By Hunter Charneski, MS
On the first day on the job when building speed in the team setting, what we are about to do always interests me more than what the athletes have done in the past. Do I believe I am the way, the truth, and the light in the quest for speed? Of course not. Do I believe methods prescribed in the past have not produced the intended training effect? Perhaps. Do I believe I am here to rectify the situation and get these girls on the right track? Yes, I do.
What’s more, the girls see me as somewhat of a savior due to the maximal rest periods. “What?! A whole minute?!” The sign of relief (and joy) on their faces when I proclaim full recovery between reps never gets old.
Speed training in the team setting is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences for today’s physical preparation coach. Couple the need for speed with a female population, and the satisfaction we reap increases even more. Girls’ soccer is a sport in desperate need of sound strength and speed programming.
Coaches and parents alike are afraid of high intensity, but cling to the “more work, less time” school of thought and the game itself, demanding that my system be sport-specific. This mantra is old and outdated. My goal is to be just the opposite, as sprinting is the most universal sport of all and the very foundation for several sports where getting there first is of outmost importance.
The Four T’s of Speed
In case you have been living under a rock for the greater part of the 21st century, Henk Kraaijenhof is a genius. I have stolen his “T-Factors for Speed” and modified them to meet the needs of my athletes.
- Talent: Let’s face it—I cannot control the genetic predisposition of either girl A or girl B. Some girls were literally born for speed and explosion, while others were born to move at half the speed of smell. However, while I am unable to control the genetics of the girls I work with, I am in full control of how we play the hands dealt to them.
- Training: This is where we, as speed and strength coaches, enter the fray. It is our duty, on a daily basis, to develop (or perhaps, expose) the talents of the athletes in front of us.
- Temperature: My coaching practice is in West Michigan. “Luckily” for me, I may have days In December where it is 62 degrees and sunny. Conversely, there may be days in October where I cannot get out of my front door due to 3 feet of snow. Having indoor facilities at your disposal is paramount in this state. Why is temperature important for the girls? It matters because the higher the temperature, the higher the speed of metabolic processes in the muscle and of muscular contractions, due to increased activity of the relevant enzymes.
- Technology: This category begins with a set of eyes and ends with a stopwatch. I know what to look for, and I use the stopwatch primarily for rest periods. No, I do not time the girls, especially not on Day 1. Speed is an embodied belief before it is an action. If the girls feel and believe they are faster, guess what? They probably are!
Team Speed Prioritization: Part-Whole Approach
I have had the most success adhering to the part-whole approach when coaching speed. I break down each component in order of the most important to the least important. After I address, implement, and coach each part, I find the buy-in to be exponential with the girls as they begin to see the big picture of what we will accomplish. That, paired with the exclamatory “Ohhh!” when the girls grasp the concept and are now ready to execute it, instantly makes the coach a great teacher and the athlete a great student.
The athletes I have worked with gravitate towards “checklists,” and why is that? Checklists can help an athlete not only learn faster, but also become unconsciously competent. This means that the system, checklist, or part-whole approach is ingrained in them to the point that they can become hind-brain dominant, where they know what to do and do not have to think about it. This is the type of brain dominance needed for high-speed activity!
My own personal part-whole approach is as follows:
- Mach Drills
- Arm Action
- The Skill Itself
Posture dictates performance! I will say that again: posture dictates performance! As the speed coach, when I announce the first drill we will implement is one in which we will stand still, you can imagine the looks I receive from the girls. It is at this time, without fail, that I explain to them wall drills do not develop speed, but they develop optimal posture, and they need optimal posture to run fast. 1…2…3… “Ohhh!” I have said it before and I will say it again, this drill and the drills that follow may seem incredibly underwhelming, and that is OK. The most powerful things in the world are often quite simple.
