In grade school, we’re taught the scientific method and how to work through each step in order to draw conclusions about a given problem. The same basic model is instilled all the way through the post-graduate level—during my DPT curriculum, we learned from surgeons that the basic process of developing competence in any given surgery is: see one, do one, teach one. Obviously, surgeons don’t watch just a single procedure before making their first incision (I hope), and the systematic approach remains in place to solidify the learning process and progress towards mastery.
In coaching, however, while we do see freely-shared forms of programming and exercise progressions, what we don’t see as frequently is an implementation of sound movement diagnostics and teaching strategies. What I mean by this is that many programs seem to put more emphasis on the what than on the how in training. Coaches across the nation are now catching on to the idea that sprinting and jumping are critically important aspects of developing speed and power.Many programs seem to put more emphasis on the *what* than on the *how* in training, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
However, there is not a plethora of information being presented as to what these tasks should look like. In videos of athletes sprinting, everything from the starting position to the initial three steps to maximal speed mechanics looks drastically different. Some are overstriding and landing on their heels, others are understriding in favor of frequency. There are athletes who are straining to the point of rigidity without fluidity, and others who are so relaxed that they’re getting no displacement.
Without addressing mechanical proficiency in these tasks, athletes are starting to see plateaus in their performances due to inefficiency. The cost of sprinting and jumping at maximal intensity with poor mechanics can lead to severe detriments in performance, even to the point of regression or injury. Programming is only so effective without technical concepts being taught and refined along the way.
Mind and Matter Working Together
As a coach, seeing the lack of technical progressions in training is discouraging because it removes the most fundamental aspect of sports and performance from the program: proper movement. An athlete doesn’t need a coach in order to understand that running, jumping, and lifting will make them better. Sound programming methodology is great, but the absence of time spent on technique sets the bar extremely low and establishes a norm that movement doesn’t matter.
Many performance professionals have adopted a self-organization model of performance in which they use task repetition to allow the athletes to develop their own natural ways of moving. Many athletes will reach a more optimal stage of mechanical proficiency as their training age increases, but most athletes will not self-discover optimal mechanics without intervention.
Each human being follows what is called the path of least resistance, in that their body tends to utilize positions and movement patterns that are the easiest to achieve. As we adopt different postures throughout our lives, the path of least resistance can vary greatly from individual to individual.
With each repetition of a task, the body self-organizes in a way that is very broad. The cerebellum has a blueprint and is constantly refining that blueprint until we can safely and efficiently complete a task. If I drink from a glass of water and spill, the blueprint in my cerebellum will reorganize so that it doesn’t happen again. If I spill again with the refined blueprint, the cerebellum will again throw out what it believes did not work and refine the pattern. Every time that I don’t spill, the cerebellum will reinforce the pattern and continue to do so each time I drink from a cup without spilling.
All of this is to say that while self-organization does naturally occur without direct intervention, the movement strategy is the bare minimum for the body to survive in the wild, and the majority of athletes will not quickly (or possibly ever) self-discover optimal movement to maximize performance capacity in sprinting.
If we line up 10 self-organized athletes and have them sprint, you’ll likely see 10 very different ways of moving. While a few of these 10 athletes may have naturally good habits with regards to turnover, arm swing, trunk posture, body lean, or striking mechanics, it is highly unlikely that those who do not express ideal mechanics in the group will self-organize to match the others.
Why Teaching Movement Matters
Coaches need to have a general understanding of how the body should be operating during performance in order to give meaningful lessons about it. This is the foundation of coaching, as it allows you to qualitatively dissect performances and give live feedback to an individual or group of athletes. With this comes the ever-growing repertoire of cues, analogies, demonstrations, and drills to help the athlete progress towards understanding the important qualities you’re after. Each time you utilize one of these intervention strategies, you’ll naturally find the things that work and don’t work for each athlete, which will refine your approach in the future.
Not all athletes will respond well to the same teaching strategy, so coaches have a responsibility to recognize when there’s a lapse and to overcome it in the best way possible. As the famous quote goes: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” If what you’re teaching isn’t sticking, don’t be afraid to try a new strategy or come up with a creative idea to get things to click for the athlete.
