one time that all athletes, regardless of event (or in the case of field sports, positions), are all together as a unit. There is something to be said for that cohesive environment and setting the tone for the day with clear and common language.
2. Start Small and Select Carefully
Most coaches I talk to are overwhelmed by the sheer number of drill possibilities. They want to know that they are doing the right thing. I am commonly asked, “What are the best sprint drills to improve speed?” My answer is usually none of them and all of them.
This is not meant to be cryptic. Drills are about creating a more complete athlete rather than just creating changes in peak velocity. Speed, like strength, cannot be maximized in the presence of dysfunction and a general lack of movement competency. We must simply aim to get our athletes to do as many movements as well as we can and build them brick by brick.
Coaches need not experience paralysis by analysis. Rather than searching for the mythical perfect drill, remember who you are coaching and understand that going slow is perfectly okay. By the same token, something too challenging is easily scaled back.Rather than searching for the mythical perfect drill, remember who you are coaching and understand that going slow is perfectly okay, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Sprinting is commonly upheld as the pinnacle of athletic performance, and indeed, the posture, rhythm, timing, coordination, and elasticity that is on display in good sprinters makes us stop and marvel. However, if we inherit athletes who possess some speed but lack the ability to perform movements like skipping, prancing, galloping, etc. with the aforementioned qualities, we can move forward by addressing this low-hanging fruit in conjunction with smart sprint training.
It seems impossible to me that an athlete who lacks general movement ability and/or experience will suddenly be a sprinter who displays “maximum beauty” or a clean block start. They have no awareness of what the best of something feels like.
The hardest part is getting started, but just start. Start at the bottom. Start with 10 minutes. Tony Holler has a list of 10 speed drills in his “Feed the Cats” program. He says he coaches the heck out of the drills and wants them done in a “caffeinated” state.
One of my favorites to start with is the “loose skip.” I often note with our jumps coach, Tyler Colbert, that the loose skip is a good eye test on day one of a new season. It is such a simple movement, but it is not uncommon to discover that a sizable chunk of the newcomers cannot perform a loose skip or basic crawl competently. Loose skips and marches are merely the upright version of a crawl.
It may also be worthwhile to explore a drill or movement deeply in one session. For example, I may decide during the “movement” portion of our warm-up to go skip heavy (examples of skipping variations will come in the next section). If I notice that we are having issues with galloping, we will go gallop heavy, and so on. Maybe it is baby bounds, prancing, A-runs—address what is needed.
This summer has given me a good chance to continue using drills thematically. When we have an acceleration day, we tend to go skip heavy. On longer, rhythmic days, gallops, and on top speed days, prancing.
There is no perfect progress, but if it is early in the season, you can start with the most remedial of a variety of drills. Teach a proper march, crawl, loose skip, and basic gallop, and start prancing progressions. The goal is to constantly revisit and repeat things, attack weaknesses, and forge ahead. Four years from now, the scene in the rear-view mirror should look pretty good.
3. Allow Athletes to Repeat Stuff and Sprinkle in Movement Variability
When I first laid a foundation of movement with our track team, I had very few drills. Then I added more. Then I cut out the fluff and stopped trying to do more and focused instead on what I thought was important. It really is about meeting the athletes where they are and then pushing them farther and farther in their abilities each week.
Kids like doing things they are good at, but they also like some unpredictable variety. Too much can turn a practice into a circus really quickly. Most drills can be tweaked slightly to create an illusion of shiny newness. This repetition without repetition keeps motivation high. More importantly, it also allows athletes to experience singular movements in a variety of ways and ultimately figure out what feels the best and how they may use it in the future. I want them to take what is useful and discard what isn’t.Most drills can be tweaked slightly to create an illusion of shiny newness. This repetition without repetition keeps motivation high, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
For example, the Mach A-skip is commonly cast aside due to its perceived lack of specificity and transfer. I am under no illusion that an A-skip will create a world record holder, but if an athlete can’t A-skip, I ask myself “Why not? What is preventing them from doing this drill correctly?” It could be posture; it could be their foot strike. I want them to feel the flow and rhythm when they do this drill correctly, because if they cannot problem-solve and optimize something at 2-3 m/s, I bet their speed at 8-10 m/s is not optimal either. There is a best way that each athlete can perform an A-skip. It comes down to trying to do everything.
There are so many different types of skips that allow rehearsals of rhythm and timing. Here are some skipping options:
- Loose skip
- Skip for distance
- Skip for height
- A-skip for rhythm
- A-skip for speed
- Big arm side skip
- Asymmetrical skip
- Single leg A-skip
- Quick skip
- Skip bleeds (seamlessly transitioning from one type of skip to another)
- Backward skip on all variations
Nearly every drill has endless possibilities.
4. Don’t Call It a Warm-Up
I usually start a session by saying “Let’s get going” and gradually building the intensity near the main session. I don’t necessarily call anything a “warm-up.”
In a recent SimpliFaster article, Keith Ferrara discusses how he calls warm-ups “ignition series.” I can see the value in using this term or something similar with teams like football. The terminology definitely sounds more appealing than “warm-up drills.”