The wall drill series we perform has four components:
- Posture holds
- Single exchange
- Double exchange
Posture holds are phenomenal for the girls to feel what optimal posture is. In order for them to truly feel this, I literally walk them through proper setup as if they are a two-year-old. Truth be told, their training age is younger than that, so why wouldn’t I? The process is as follows: hands in line with shoulders, eyes straight ahead, feet shoulder width apart, a couple inches between the ground and the heel. Lastly, with girls, they are far more lordotic than their male counterparts, so instead of saying “hips forward,” I ask that they imagine a penny between their butt cheeks, and squeeze the penny. Voila!Some drills may be underwhelming, but the most powerful things in the world are often quite simple. Click To Tweet
From here, I cue them by saying “smash the calf,” and show how to hug their gastroc tight to their hamstring with whichever leg is forward. Notice I said, “forward,” and not “up.” If the focus is on the knee driving up, we will encourage overextension. Once set, the girls will hold anywhere between 20 and 30 seconds for one to two sets per leg. As everyone is holding, I may say, “Head to heel, strong as steel!” or “Stay long, stay big!” Again, great teacher, great students. This brutally simple drill sets the foundation for not only the drills to come, but acceleration as a whole.
Video 1. You can make timeless drills new again by adding fresh instructional concepts into groups. The key is to explain them with some athlete involvement, not just lecture while everyone is on the ground, bored.
As things begin to literally move more quickly while we progress to single and double exchanges, what happens? You guessed it: Posture is effectively trashed, and their spines resemble a question mark rather than a straight line. In my experience, you can correct this easily by telling a short story, more often than not. I tell the girls to imagine they are holding up the wall (or, in this case, the fence), not the other way around.
The tactile response to reach and push forward instantly elongates their spine once again. Here is where it gets tricky, as we are performing our single and double leg exchanges. I need to find the cue that works for the athlete, not the athlete that works for the cue given. If I see what I call “gooey” ankles and knees, I will cue the girls in question to “break the glass.” This emphasizes knee drive forward, which inevitably works for more than a handful of them.
For the others still struggling, I approach their side and ask if they see their own footprint behind them, to which they will nod in agreement. I then give praise and instruct them to stomp that footprint as hard as they can next time I exclaim the “Switch!” command, and Boom!, problem solved. On a side note, this is also an easy way to distinguish your “fight or flight” athletes by the cue that worked for them. We perform single and double exchanges for three to five reps per leg, for one to two sets.
Marching may seem incredibly rudimentary to the girls as, again, we are back to going slow rather than fast. It would do me no good to explain to the girls that rhythm and relaxation in this drill will allow them to become more fore brain dominant and focus on the application of the movement, so when we proceed to a hind brain activity (e.g., sprinting), we no longer have to think about the application. So, once again, it’s story time. “Ladies, this drill will help us think about it now, so we don’t have to when we run in a few minutes.” Wait for it… “Ohhh!”
The one thing I observe is relaxation. If I were build a wall from their hips down, and I could only watch their top half, it should appear as if they are doing nothing. That is the type of repose I am chasing. We perform marching for 20 seconds over two sets.
Now we start linking the chains together in our part-whole approach with Mach drills. If these drills are good enough for Lee Taft, Loren Landow, and Derek Hansen, I am sure they will suffice for my coaching practice. There are, again, four components in this series:
- Pop-Float Skip
- Running A’s
Marching has tremendous value in terms of carryover from the wall drills to a more dynamic and linear pattern. Obviously, I have taken away a source of feedback (the wall), so they must now begin to incorporate their arms. If you have ever watched a soccer player’s arms while he or she runs, saying that they resemble the one-legged air dancers outside car dealerships is not too far off.
I will attack the arms in the next series—one thing at a time. My priority with the marching component is to see how the girls negotiate the ground. Are they reaching, pulling, stomping, something out of this world? I have found that the best way to get the ground contact I am in search of, while still maintaining great posture, is to recycle the “calf smash” cue. Simple and effective. Perform these for two sets of 10 yards.
Do you want to get the type of turnover you are looking for with skips? “The floor is lava!” has been a staple in my cue toolbox for years, and it did not fail me with these girls, either. After the first rep (if it looked good), I ask if they have ever seen a truck pull, in which a rope is pulled vigorously. They will all nod and then I simply instruct them to also pull the rope.
The forward arm action that ensues is not clean whatsoever, but the smiles that come across their faces as they feel themselves literally gaining ground, or gliding forward as they skip, is a thing of beauty. We are—no pun intended—heading in the right direction. Perform these for two sets of 10-15 yards. Next!
