By Matt Tometz and Kyle Davey
Speed is a critical factor in sport performance. Research shows that—wait, this is SimpliFaster, right? Great, then lets skip the small talk about why speed is important. If you’re here, reading this site, you are fully aware of the make-or-break nature of speed in sport success.
Of course, you are also likely aware that developing speed is a somewhat elusive skill. There’s a reason many strength and conditioning coaches are infinitely more comfortable in the weight room than on the field, let alone the track. Perhaps it’s the same reason for the outdated sayings “speed is born” and “speed can’t be trained.”
It seems as though the tide is turning, however, and more and more coaches recognize the importance of directing training toward speed development as opposed to prepping team sports athletes for mock power and Olympic lifting events. Without discrediting the significance and necessity of strength training, speed development should arguably be the cornerstone of training for most positions in most team sports (to preemptively ward off the haters—strength training plays a significant role in speed development, undoubtedly).
Those of us who train youth athletes also juggle the responsibility of long-term athletic development (LTAD). To our understanding, there is no consensus that directs youth training from a broad, multi-year perspective. There are trains of thought that coaches can use to guide programming and program philosophy, but not a clear roadmap. (Side note: that’s part of the fun of coaching, isn’t it?)
What we do know with certainty is this: Kids who don’t show up don’t get better. The #1 factor in the success of any program is adherence. Underlying adherence is attendance.
Here’s the bottom line: If your training is boring, kids won’t show up. Period.
Gamification is a great way to make training sessions something athletes look forward to, encouraging great attendance and program adherence.Gamification is a great way to make training sessions something athletes look forward to, encouraging great attendance and program adherence, says @CoachBigToe & @KD_KyleDavey. Click To Tweet
Fun = Attendance. Attendance = Adherence.
What’s going to lead to better sprint development? An 80% effective program with 100% attendance done for six months or a 100% effective program with 80% attendance done for two months? This might oversimplify training the youth athlete but training the youth athlete is a push and pull. If you push with too much technical work (fundamentals) and too little fun trying to make the “perfect” program, they aren’t going to pull. If you take opportunities to work on fundamentals and then meet them in the middle for the real reason they’re there (to have fun), they’ll definitely pull.
This is not to say that good technique is not important. “Putting the fun in fundamentals” requires actually working on the fundamentals…that’s kind of how the saying works. But, believe it or not, the attention spans of youth athletes won’t always be where you want them to be and entire weeks or months of training could go out the window with a big growth spurt.
Additionally, you can’t get to the fundamentals without having the athletes buy in. Giving the athletes some of what they want (fun) will open up the door to everything else (fundamentals) by increasing attendance and engagement.
What Is “Fun”?
Now that we’re on the same page about how putting the fun in fundamentals will increase attendance, we have to know what is in fact fun. Think back to your childhood a long time ago (longer for some than others). Who were your favorite coaches? What made you eager for the next practice as soon as the current one ended? What do you wish you did more of? What types of practices made you fall in love with training? Out of love with training? Which coaches did you wish there were more of? You know more about making training fun than you think…
And here’s a crazy concept: You have your own athletes, and you want to make training fun for them…so ask them what they find fun! Or try multiple drills and ask them which were their favorites. You have an extremely specific focus group (because it is your intended audience), so take advantage of it. And, especially youth athletes, as they won’t mind doing new stuff anyway (they’ll actually enjoy it).
Hidden Benefits of Gamifying Training
In addition to increased adherence—and the instrumental impact that alone has on long-term development—gamification brings other benefits as well.
1. Improved Effort
Improved effort is one such benefit of gamification. Anecdotally, Kyle has had kids who were holding back when it wasn’t time to hold back. He once told an athlete that if she hit a PR for the day on resisted sprint power (measured with the 1080 Sprint), he’d participate in her next Tik Tok video. She didn’t just hit an in-session PR, she hit an all-time PR. Her sprint power was ~20% higher on that rep than her others that day.
Not only did Kyle learn a Tik Tok dance that day, but he got from that athlete the most she had ever given.
Although this was arguably more of a challenge than a game, the outcome is the same: exciting the athlete and providing motivation to increase performance above the day’s baseline psychological readiness.
2. Engage the Kid Who Doesn’t Want to Be There
If you’ve trained youth athletes long enough, you’re bound to have come across kids who just don’t want to be there. Some will even outwardly admit the only reason they come to training is because their parents make them.
As you can imagine, this group is very difficult to train. It’s draining mentally and emotionally, and the outcomes aren’t great because the kids’ efforts and desires to improve aren’t great.