You don’t need a doctorate in science to have a meaningful impact as a teacher and reinforce key aspects of performance. That being said, I would recommend having at least a general understanding of muscle function, physics, the kinetic chain, and principles of motor learning in order to explain complex concepts in a simple manner to the athlete. It may accelerate your ability to achieve success in your chosen intervention and help build trust in the athlete-coach relationship.
Teaching athletes is not a perfect science, though. Even though there are simple ways to help athletes conceptualize what is expected of them, they don’t guarantee correct performance. Taking a multidimensional approach to teaching concepts significantly increases the odds that something you present to the athlete will be beneficial to the end goal. Because athletes have different learning styles, developing a strategy that presents a variety of learning opportunities (as opposed to relying heavily on one technique) will ensure that fewer athletes fall through the cracks.Taking a multidimensional approach to teaching concepts significantly increases the odds that something you present to the athlete will be beneficial to the end goal, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
A Multidimensional Teaching Model
My teaching approach is systematic, following many principles of teaching and learning in general. The goal is to provide a variety of inputs with opportunities to demonstrate proficiency and maximize learning for each athlete. These inputs allow the athletes to use a wide array of tools rather than just one. I enjoy providing verbal instruction, visual demonstration, question and answer sessions, and information on scientific principles, as well as chances to repeatedly exhibit their skill as their mastery is refined over time.
Below is a simplified checklist of what is involved in my teaching process:
- Athlete performs task without cues (the “Baseline” stage)
- Present the problem
- Athlete’s first attempt to solve
- Present concept
- Athlete’s second attempt to solve
- Visual demonstration with explanation
- Cue as necessary (the “Work in Progress” stage)
- Gradually remove cues and encourage reflection
- Athlete autonomy (the “Competent” stage)
**Repeat the cycle periodically in training and as you add wrinkles to the task.
I understand that, for coaches, there is a demand to simplify as much as possible and that this checklist may seem complex at first glance. I encourage you to adopt your own systematic approach that works with your practice flow and fits well with your athletes. Even if it doesn’t touch on every aspect of learning, that system will provide a variety of opportunities and serve more athletes overall than a one-dimensional teaching approach. Once you’re comfortable with it, you’ll start to plug in and play different pieces on the fly as you get better at reading and responding to each athlete’s response to a given stimulus.
Now is a good time to drop a quick reminder that we are trying to rewire movement patterns and introduce novel concepts that may challenge preferences deeply ingrained in their muscle memory. While you may be able to make headway on several things, don’t expect those qualities to be permanently improved after 5 or 10 minutes of targeted work once or twice per week.While you may be able to make headway on several things, don’t expect those qualities to be permanently improved after 5 or 10 minutes of targeted work once or twice per week, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
It took the athlete a lifetime to get to the point you found them, and it is your job to communicate with them that technique refinement is a gradual process that will test their patience. It will take tons of guided and unguided practice to really ingrain the new movement pattern to the point of being second nature—reminding the athletes that it will take time helps keep their frustrations low as they experiment with different strategies.
Practical Application: The Pitter Patter Plague
The “pitter patter plague” is one of the most common things I run into when coaching speed for high school athletes: most of them are in such a hurry to get to the finish from the start that they sabotage their performance capacity. There is no sound race strategy being executed and when the gun goes off, the athlete tries to start in sixth gear rather than working through each gear smoothly to win the drag race.
I used to have this problem myself and would often be leading races from the gun for about 70-80m before getting passed. This pattern is even more exaggerated in a 200m, as you’re holding on for the last 80m of a race. I could get away with it most of the time in high school, but capped my 100m and 200m times at 10.98 FAT and 22.41 FAT, respectively.
As soon as I learned how to execute a patient acceleration in college, I dropped my PRs down to 10.57 and 21.18, which effectively took me from irrelevant in the Big Ten Conference to winning medals on different relays, eventually becoming an All-American and school record holder in the 4x100m relay (39.12).
