The majority of coaches can tell you that training high school and elite athletes should be different, but what does this look like in application? How do you as a coach adjust the details of your training to provide an environment that allows your athletes to develop the abilities that elites execute so well?
While coaching high school athletes with a diverse set of backgrounds at the Altis Summer Camps this year, it was important to respect group dynamics, but cater towards the individual. There were multiple instances where the goal of the session had to be accomplished with a different training modality to ensure both technical proficiency and health.
Below I’ve outlined some general principles and provided specific examples for how seemingly small adjustments in training prescription can push the athlete further along in their development.
Setting Up an Acceleration
Due to higher levels of motor control and horsepower, elites can often assume more complex and demanding start positions and with a few key positional adjustments, train without many issues. These positions include deep two-point set ups with a flexed spine (which mimics the greater joint angles of a block start) and four-point starts early on in the season.
With your typical high school athlete, there are a multitude of factors that limit their ability to execute clean acceleration mechanics from these positions. The easier ones to identify include power outputs, elasticity and stiffness elements, as well as the rapid switching from contraction to relaxation of muscle chains. Starting in a deeper set up with joints at greater degrees of flexion modifies length-tension relationships and creates larger moment arms. Subsequently, there is more force required over longer durations to complete the first step. While these positions will eventually become advantageous for the elite athlete, they also require more physical abilities.
The skill to unravel the spine and coordinate the timing of this spinal extension moment with the proper angle of projection and length of impulse is often overlooked with these more complex positions. It takes greater coordinative abilities to finish the first push with a relatively neutral spine and pelvis from a flexed position. The young athlete will often drift to the extremes and keep a posteriorly tilted pelvis while limiting absolute extension at the hip, or overextend at the lumbar and “lift” themselves out of their start position, which makes rearranging the limbs for the second push much more difficult.
Video 1: The runner is lifting and overextending out of a four-point stance.
A final benefit of these more remedial two point set ups is the ease of teaching athletes to load both feet, or more accurately, to load both legs/hips. Putting a 16 year old in the blocks for the first time and expecting him or her to understand how to exert pressure on the rear pedal without rocking their center of mass back, if you haven’t provided any previous context, is a recipe for disaster. Because of the above reasons, placing high school athletes in start positions where they can be successful from the beginning, and teach concepts for the transition to block starts, is paramount.
The progression can look as follows:
High Two-Point Start (arms split, bent, straight)
Video 2: The athlete is in a high two-point stance with arms split. This puts his torso and limbs in the easiest position from which to accelerate.
Video 3: A high two-point start with arms bent challenges control with the upper limbs being forced to move away from each other in a coordinated manner.
Crouch Start (arms split, bent, straight)
Video 4: Crouch start with arms straight challenges the unraveling of the spine in addition to the largest moment arm of the upper limbs.
Rollover Start (if applicable to your population)
Video 5: Rollover starts have the added difficulty of timing the rock back with the first push.
Three-Point Start (if applicable and/or needed)
Video 6: Three-point starts can be the first transition down to the ground and put one limb in an easy to accelerate position.
Video 7: Four point starts challenge limb positions and body angles but avoid the added dimension of loading up the pedals.
Video 8: The block start is the end goal.
Coaching in Real Time
It is important to recognize the modifiable factors when developing high school athletes- where they can bridge the gap to the elites, and those variables that are more intrinsic and happen developmentally. While an individual’s technical model will certainly be driven by force application (absolute, directional, and temporal), this is perhaps the largest window of change we can have while respecting maturation timelines, and being realistic with the genetic hand the athlete has been dealt.
I respect coaches such as Matt Gardner and articles like this which give realistic and appropriate ways to begin teaching plyos. These are great methods to tie in concepts of dorsiflexion, pretension, and build tissue resiliency.
The same principles should be applied to coaching a sprint itself. High school athletes may not become physical specimens overnight, but they can start to build a technical model for the sprint which will allow them to express these abilities in a more productive and safe manner. The question then becomes, how do we as coaches go about teaching the model in a way that still allows the athlete to train? Even if an athlete understands the technical model on paper (which itself is rare), executing a skill that is foreign from a motor control aspect, is still difficult.
Dan Pfaff talks about drills providing context for athletes. Part of our job is to find menu items that allow the athlete to self-organize through the appropriate level of activity. Pairing a drill in which you can teach a technical idea, cue, or theme in, with a more complex activity, is a great way to push training forward without overwhelming the system.
There are many possibilities and it is truly up to the coach’s imagination. Below I’ve highlighted some common issues and outlined a few of the pairings that seem to stick.
Lack of Vertical Force Application and/or Overstriding
Use mach drills (A Walk, A Skip, A Run) with a wicket run (more rudimentary) or use a wicket run with a build-up (more advanced).
Video 9: Pairing a wicket run on the track with a 10m run out (see above) and a 40m build up on the turf to emphasize vertical force application (see below).
Video 10: 40m build-up on the turf to emphasize vertical force application.
Not pushing through to a posted position or staying low too long
Use a wall march drill with an acceleration (more rudimentary).
Use sleds or hills with a flat acceleration (more advanced).
Video 11: Wall march drills can help reinforce postures and limb positions the athlete should execute during acceleration.
Video 12: Sleds can be used with advanced athletes for acceleration training.
Too stiff or robotic in the early and/or late acceleration
Drop in acceleration with a 5-10m relaxed, almost lackadaisical skip.
Video 13: The freedom of limb movement in the skip should be encouraged during the run.
Straight leg bound into a run
Video 14: The “pulling” action through the hip during the bound should be encouraged with athletes who are either too rigid or over-push.
These associations are not limited to drills and running. Elements such as medicine ball throws, plyos, and olympic lifts can teach and reinforce concepts such as pushing, aggression, proper limb positioning, and force application on the track.
Bridging the gap from novice to elite in any sport is a long and demanding process, with athletics being a poster child for this journey. It is important when developing high school athletes to understand what their elite counterparts do well and how training can be appropriately prescribed to push them to that level.For more coach and athlete resources from ALTIS, see ALTIS 360.
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