We’ve found games to be particularly helpful in engaging this crowd. If you can turn training into fun, all of a sudden exertion and attitude both move in the right direction. And if you find a game the athlete really enjoys, you’ve just struck gold. Manipulating the rules/constraints of the game to make it more challenging is your golden ticket to achieving the desired training stimulus. For instance, if part of the training session includes 20-meter sprints, change the game so the athlete only has a shot at winning if they give 100% effort over 20 meters. Bingo.If you can turn training into fun, all of a sudden exertion and attitude both move in the right direction. And if you find a game the athlete really enjoys, you’ve just struck gold. Click To Tweet
If you get enough smiles over the course of enough sessions, maybe—just maybe—that kid will even start wanting to be there.
3. Generate Referrals
You tell me which is more likely to entice your client’s buddies to want to come to your facility:
Training is cool. I got faster. Yea.
Training is awesome. My coach’s name is Big Toe, can you believe that? It’s even on his license plate. He’s like, some kind of sport science nerd, or something. Half the time we do games, like races and obstacle courses. I’m getting faster, too. It’s fun there.
Kids aren’t going to talk about your facility because their flying 10 time dropped a tenth of second. They don’t know what a flying 10 is, and the metrics don’t mean anything to them.
The same goes for parents. Unless they are “in the biz” and can recognize good training from poor training, they won’t care about the metrics we care about.
You know what kids will tell their friends about? How much fun they have. Same goes for parents—if they feel that you’re responsible, you’re a good influence, AND their kids have fun, that’s the kind of thing they’ll gladly share with other parents.
Long story short: The use of games can impact your bottom line.
Here are two lessons we’ve learned from coaching sprint training for youth athletes:
- Everyone runs a little faster when they’re being chased.
- No one likes losing.
The facilities we work at have much different layouts from each other. TCBoost, where Matt works, has a ton of open space. The RE_Building, where Kyle works, has a 60-meter, two-lane track. Matt’s facility is square-like, Kyle’s is a narrow rectangle.
You can probably relate to one of us. We bet you either work in a small, narrow space, like Kyle, or a wide open one, like Matt.
Either way, we’ve got you covered. Below are some of our favorite games to excite athletes, elicit competition, and provoke performance.
*P.S. Notice the athlete’s body language and facial expressions before, during, and after these activities.
Resisted Sprint Races
Video 1. Resisted sprint races.
This is a simple, yet fun one. One athlete does a resisted sprint on the first “go” call. When they reach a distance of your choice, you give a second “go” call. It’s a race to the finish line. At Kyle’s facility, he typically sets up 15-meter sprints and gives the second “go” call around the 7-meter line, but you’ll want to tailor the timing to make it a competitive race.
If you want athletes to PR in sprint power, give this game a go. Between not wanting to lose a race and hearing those footsteps coming behind them, this game tends to improve resisted sprint performance.
Everyone runs just a little faster when being chased. Knowing there’s something behind you coming for you that you can’t see is quite the motivator.Everyone runs just a little faster when being chased. Knowing there’s something behind you coming for you that you can’t see is quite the motivator, says @CoachBigToe & @KD_KyleDavey. Click To Tweet
Plus, chasing each other is a great way to get a quiet kid to come out of their shell. We’ve had athletes go from seemingly introverted to trash talking within minutes of competing in this game!
There are a variety of ways to create advantages or disadvantages for offense or defense by manipulating spacing, starting position, or initiation to develop the intended skill for that session.
Video 2. Chase games.
Athletes face each other and begin about 1 meter apart. There is a cone 10 or 15 meters down the track. The game begins when the athlete nearest the cone moves. Their goal is to get to the cone before being tagged. If that happens, they win the race. If the athlete gets tagged, that’s a loss.
In this next version, both athletes start lying down, with defense (in front) having their toes on the line and offense (in back) with their eyes on the line. After the coach says ready, offense can get up whenever they want and race to the finish line. Defense must react to the offense and try to beat them. (Yes, this was outside. Thanks, COVID-19.)
Video 3. Fox and hound.
Another option for chase games is to add implements like pool noodles. In the video below, the athletes were working on curve running by chasing each other through a figure 8. The coach determines how far ahead the offense starts and where the finish line is, then says “go.” Let the show begin! In this variation, instead of tagging each other with their hand, they have to whack tag each other with the noodle, instead.
Insert Video 4. Noodle chase.
COD vs. Linear Sprint
You got a better name for it? We’re all ears.
As with the other games, you’ll probably have to play with the spacing to fit your athletes and make the race competitive.