It isn’t that the potential to be a 10.7 and 21.9 high school sprinter wasn’t there, but it is that I was capping my performances due to poor execution. Below is an example of how I use the teaching system presented above to help athletes understand and cure the pitter patter plague.
- Athlete performs sprint without cues: Many athletes defer to spinning their wheels (frequency) at the expense of covering enough ground (stride length) in the initial acceleration phase of the sprint. Rushing the acceleration causes ground contact times to be too short for optimal force production and the end result is a decrease in displacement and subsequent velocities. Issues are identified during the warmup as I have athletes perform 20yd sprints periodically throughout, starting at 60% intensity and gradually working up to 100% . The shoulder excursion is generally small, which means the hip excursion will be, too. The center of mass tends to rise prematurely, and the athlete is upright sprinting within a few short, rushed steps.
- Present the problem: The equation for velocity is stride length x stride frequency. The pitter patter plague is an issue as it often leads to athletes hitting their top speeds prematurely, after which they begin decelerating sooner and to a greater degree than with a well-executed acceleration. As they are still gaining speed, many sprinters may already be at their limit of holding that speed once the fatigue hits…and they’re holding on for dear life at the end of a race.
- I stumbled upon a recent Tom Tellez piece with this concise yet eloquent statement: “The best way to get passed at 90m is to hit top speed at 40m.” I could not agree more, as this perfectly describes the majority of what I see in inexperienced athletes who train in programs that do not identify or address this nuance.
- Typically, I’ll tell my athletes something along these lines: “Hey nice job on that, I like the intensity you brought in that rep. Your frequency is good in that you can move your legs really fast, but it’s so fast we aren’t covering any ground, which is only half of the equation.”
- Athlete’s first attempt to solve: Having been presented with the information above, typically the athlete will try to artificially extend their stride length by reaching their legs out on the next 10-20yd sprint repetition. The wheels are no longer spinning out of control, but the solution they came up with shifts them to the opposite end of the spectrum. I refer to this as “moon running,” as they are meaninglessly floating in the air rather than violently sprinting across the Earth.
- Present concept: Here is the point I tell the athlete that they’ve now exhibited both ends of the spectrum. We’ve now seen Saturday morning cartoon sprints and moon bounds. The encouraging thing is that they’ve demonstrated the ability to consciously express both. The downfall is that neither are ideal in this particular circumstance. They need to explore variances of stride length and frequency that exist in the middle of the spectrum in order to find the optimal ratio for their biological constraints. All they need is guided practice to find it and then they can progress towards mastering it on their own. We can afford to give up some of the frequency in favor of longer strides, but only to an extent. Our arms and legs are attached by invisible strings, so when our arm swing is short and choppy, our stride will be too. Similarly, when the arms are swinging long and slow, the legs will follow suit. The happy middle ground that exists between a choppy arm swing and a passive one will usually yield more optimal results for the athlete.
- Athlete’s second attempt to solve: Usually, this rep would look less exaggerated than the first attempt to solve. The stride length is still excessive, but appears to have a more natural cadence than before. We go back to the drawing board and I begin to give them a plethora of visual rather than verbal information. The visual information may be in the form of a physical demonstration where I exhibit the fault in their movement so they can see what is problematic. Other visual info may come in the form of a quick video snapped on my phone or, at times, I’ll dive in all the way and use Dartfish to get my point across. There are no concrete rules in how you present this information; the goal is to simply provide some form of visual data in the event the athlete is more of a visual learner than a conceptual learner. As stated before, this is just my way of making sure fewer athletes fall through the cracks in the event a certain teaching modality doesn’t suit the athlete’s preferred learning style.
- Visual demonstration with explanation: I show the athlete both ends of the spectrum and break down the progression of a full sprint. I may begin clapping or drumming a rhythm that is initially slower and speeds up as I progress. This illustrates the nature of a sprint, as early on the athlete’s stride frequency will be a bit slower and gradually pick up as they work their way down the track, gridiron, pitch, etc. Here is where I also take the time to show them a video of themselves in a side-by-side comparison with other established sprinters. As they rush through the acceleration in the video, I pause and often say something along the lines of: “This would be the equivalent of attempting a max vertical jump from a quarter- or half-squat position. There’s still a lot of potential power sitting in your legs and the fact that you’re rushing means that power is never expressed. Be patient and you’ll run faster.”
