Coaching speed can seem like a complex task: the act of sprinting involves more muscular activation and mental stimulation than most exercises, and this is even before considering the tactile involvement of evasion and change of direction required by field-based sport athletes. To sprint optimally, the body needs to be in sync with the mind and both must be operating on all cylinders. With this heightened level of movement, it requires more than just the typical verbal or visual cue to get your message across. Speed needs to be developed primarily through tactile learning and performing.
Coaching sprinting and speed movements to younger athletes—those who have yet to fully develop mentally or physically—is a different challenge as well. Physically, the process is highly dependent on where the athlete is in terms of puberty and where they lie on the PHV chart. This will affect whether their nervous systems are even prepared to deliver the high-power outputs needed to run fast. Regardless, working with youth athletes is a wonderful opportunity because they should be exposed to general athletic movement patterns such as sprinting, jumping, skipping, throwing, change of direction movements, and more on a consistent basis.
So, while you may not be able to create the next junior Olympian, you can give the athlete a better chance of reaching their full athletic potential when the time does come.
The Building Blocks of Speed
There is no such thing as “perfect running mechanics”: coaching speed is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. As coaches, we need to stop putting athletes in boxes and labeling them with no apparent strategy in mind. We cannot create robots who only function under perfect conditions while we (and they) analyze every aspect of their movement.There is no such thing as ‘perfect running mechanics’—coaching speed is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Click To Tweet
I have actually trained some of these types of robots—kids who were taught there is only one way to run and only one way to jump and land, and anything else is wrong. I also can honestly say that those kids did not win many races or games, especially those involving multidirectional movement, deceleration, and quick thinking.
I do, however, believe we should equip our athletes with the building blocks to successfully develop their speed. Traits such as relative body strength, coordination, rhythm, and timing should be a priority during this early development. We should also help set them up for success by putting them in movements and situations where they can get the most out of their training and see positive outcomes: movements they can navigate on their own, easy tasks given by their coaches, and tactile cues that help get those messages delivered (while also being fun!).
Video 1. The medicine ball punch run fits the above description perfectly. While the objective of the movement is to improve frontside running mechanics, you don’t have mention this to the athletes.
In the medicine ball punch run, simply explain to the athletes that they’re going to hold the medicine ball at their belly button and sprint down the field with the intent to have their knees driving toward the medicine ball.
Leave it at that, and then base the next step on how they perform the drill in real time.
As coaches, don’t go into a movement expecting an athlete to succeed or fail and don’t mention the difficulty beforehand. This is something I had to learn the hard way, as I would talk about how we were going to be doing a difficult movement before showing it. That put negative, preconceived thoughts into the athletes’ minds that it was going to be hard, and few had success. Now, I just teach those same movements and let the athletes find out on their own, which has resulted in a much higher success rate and less hesitation to perform.As coaches, don’t go into a movement expecting an athlete to succeed or fail and don’t mention the difficulty beforehand. Click To Tweet
Youth athletes don’t particularly care about the why of their training if that why is being defined with an anatomy textbook. It is important to provide logic and information instead, so you establish that you understand what you’re speaking about while explaining things in language they understand.
So, if you want an athlete to come out in a better position for acceleration, don’t tell them to come out of their sprint position at a 45-degree angle with their chin tucked while focusing on effective forward propulsion. Instead, I would say something simple like “explode out of your starting position like an arrow being shot out of a bow.” Then I would set them up in a drill such as a push-up or falling start where they would achieve the body positions that I’m preaching about with little to no difficulty.
Videos 2 & 3. For athletes working on better acceleration positions, in addition to cueing in terms they understand, I set them up in a drill such as a push-up or falling start. This ensures they achieve the body positions that I’m preaching about with little to no difficulty.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that the less I say during coaching, the better my athletes seem to do. Along with increasing my listening and observation of the athlete’s movements, I have made my coaching cues simpler, more direct, and delivered in a manner that’s appropriate to my audience. Limiting the noise and focusing on what is most important should be the first step when coaching the youth athlete. These kids are usually clouded in their minds already and adding to that is just going to make your job more difficult.Limiting the noise and focusing on what is most important should be the first step when coaching the youth athlete. These kids are usually clouded in their minds already. Click To Tweet
Communication via Cueing
If you’ve ever sprinted as hard as physically possible, you know how the world begins to close in around you. You can’t hear anything and are unable to make anything out visually other than the final target.
Now, imagine running as hard as physically possible and having someone screaming at you—screaming multiple complex motor tasks for you to fix while you’re sprinting at full speed.
KNEES UP! TORSO UPRIGHT! ARMS AT 90 DEGREES! CHIN TUCKED!
How do you think that would affect your results and end goal? Most likely, this added noise would create an increase in anxiety and doubt. Screaming more cues at our athletes leads to the opposite of success for the task they are trying to complete. The less we say, the more our message can be heard.
Instead, build this highly complex task of speed and sprinting by presenting information in chunks or using a block system of learning. Pick one aspect of sprinting for that session and execute movements to help enhance that single aspect. For example, if we decide to work on the starting position of the sprint, then we would specifically put our athletes in situations and movements to enhance aspects of the starting position (such as obtaining a positive shin angle and optimal push-off of the starting line).