Video 5. COD vs. Linear Sprint.
This is basically a modified 5-0-5 versus a 15- or 20-meter sprint. One athlete runs forward toward a line, turns 180 degrees, and runs back to where they started. The other athlete sprints straight ahead. It’s a race to the finish line.
Kyle typically starts by having the athlete who is changing directions start at the finish line, run 5 meters forward, then turn and run back through the finish line. The other athlete is 15 meters away and gets to run straight.
Kyle stole this drill from Lee Taft (or, at the very least, Lee inspired it).
Video 6. Cone Stacking
Put cones 5, 10, and 15 meters away from the start line. Athletes grab the first cone, bring it back to the start line, then grab the second, stack it on top of the first, and repeat for the final cone.
Kyle definitely stole this from another coach. Probably Lee Taft, again, though maybe not. Someone else could deserve to get credit for this.
Video 7. Cone Tic-Tac-Toe
I made a makeshift tic-tac-toe board out of bands. Put cones as far away as you like. Each athlete gets four cones of the same color, then add one cone of a third color. Once an athlete uses all four of their color, it’s first come, first served for the final cone. Alternatively, you can just put five cones for each athlete and let it play out.
Okay, this isn’t exactly a raw speed developer, but it is a fun and appropriate game for developing overall athleticism in youth athletes. The variations are endless, but the premise is simple: offense, defense, offense tags with the noodle, defense tries not to get tagged. One-on-one tag works really well in smaller groups, and creating teams works well with bigger groups.
Video 8. Wall Tag.
For smaller groups, video 8 shows what Matt calls “wall tag” (creative, right?). Again, probably credited to Lee Taft. Offense has to get their foot across the line at either one of the openings between the cones on the left or right side. Defense can reach over the wall to tag but not cross it—but they can run around the wall.
For larger groups, video 9 shows what Matt calls “team tag” (creativity is his strong suit). Offense starts in the middle box and goes one at a time, trying to tag one defender and run back. Defense must stay inside the boundaries but leave the boundaries once they are tagged. The clock starts on the “go” command and stops when the last offensive athlete returns to the middle box after tagging a defender. Communication, teamwork, agility, fun.
Video 9. Team Tag.
Cone Pick-Up Races
One of the benefits of racing is that it’s very objective: You either crossed the finish line first or you did not. One of the challenges of change-of-direction training is a 180-degree cut actually being 180 degrees going full speed or doing it precisely while going fast enough to provide an effective stimulus. Cone pick-up races combat this challenge and play into the objectivity of racing.
Determine the skill you want to work on, set up the cones/constraints accordingly, and explain the very simple rules. In this example, the skill was curve running combined with bilateral cutting. Here were the instructions: Start behind the line, stay on the outside of the cones, run and grab the cone in the middle, run back, and don’t lose.
Video 10. Cone Pick Up.
However, it doesn’t have to just be cones. The point is that it’s objective if the athlete picked up the item or not. In video 11, we were working on our pro shuttles (5-10-5) and using tennis balls, which took away the guesswork if the athlete touched the line or not. It reinforced the technique of what we were specifically training for and prevented the cheating of not touching the line to try to be faster. Matt also threw in a reactive start to create an advantage/disadvantage for “offense” and “defense,” respectively.
Insert Video 11. Tennis Ball Pick-Up.
Curve running, 90-degree cuts, 180-degree cuts, pivots cuts, accelerating from any position—you can emphasize anything depending on how you design the drill. Although some technique may worsen slightly with the intensity of the race, we believe it’s incredibly valuable to give the athletes simple constraints and have them figure it out full speed. If they go into a cut too fast and lose balance, they’ll lose; if they round the cut and make a wide turn, they’ll lose; if they try to be too fancy picking up the cone and drop it, they’ll lose.Although some technique may worsen slightly with the intensity of the race, we believe it’s incredibly valuable to give the athletes simple constraints and have them figure it out full speed. Click To Tweet
Additionally, the purpose of change-of-direction training is to improve game-speed agility during sport, and cone pick-up races do an awesome job bridging that gap.
Relay races are an awesome option for larger groups with endless variations. You’re competing against the other teams but also competing for your teammates. Although this video is not inside TC Boost (thanks again COVID-19), below is a video of short accelerations into a curve run followed by a sprint finish.
Video 12. Relay Race.
The athletes were cheering on their teammates, running as fast as possible, not thinking specifically about their footwork, and having fun. Checking off a lot of boxes right there.
A final relay for you…no, literally—a relay for you. Your athletes versus you, to be specific.