Especially for a coach beginning to make their foray into drilling and movement, having a unique name for their warm-up can highlight the importance of this portion of practice. This can also create a departure from the idea of warming up as merely stretching and jogging.
Some drills done well will “ignite” the team and pay dividends down the road in their development.
5. Spotlight Good Movement
My #1 goal on all drills is for the athletes to look as athletic as possible on any given day. I typically use the correct-incorrect-correct from John Wooden.
- Correct: “Here’s what the drill is, here is what you should be feeling, and here is an analogy or cue that could help you.” Really sell the “why” in kid-friendly terms. Examples:
- A-skip = “We are doing this to rehearse rhythm, slight forward lean, and great foot contacts.”
- Carioca = “We are doing this to be fluid with our hips. Athletes need to be able to separate their lower and upper body when reacting on the field.”
- Incorrect: “Don’t do this. Doing this is not a good thing because ________.” I then demonstrate it poorly. I tend to exaggerate, which eases the tension because no one will do it as poorly as this.
- Correct: Find a kid who can do it really well, gas them up with confidence by having the team watch their model, and follow up with a round of applause. As the rest of the team goes, I circulate and assist with kids who need tweaks. If a kid has a breakthrough, I try to point that out as well. This is all a little cheesy, but it suits my coaching style, which borders on hyper at times. Their progress, however small, needs to be contagious.
There is not enough time to do this on every drill, of course. It depends where we are at. I usually consider what most of my athletes cannot do well and make it a goal for them to do it better.
The learning process is often slow, so drills may be done incorrectly all the time. This is fine, as long as the intent to be correct is high. Athletes need a lot of movement competency in their arsenal. Again, the more, the better.
6. Do Some Drills with Them
I won’t spend too much time on this section since coaches have different levels of comfort and readiness that they need to explore for themselves. I am seeing a growing trend of high school coaches immersing themselves in their own speed/drill training. Coaches like Mike Whiteman, Tyler Germain, Kyle Edwards, Tony Martins, and Joshua Collins all have posted their own training for their athletes to see.
I think it helps the kids to see a coach demonstrate something and be part of the process. It has personally helped me to take information from books and articles on certain movements and perform them with fidelity the way they were intended. This has allowed me to give live demos for the athletes, and if I cannot do the movement that well, I remark on how I am still learning it and explain what I would fix.
This doesn’t mean coaches need to do every drill, or any drill, but I can say first-hand that doing drills with our team has helped buy-in. My hope is that my athletes see my demo and are open-minded. If the old guy in front of them can do it, then so can they.While not entirely necessary, being able to demo occasionally and show a willingness to learn is another tool for the coaching bag, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
My #1 rule for myself is to never have my athletes do something that I can’t do myself or at least explain really well. There are often days I have dress pants and boots on and never do a drill.
An added bonus is that drills are often low on the plyometric continuum and can reawaken the inner athlete in us coaches. I firmly believe that as we get older, we stop moving athletically, which can cause sarcopenia, reduce muscle power, and increase the risk of serious injuries like hip fractures. This is supported by some research.
While not entirely necessary, being able to demo occasionally and show a willingness to learn is another tool for the coaching bag.
7. Make Sure This Stuff Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum
Another easy way to create buy-in on drills is through the use of social media. Unfortunately, the training from professional athletes that gets retweeted or posted on Instagram stories for various exercises can border on circus acts. This snapshot of training may be fun or motivational for these high-level athletes, but it is not the whole picture.
Occasionally, however, a montage of wonderfully balanced training makes the rounds.
Marquise “Hollywood” Brown bounding? Retweet.
Antonio Brown working with Dan Pfaff on speed drills? Add to story.
As a Patriots fan watching pregame warm-ups, the same goes for Julian Edelman doing A-skips and Rob Gronkowski doing A-run stepovers at 265 pounds.
These are just a few NFL examples, but with some digging you can find plenty of videos in the high school, college, or professional ranks to fit your agenda. Spotlight great athletes doing the relatively mundane, just like your team is trying to master the basics.
There Are Many Roads to Buy-In
Specificity is a rabbit hole I don’t particularly enjoy going down. Athletic development isn’t always about being as specific as possible. Lots of things support sprinting and performance that don’t look like the sporting action itself. There is nothing wrong with developing general qualities to create better athletes and healthier ones in the process.There is nothing wrong with developing general qualities to create better athletes and heathier ones in the process, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
To move beyond just assigning workouts and to start to develop athletes, coaches must find an entry point that they are comfortable with. Once you begin the process of developing athletes for the long haul, it will become part of the culture of the program. Some patience is required, as Rome wasn’t built in a day. Laying a simple and solid base of key drills and movements will allow a coach to sprinkle in variations to further challenge athletes while keeping interest high.
Celebrating improvements and efforts is a good way to show the athletes that this is truly important stuff. Likewise, a coach who can demonstrate and explain drills fairly well can enhance the learning experience for both themselves and their athletes. This can result in an understanding of where each drill fits contextually and where to go next.
The fact remains that the training of some of the best athletes on the planet features drills and movements that your athletes are doing or will progress toward. Highlighting this behind-the-scenes work could be valuable so they have an understanding of the pace and plan to progress to the higher-level drills done by their idols.
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