Track drills always seem to have controversy, as some zealots and non-believers tend to oversell or downplay their importance. In no way am I saying you must do drills religiously, but I am also concerned when coaches don’t do them with athletes. Sprint drills are not going away, and in fact, they are experiencing a rise in popularity now that educators and influencers are showing more and more drills on social media.
In this blog post I dive into the subject of drills with some open dialogue in the hope that you will develop your own logic on the topic. This is not a persuasive article to get you to quit using drills or make sure your drill inventory expands to the point of being silly. Instead, my goal is to have an intelligent and honest discussion about their value and explain how you can use them better if you think drills are helpful for you and your program.
What Is a Drill, Really?
When I ask coaches in track and field or swimming what a drill is, their response is different than what a team coach may answer. Different countries look at drills differently, and some coaches consider drills just exercises rather than technique motions or skill activities. With such a wide definition, drills can lose their value if not clearly expressed in both purpose and form.
A drill is simply any activity that isn’t the direct sporting action in its environment. Competition may be a drill, as several coaches use friendlies or preseason games as ways to experiment a bit; but in most cases, competition is not a drill. Drills are anything that helps prepare the athlete in some way, and that is up to the coach employing them.
Most coaches see drills as ways to teach an athlete or correct a fault. This is a very narrow definition and sometimes it’s overplayed. For example, an old TAF article titled “Are We Reaping the Benefits of Track Drills?” was part of the inspiration for this post. The other inspiration was the provocative piece by Daniel Kadlec, who discarded the specificity of drills and pointed out their severe limitations.
We see a lot of coaches making a lot of claims, and several athletes who look glorious doing drills fail to demonstrate such qualities at full-speed running. Like “wicket All-Stars” looking pedestrian and meets when running at full speed, the proof is in the pudding, not the practice exercises. Thus, you should not view drills as mimicking motions or Gerard Mach derivatives; you should see them as an open set of activities that serve a purpose and have evidence of doing something useful outside of warm-up or novelty.
At an old ASCA conference (American swimming not Australian strength and conditioning), a coach explained that drills are for the athlete to do the right thing at the right time, but how it connects to the final product is up to the coach. Drills are not activities that are guaranteed to work; they are hints or reference points that athletes may benefit from.I was once told that drills are for the athlete to do the right thing at the right time, but how it connects to the final product is up to the coach, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
When I went to my level 1 school in Seattle, the level 3 USATF coaches explained that drills don’t transfer. I was uncomfortable, as I believed drills were “the” way to get better, and without them how was I supposed to coach? Years later, I realized that drills were only as good as the coach using them, so acquiring more and more drills was analogous to buying arrows without a bow. Later, Wilbur Ross explained to me that I was poorly coaching a drill that I had used for weeks, and he was explicit that if instructed right, it would immediately help the athlete and then instantly become obsolete because they would not need it anymore.
Exercises or movements have been militarized by the American population. While I am jingoistic and proud about my country, I believe that much of the sporting world is too closely connected to the military. A drill sergeant is a clear example of this, and we need to see instruction as something less rigid and more flexible than doing motions without more artistry.
Task, Talk, and Train
Drills are sometimes effective due to their adaptations, rather than their effect on kinematics. Other activities such as plyometrics, mobility, and general strength training may show changes in technique, but they would hardly be considered drills. Finally, we have the extreme forms of teaching, ranging from direct communication with cues and guidance all the way to saying nothing at all and giving athletes tasks to self-organize.
All of this sounds good, but it doesn’t matter if the coach can’t actually wield the concepts just mentioned. When evaluating drills and using them, remember that while most drills are technical, they always have a cost of doing business. For example, long jump drills or approach work is still training, even if you work on mechanics. While we target the brain, the body is still the physical host and is taking a beating.
I have used three classifications of drills for years, stolen from much better coaches than me. They are task, talk, and train. Some drills create a silent and invisible physiological adaptation for the neuromuscular system. A few drills help the athlete conceptualize what they need to do. Other drills manipulate the athlete like a marionette, almost like a sorcerer casting a spell. Coaches can do all three or simply choose one or two options.
It doesn’t matter the coaching style as long as the results are there, and the coach is not confined to one way to teach. Being fluid is likely the best way to work with athletes, as not all athletes are good at taking instructions (listening) or able to problem-solve (task). Conversely, some athletes are in amazing shape and have super genetics, but they need that right coach to instruct them to unleash their talent (train).