- Cue as necessary: With each repetition from here forward the athlete will wax and wane between too frequent, too long, and just right. If they’re on either end of the spectrum for too long, all they need is a subtle reminder such as “Move your arms faster” to cue faster frequency, or “Bigger arms” to cue longer stride length. The most valuable things the athlete can do to learn are to get high quality repetitions and to experiment with execution. In our physical therapy curriculum, we often refer to this type of issue as a movement pattern coordination deficit. It’s not that the athlete doesn’t have the capacity to perform, it is that their chosen movement patterns are detrimental to that performance, and optimizing these movement patterns is going to be key in their improvement.
- Gradually remove cues and encourage reflection: As the magnitude of the ebbs and flows shrink and the athlete begins closing in on their optimal stride length and frequency, they need less input and more repetitions. This doesn’t mean I stop cueing completely, but it means I cue less frequently and stop being a helicopter parent. They’ve got wings and need to practice flying with less guidance and more self-awareness. As I remove the frequency of input and taper my cues, I replace them with occasional comments to inspire introspection on a given rep or set of repetitions. “How’d that feel?” “What did you do well there?” “What do you think you need to work on?” Subtle reminders to reflect on performance and confirmation that you either agree or disagree with their assessment will go a long way in creating athletes who are both competent and confident in their abilities. You can’t hold their hand throughout competition, so you need them to feel comfortable in their ability to execute without you being by their side all the time.
- Athlete autonomy and competence: Finally, the athlete has demonstrated consistency in performing the acceleration with a proper stride length, frequency, and rhythm, as well as the ability to optimally build speed either completely or mostly independently. Occasionally they may drift from optimal and require a subtle cue or reminder to execute, but they are easily coached back to form. To continue solidifying the correct movement qualities, you may begin to up the challenges by having them perform on variable surfaces (track, turf, grass, court), with different resistance or assistance, from different positions (4-pt, 3-pt, 2-pt, supine, prone, side lying, lateral start, etc.), and any other variables you can safely manipulate or randomize to encourage mastery.
Next Steps to Coaching Mastery
The pitter patter plague is only one of the infinite number of mechanical faults that may present themselves with a given athlete. It is easy as a coach to feel the need to correct all of the faults at once, but you may find yourself overcoaching and making problems worse. On the other hand, influencing movement is difficult, and even harder to do in a group setting. This could explain why many coaches choose not to engage in an attempt to make mechanical changes.
If you choose to do so, however, look for the big things that stick out and see if fixing one fault can naturally cause the others to fall into place. If your cues aren’t working, grade the task down and make it simpler. If you think you’ve made it as simple as possible, don’t be afraid to get creative.It is easy as a coach to feel the need to correct all of the faults at once, but you may find yourself overcoaching and making problems worse, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
The point of this article is to bring into focus basic principles of learning and teaching that can easily be used to form a personalized system. Ideally, the system should have the ability to be broadly applied while working on technical concepts with athletes. It doesn’t need to be overly complex to be effective—in fact, your system may lose effectiveness the more convoluted you make it. Start simple and add wrinkles to your approach as you master it and encounter shortcomings along the way.
Teaching movement is not as simple as exposing athletes to a variety of drill progressions with the intent of refining different qualities related to sprinting. Take some time and learn about why a particular technique or pattern is more effective than another. Figure out how to sharpen your coaching eye to identify lackluster patterns so you can address them. A system or program is only as strong as its weakest link—which in many cases is the haphazard attempt (or lack of an attempt) to address the technical aspects of performance with athletes.
We as coaches should demand better from ourselves and from others to provide athletes the coaching they deserve, as it helps us deliver the highest quality service we can provide while keeping our athletes performing at their best when it matters most.
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