Twenty meters down, touch the line, 20 meters back. When the athlete returns to the start line, they tag their teammate, who promptly takes off with a smile that says, “I want to beat you, Coach.” Meanwhile, you have to touch the line and turn around again. You run one lap for every athlete you have.
Our advice…bust this one out in small groups, and only with young athletes!
Insert Video 13. Relay vs. Coach.
Speed Gate Golf
Kyle learned this game from Sam Portland—he talks about it in episode 141 of Joel Smith’s Just Fly Performance Podcast.
The idea here is to give an athlete a specific submaximal time to hit over a flying 10. You can play with what percentage of the PR you want them to hit. Not very many athletes get excited about intentionally running slow, but this is one way to challenge and engage them to do so.
We don’t have research to cite here, but it seems like if an athlete has conscious control and understanding of what 85%, 90%, and 95% of top speed feels like, and can execute those speeds on demand, that gives the athlete greater command over their speed and likely pushes the max velocity ceiling up.
At the very least, it can build mental comfort with running fast, as opposed to grinding and muscling your way to speed.
Variations: Changing the Start Command
To break the monotony of saying “go” to start each rep, an option is to engage athletes with different types of games. For instance, give simple math problems—if the answer is odd, they go. Or call out words and when the word ends in a vowel, that’s when the race starts.To break the monotony of saying ‘go’ to start each rep, engage athletes with different types of games. For instance, give simple math problems—if the answer is odd, they go. Click To Tweet
You’ll sometimes see brains melt.
Insert Video 14. Word games.
Get creative—maybe you have a deck of cards, and the race starts when you flip a face card, or an odd number, or an even number. Or a heart, a spade, an odd heart…the possibilities are endless.
Rock-paper-scissors is also a fan favorite around. Play until one athlete wins, and that’s when the race starts. Or have them face each other and pre-designate, “If you win, it’s a race to the cone on the left, but if you win, it’s a race to the cone on the right.”
Insert Video 15. Rock-Paper-Scissor Race.
If you find yourself, or your athletes, getting bored with traditional starts, mix it up with some of these games or create your own.
What About the Actual Fundamentals?
Technique is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. It should be addressed, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Well, it depends. Every coach’s favorite saying. Please hold your eye roll for after this section.
We all know the fundamentals of good sprinting technique: good posture, hit your A-position, strike the ground with the ball of the foot, etc. And we all know what contributes to good sprinting technique: having enough strength and power to put appropriate force in the ground, the coordination to move the limbs in the right positions, the strength to hold/maintain those positions, and a nervous system effective enough to do all of that very fast.
With youth athletes, most of their “gainz” will come from improved coordination and nervous system capabilities. They don’t have the prerequisite physiology (yet) to achieve meaningful morphological changes. So, in the meantime, while waiting for Mother Nature to do her thing, exposing your athletes to the correct sprinting positions so they know what they are and what they feel like, sprinting with max intent, and having a ton of fun sounds like a good alternative.
On the flip side, your athletes will not have perfect technique in games. They will have every other variable under the sun distracting them from thinking “knee up, toe up” every step. The intensity of the game, trying to navigate defenders, strategizing what to do on offense, locating the ball, etc. will all take priority.Gamifying sprint training is an opportunity to bridge the gap between technique work and game-speed performance, says @CoachBigToe & @KD_KyleDavey. Click To Tweet
In training, an effective formula for helping “form” stick is pairing technique work with gamified drills. Also, we can’t forget the added bonus of additionally receiving coaching and feedback during these drills. This formula, over time, will lead to the transfer of technique in training to technique on the field.
Gamifying sprint training is an opportunity to bridge the gap between technique work and game-speed performance. Perfect technique isn’t useful if it can’t be applied with any sort of “winning” on the line (sport) and adding speed to awful technique will not contribute to LTAD (both performance and staying healthy). Athletes need the fundamentals, but they also need fun to put everything together.
To Gamify or Not to Gamify?
Let’s face it: Puberty is the greatest performance enhancer a kid will ever have. Youth athletes are going to get bigger, faster, and stronger all on their own, thanks to Mother Nature. So, don’t get in their way!
In our opinion, the biggest goal of training the youth athlete is instilling the most important training habit of all: consistency. Make training fun so your kids want to come to training sessions.The biggest goal of training the youth athlete is instilling the most important training habit of all: consistency, says @CoachBigToe & @KD_KyleDavey. Click To Tweet
The results you deliver, your pocketbook, and the athlete’s long-term development will all benefit from this approach.
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