You Still Need to Coach
As I hinted to earlier, coaches still need to coach. Drills or exercises, including neat progressions, still require an athlete to have an experienced technician who connects what they want to see down the road to the challenges immediately before them. Coaching is hard, and while some coaches are great naturally, most are not outliers but just passionate about the profession. Teaching is a gift, but it’s still a skill that can be learned.
Perhaps the most important lesson a coach needs is to know what good technique is. Surprisingly, I saw a coach share a video course on running mechanics using someone who had poor technique and was not high speed. What was even more frightening was the lack of awareness of basic mistakes in arm carriage and foot path. If we don’t know what success looks like, we can’t work backward to bring lesser talents up to par. You may not have the natural talents of some legendary coaches, but if you don’t know what success looks like, you are doomed.Drills can be quick fixes, and we love seeing something click, but they are more often grinding efforts that lack the sexy or flashy results we hope to see, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The top two reasons that drills fail are uneducated coaches and sometimes the athlete not buying in. I have made the mistake of using the wrong drill or using a drill to fix something observationally that had an underlying problem that required time. Drills sound great on paper, as they seem to fix things immediately, but adding a drill for an athlete is wishful thinking in many circumstances. For example, I had one athlete with a pelvic control issue who looked great running with a high knee at 6 m/s, but he would collapse like a house of cards when approaching 11 m/s. Drills can be quick fixes, and we love seeing something click, but they are more often grinding efforts that lack the sexy or flashy results we hope to see.
My favorite example of coaching versus drills comes from Boo Schexnayder. He was presenting in Grinnell, Iowa, and he was adamant that sometimes you can’t fix a problem with a drill. This isn’t shocking, but he wouldn’t give direct advice, as he was more interested in the cause of the problem than reeling off an out-of-context suggestion.
This echoed with me for years, as it was the finest example that coaching isn’t always neat and convenient. A lot of trial and error will be necessary, and helping one athlete may not always teach you how to help a different one down the road. We all love buckets, but just because athletes are similar doesn’t mean that lumping them into small groups will work as well as the concept sounds. I don’t want to sound like everything is a struggle, but it’s fair to say if coaching was easy, everyone would be great at it.
Too Much Finesse, Not Enough Output
A common problem is that coaches forget drills are a means to an end, and they become so obsessive they turn drills into an event. Sometimes taking a drill too far comes with an accidental breakthrough, such as the dolphin kick with swimming and seven steps in the hurdles. Drills must show transfer in either better speed or technique, or they must help teach athletes how to learn. Fluency in drills is helpful in general, but eventually the actual activity needs to get better or the movement variability is just getting lost in the fantasy world.A common problem is that coaches forget drills are a means to an end, and they become so obsessive they turn drills into an event, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Don’t get caught up with looking pretty without being fast, as both output and control are necessary for absolute performance. PJ Vazel was very clear about submaximal velocities helping peak speed, but you still need to run fast as just jogging will not help you win the next 400-meter race. That balance of speed and coordination is up to the coach, and this can’t be learned in a course—it must be learned through experience.
Sometimes teaching drills helps a coach learn how to instruct athletes better. Graham Eaton is an example of this, since many of his milestones in coaching have come from the nuances of getting athletes to do drills better or just sprint properly. Drills are great to help athletes develop more awareness of how to move, but expanding an athlete’s movement literacy also enhances a coach’s ability to communicate. Coaches can get stuck trying to impress an athlete with how much they know with endless explanations of biomechanics or become a little too poetic with their external cues. If you simply care about the athlete getting better, the way you get them there will likely be the best methodology.
Earn Your License to Drill
Drills are not something you can just collect like leaves from an autumn walk in the woods; they require knowledge of their origins and purpose. This means a lot of coaches will be uncomfortable, as they will assume that secondhand information is just as valuable as being the inventor. The problem with drills is so many of them are older than the coaching legends, and few drills are really new.
Drills have no rules; just be smart about their safety and effectiveness, and always refer to the soul or intentions of the drills. Feel free to use drills at your discretion but remember—when you go rogue, you are on your own and must take responsibility for your choices. Drills don’t have to be perfect tools, just trust your instincts and track your expectations from time to time.
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