Now we are starting to get into the good stuff! Nick Winkelman first introduced pop-float skips to me, and I appreciate all that I can gather from one simple drill. The pop-float skip provides value in that I am able to quickly distinguish between the fast-twitch and the slow-twitch athletes. How? We begin this drill in place. The athletes who bounce up high like kangaroos but quickly dissipate and become more familiar with the ground are my fast-twitch girls. Those who maintain the same, steady height for the duration before we move forward are my slow-twitch girls.
Aside from my crude athlete fiber type profiling, this drill also gets the girls to keep their hips high and their ground contact time low. I am sure I sound like a broken record as I shout, “Minimum time, maximum height!” Perform pop-float skips for two sets of 10 to 15 yards.
Video 2. Early in training, it’s important to create an effective way to communicate concepts that can become easily overcomplicated. Brief instructions with connected exercises or training are effective for youth training.
The first day of speed development in the team setting will almost always be an acceleration emphasis. However, if you have followed me for any period of time, you are well aware that I am a speed and power guy. Absolute speed is my second language, so you’d best believe we are going to work on something in that realm, even if some consider it a “hack.” Enter Running A’s.
Running A’s (high knees) are a wonderful way to begin to incorporate absolute speed qualities, as we keep the girls’ hips extremely high, creating stiffness with minimal ground contact time and building a fairly high “RPM” with the substantial number of cycles completed over 10-15 yards. For example, a 40-yard dash may take an athlete anywhere between 17 and 20 strides, but having the girls perform Running A’s for 10-15 may double that number!
Aside from beginning to flirt with absolute speed on an acceleration day, the more practical reason is that we are beginning to condition the tissue to fire more violently and efficiently while promoting blood flow. Check, check, check. Two sets of 10-15 yards should suffice. Now let’s fix those arms.
Arm action is last, but certainly not least, on my list of priorities. Why do arms play such a big role in acceleration? First, there is a neuromechanical component that we cannot ignore: The motor signal will originate in the girls’ brains and their arms are in closer proximity to the brain than their legs. This implies that the signal will reach the arms before the legs; therefore, arm action will undoubtedly play a crucial role in acceleration.
In our stationary arm action drill, it is of the utmost importance that the girls have minimal arm bend, as if it were an oar passing through water. This enforces the backside movement to facilitate complete extension through the hips during ground contact. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a front-side fanatic, but there cannot be front-side without backside mechanics. It would be like having a heart without a brain; both are required.
You would be safe assuming the first few reps are absolute garbage, and that is OK. We are going to do it slow, do it right, and then do it fast. Cues used here may be “Split your arms!” or “Rip and punch!” as we perform this series for two sets of five to six reps per arm.
The Importance of Technique with Females
Before we converge all the drills into the skill itself, I feel it prudent to explain why technique with female athletes may be even more important than when working with the opposite sex. Females possess lordotic spines, so you can forget about “neutral position” when they are running fast. Furthermore, this will limit knee position and extension, which will result in much shorter steps.
Not knowing this fact could be detrimental to those you work with. With that said, females are capable of running fast with poor technique. However, bad technique manifests itself through bad habits and excessive training volumes, which could lead to injury. Coaches need to correct this and then implement good technique, which will save their athletes energy between quick bursts in games, and ultimately lead to longevity.
At this point, 30 to 45 minutes have passed and the girls are getting antsy. This excites me because I know they are now ready to run. My go-to for this population is the rolling crouch start, which I believe I stole from Lee Taft. This form of acceleration suits this population well, as they are all strong. Are they strong enough? Hell, no. But the majority are quad-dominant, they are pushers, and they are all comfortable in the front end.
Knowing that, why be stubborn? Train what is trainable, take what the defense gives you! This is the phase in which adequate strength levels can make a huge difference. I take it a step further by having them in the crouch position. Now the girls literally have to muscle and push their way out of the position. I want them to feel that; this stoic position provides that tactile response.
My favorite external cue for the crouch start? “Push yourself away from the line.” After that, I will only say, “Push!” When I have finally cut them loose, one cue is all I use, no more. Why? The use of one cue will result in an 85% success rate, more than one will drastically drop to a 30% rate of success, and more than two? Send me an e-mail and let me know how it works out for you. Best of luck. With the crouch start, all I ask of them is to give me five hard steps—less is more.