Videos 4 & 5. Starting positions such as a deep bend or half kneeling position will help enhance the athlete’s abilities to obtain the shin angle we are cueing, and the athletes can also feel it. I always tell them to really exaggerate these starts because if they can successfully perform them, imagine how easy sprinting out of a standard two-point starting position will be!
Athletes in field-based sports—or sports that require them to perceive and read information rapidly, gather information about defenders, recognize where they are in space, and so much more—must constantly be playing that sport and be exposed to situational-based learning scenarios. This can also be presented in a block system.
When the athlete just needs to focus on one specific task, they can excel more at that single element. This method of learning is effective with kids because they are not being pulled in several different directions. Youth athletes are like sponges: they soak up information that we present to them; we just have to do so in a manner that allows them to get it. Also, many of the aspects of speed and sprinting are dependent upon one another. If an athlete doesn’t understand or can’t even get into an effective starting position to lead into a sprint, then why would other aspects such as arm mechanics matter?Youth athletes are like sponges: they soak up information that we present to them; we just have to do so in a manner that allows them to get it. Click To Tweet
Once a particular block of movement has been covered, when that movement is revisited, it is an easier and faster process for the athlete to review. Categorizing these blocks or clumps of information for sprinting will allow you to begin laying out a more manageable training structure.
Structuring a Program
Training will be dependent upon several variables—such as the length and time of the training as well as the current abilities of the athletes you have—but even so, training will follow a similar layout to allow clearer, more focused goals and teaching progressions.
The four sections of a training program we use are:
- Technical movements.
- Application movements.
The preparation section should be structured loosely to allow freedom of several different movement patterns. If there is a highly specific day of training with a more experienced athlete, then you can begin incorporating more specific movements to meet the muscle action and needs of the session.
Video 6. Movements such as various skips, hops, crawls, rolls, and throws can be part of this preparation section.
2. Technical Movements
These movements are used to enhance the main focus or application of that session—they don’t refer to technical as being directly tied to running mechanics per se, but movements to better set up the athlete for that day.
Video 7. Applying drills that emphasize the session’s primary focus helps the athletes recognize how all speed training can be interconnected.
An example would be utilizing the lateral load and lift drill above before coaching athletes to do a speed movement involving curved running. Both involve force being produced through the outside edge of the foot and will put the body into particular positions involving aggressive knee angles. This first drill will help the athlete better feel the movement in a more controlled, stationary movement. Doing this helps with the cues because the athletes now feel what they are attempting to accomplish before they work to apply it.
Video 8. The forward low walk forces the knee to continuously roll into positive shin angles as the athlete walks down the field.
Another example of a technical movement would be utilizing the forward low walk (above) when working to develop acceleration. This would be a good movement to pair with the deep knee bend or half kneeling start sprints mentioned previously.
3. Application Movements
These movements are where we are trying to get the most bang for our buck by focusing on a single, specific task. This is where we implement the movements to set our athletes up for success: movements where they don’t have to think about execution, and where we almost trick them into doing it with limited cueing.
Using these movements accomplishes a great deal. It allows for a high success rate of performing the movement, as well as a high transfer rate. At the end of the day, we don’t want the athletes to get better at drills, we want them to get faster to increase their potential for sport…and have fun doing it!
Video 9. If the lateral wall drill was used to enhance the athlete’s abilities for the day, we would then want to utilize an application drill for the athletes to apply, like curve running.
The final portion of the session is going for a more realistic and competitive application through participation in games. Coach Nick DiMarco from Elon University has popularized these games throughout training by breaking them into categories to fit certain goals:
Each category has its own unique objective for the athletes to excel. When getting kids to compete in these games, I have seen athletes who had previously shown little to no ability or enthusiasm during the session completely crush everyone during the game.
When athletes compete during the games, it requires no cueing whatsoever. This is their time to take the wheel and do what makes them most successful. As coaches, we should place our athletes in the appropriate situations to get the most out of them, whether this be by adding constraints to the games to make it more challenging for athletes who seem to have little struggle or to tip the scale in the favor of those athletes who can’t otherwise manage to win. We’re not just going to give them the victory but create a situation in which success is at least actually possible.
Videos 10-12. Multidirectional chase, 2v1 chase, and flag “wrestling” are examples of chase and dodge games.
Making It All Work
A couple of examples of full-speed sessions are:
1. Multidirectional-Focused Speed Session
Technical Drill: Lateral wall drill load and lift 2-3×5 each
Application Drill: S-curve sprints 4-6x 15-20 yards
Games: Multidirectional chase
2. Acceleration-Focused Speed Session
Technical Drill: Low forward walks 2-3×10-20 yards
Application Drill: Deep knee bend sprints 4-6x 10 yards
Games: 2v1 Chase (any linear chase drill)Coaching youth athletes through a speed session should not only be a fun experience for them, but for you as well. Click To Tweet
Coaching youth athletes through a speed session should not only be a fun experience for them, but for you as well. We must set our athletes up in movements and in a system where they can be successful, in which coaching is direct, simple, and done in an appropriate manner for the kids to comprehend. Feeling and performing will always trump the chalkboard talks, and while everything has its place when attention spans are fading, we have to communicate quickly and effectively to have more engaging, meaningful, and fun sessions!
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