It is critical that we, as coaches, do not rush the acceleration phase. This phase sets up the girls for a high level of absolute speed, as no high level of absolute speed is achievable with a suboptimal acceleration phase. Those who can push the ground the hardest will go forward the fastest. What’s more, the better the athlete, the longer the acceleration phase, and the longer the acceleration phase, the higher her absolute speed will be. Sixty yards, total, of acceleration work on Day 1 is plenty. Divide it up however you see fit.
Non-Competitive to Competitive
The first couple of reps will be riddled with errors and drenched with coaching in a non-competitive environment (the girls’ only opposition is the ground). It is amazing to see the improvements made between reps one and two, as they grasp the concept of pushing. Their smiles say it all. The last three or four reps will be in a competitive environment, with the classic “fox and hound” exercise. The concept is simple: one girl chases while the other flees.
Now, other speed experts may suggest leaving the competitive environment alone until several weeks into training. I disagree. If I want to get several weeks of training that is worth a damn, the girls need to have fun. Remember, the horse that loves to run will beat the horse that feels compelled to, every single time.
The primary goal of the fox and hound exercise is, of course, to have fun, but there is a technical aspect to it as well. The girl who is the hound must have great front side arm mechanics if she is going to make a successful tag, while the fox cannot afford a technical error if she is to escape. The laughter that ensues makes this aspect of training enjoyable for both athlete and coach.
Fast Brain = Fast Athlete
Dan Pfaff is notorious for claiming, “Acceleration is a skill.” Buddy Morris took this a step further, saying: “If it is a skill, then it needs to be addressed daily.” I try to venture into the realm of deliberate practice with the girls, focusing their attention on a specific skill—i.e., acceleration, crouch starts, wall drills, etc.—and I provide feedback so they can then make the adjustment(s) needed to be the most productive and achieve success.
Why do we perform so little during speed sessions? Well, for one, our level of success skyrockets when our focus narrows. Second, scientists and other experts much smarter than I suggest the answer lies in myelin. Myelin, for those coaches unaware, is a layer of fat tissue that grows around neurons, as if it were an insulator that allows cells to fire faster and more efficiently. What I am trying to say is, these girls will get better at these skills as they develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, which will allow their circuits to fire without effort.Our level of success skyrockets when our focus narrows. Click To Tweet
When they focus intently on the skill, we force the relevant circuitry to fire again and again, in isolation. This will increase the layers of myelin around their neurons, which will then cement the skill of acceleration. To be great at acceleration is to be well myelinated.
Speed Session Rules
Each speed session needs to have rules. This is the coach’s own “governor,” if you will; it keeps us in check. My speed session rules are as follows:
- Simple -> Complex: Complexity is a symptom of confusion. Just because it is simple does not mean it is easy. Stay towards the left side of the continuum as long as you can.
- Slow -> Fast: Activate the forebrain first. Let them be slow and analytical with great focus and intent in order to indoctrinate the task at hand. Do it slow, do it right, then do it fast.
- Less = More: Never train your athlete(s) to exhaustion; leave them wanting more.
- Rest Consists of Nothing: Endorse boredom; let them be free of distraction. Therefore, when it is time to “go,” their level of focus and intent is second to none.
Making the Lessons I learned Work for You
The largest difference between speed development in the team setting and speed development in the private sector is training > talent. In the team setting, you are not getting the best athlete in the area. She may be present in the group, but your attention must solely be on training speed, rather than propelling natural selection.One of the toughest tasks faced by today’s coach is obtaining higher levels of speed and power. Click To Tweet
This is what ignites my passion in the world of speed and power. I want the team consisting of girls that train less than two times a week and have never seen a speed coach or a gym before, rather than the girls who train more than five times a week and lift weights. Obtaining higher levels of speed and power is one of the most difficult tasks faced by today’s coach. It is not easy: You must know what you are doing, what to look for, and how to relate to the athletes (especially females).
This challenge stimulates me and it is what I love to do, no matter the sport. My passion is speed and power, and while I do not necessarily need more powerful athletes, I have to develop them.