As performance coaches, if athletes come to us looking to get faster on the field, we typically assume they want to improve their speed moving forward and their ability to move side to side. But what if the limiting factor to improving their speed in a game isn’t their ability to sprint forward or transition laterally? What if their limitations are displayed in the ability to retreat—or, in other words, their ability to transition and move backward?
Before going into more specifics on retreating speed, I first want to define “game speed” and the difference between linear and game speed. Game speed is the ability to either create or take away space on the field. Typically, offensive players look to create space from defensive players, while defensive players aim to take away space from offensive players.
Creating or taking away space effectively requires an athlete to transition fluidly and explosively through all movement patterns and directions. While we cannot undervalue how important maximizing an athlete’s top-end speed is, it does not guarantee an athlete will be effective when it comes to game speed.
Why Is Retreating Speed So Important?
Now that we have a basic understanding of linear speed versus game speed, we can take a deeper look into a specific area of improving game speed—the ability to retreat explosively.
Let’s use the example of an NFL cornerback and wide receiver. The job of the cornerback is to not let the wide receiver catch the ball. To do this, they must minimize the space between themselves and the receiver. Receivers are some of the fastest athletes on the field. If the receiver is accelerating downfield, cutting in their route, slamming on the brakes, and reaccelerating, the cornerback needs to be able to explosively transition at all angles backward.
In this matchup between Stefon Diggs and Marshon Lattimore, at the 1:24 mark, you can see a great example of a hip turn to transition just about directly backward by Marshon Lattimore. If you look closely when watching sports, you’ll see these types of movements happen all the time. Of course, this seems obvious, and we know this is a key contributor to high levels of performance—but I don’t see enough sports performance coaches actually teaching these skills.
The majority of speed training I see is linear speed (which is an absolute must) and some random cone drills. The problem with most change of direction drills is they do not have any context behind them. Improving game speed is a skill, and understanding how athletes need to move in order to be effective allows you to break down movement to its simplest progression and then layer in more difficulty by manipulating speed, angles, and movement patterns to create elite movers.
In terms of developing retreating speed, the foundational movement is known as a hip turn. A hip turn occurs when an athlete needs to transition backward. The hips will pivot to the side the athlete intends to move. As the hips pivot, one foot strikes the ground. As the foot explosively strikes the ground, the hips reposition to move in the exact angle and direction the athlete intends to move.The most common mistake I see coaches make when training athletes with a retreating speed drill is having the athletes flip their hips to the side and hit the ground with both feet at the same time. Click To Tweet
The most common mistake I see coaches make when training athletes with this type of drill is having the athlete flip their hips to the side and hit the ground with both feet at the same time. When you strike the ground with both feet at the same time, you are no longer in a position to accelerate well. When striking with one foot and repositioning the hips, the lead leg is given the freedom to retract and strike the ground at a better angle for acceleration. If both feet hit the ground simultaneously, this cannot happen.
Video 1. For a hip turn to be effective, a single foot needs to strike the ground aggressively as the hips reposition.
For a hip turn to be effective, the athlete’s initial foot strike has to be in front of their body. Some might consider this a false step and not an efficient method of movement. However, the athlete needs to strike the foot away from them to create a shin angle for better horizontal projection. This leads to better acceleration, no matter what direction they intend to move. Not only does the foot strike need to be in front of the body, but it also needs to be aggressive.
Progressing Retreating Drills
There are a few different strategies to use when progressing hip turn drills. First, I want to ensure athletes have the ability to retreat at any angle or direction behind them. Performing a hip turn and going into a sprint at a 45-degree angle behind you is easier than doing a complete 180-degree turn and going into a sprint. The more they work toward transitioning straight back, the more difficult it will be to reposition their hips, move in a straight path behind them, and not round their turn.
Begin with stationary drills and work toward being effective when moving at all angles backward. They can perform a hip turn into a sprint or even a shuffle. I encourage you to train different patterns—progress toward opening up directly behind them while maintaining a straight path. Rounding their turn can cause them to lose an angle on an opposing player. This can cost them a step or two, which can be the difference between making and not making the play.
Video 2. A cone stack drill with a cone directly behind them is a good drill to encourage your athletes to take a direct path behind them.
As your athletes work toward mastering a 180-degree hip turn, you can begin to layer in drills by adding movement prior to a single hip turn. The intensity and difficulty of any change of direction are increased when you add more speed before a change of direction. Therefore, start with a single shuffle or a single lateral run step prior to performing a hip turn.
Since each of these movements can be performed over a relatively short distance, the intensity of the drill does not increase too much. Be sure to still encourage your athletes to move fast regardless of the distance of the drill. Performing the drill at half speed is not the same as performing it at full speed. Mastering the skill of speed drills means being able to perform them well at full speed.
Video 3. Adding a shuffle or lateral run step before a hip turn is a good progression for developing explosiveness and coordination for retreating speed.
You can increase the difficulty of the drill by adding more speed prior to the hip turn as well as adding in more changes of direction. You can also begin to pair hip turns with other movement patterns. Consider the drill’s intensity to ensure you get a high number of quality reps.
For the most part, keep the drill between two and four seconds. Keeping the drill this short will allow your athletes to perform a higher number of quality reps. This gives them more exposure and a better opportunity to learn the skill of the movement. Performing drills that last 10 seconds or more—especially done at maximum speed—will limit the number of reps the athlete can perform without getting tired to the point the speed session becomes a conditioning workout.
Video 4. This is an effective drill to work on creating good angles and accelerating out of a hip turn when opening up to the left and the right.
Continue increasing the drill’s difficulty by adding new layers of coordination and tougher movement problems. I particularly like using drills that require the athlete to perform multiple hip turns almost in succession. An example of this is video 5 below, where a hip turn is performed at the cone and then another almost immediately.I particularly like using drills that require the athlete to perform multiple hip turns almost in succession. This ability allows athletes to keep the opposing player directly in front of them. Click To Tweet
These are effective for helping defensive players recover and keep an angle. One-on-one matchups are a game of cat and mouse—defenders do not want to get spun around. The ability to perform hip turns in succession allows athletes to keep the opposing player directly in front of them.
Video 5. Manipulate speed and angles to increase the difficulty of performing an effective hip turn.
Applying Multidirectional Plyometrics to Improve Retreating Power
Along with improving the actual skill of linking movement patterns for better retreating speed, we want to continue to improve power within these patterns. This can be done by performing multidirectional plyometrics with a focus on retreating. Similar to speed training, the majority of plyometric drills you see performed are straight up and down, traveling forward, or moving side to side.
When considering the movement of a basketball player, they play defense just about half of the time. Here, you’ll see Kobe Bryant playing lockdown defense by executing effective hip turns at the :17 and :19 marks of the video. Developing this type of mastery of movement is critical, so why don’t we put a much bigger emphasis on developing retreating power?
Earlier in this article, I reviewed the importance of a hip turn and how that is initiated with a single punch into the ground. Creating more power within this movement can greatly contribute to closing speed, particularly over short distances. When considering how to include retreating plyometrics in your program, you should progress toward developing unilateral retreating power. This can be done with a focus on minimizing time on the ground, maximizing distance, or a combination of these two key points of emphasis. The sets and reps will be the same as what you would program for your athletes with other plyometric drills.
Video 6. Retreating unilateral power development is a key point of emphasis for my athletes.
Where Does This Fit Into Your Speed Training?
When programming speed, I take a different approach than the majority of programs I’ve seen. I have made speed the primary focus of my program, and I train a particular aspect of speed five days per week with my athletes. Two of those days focus on linear speed in the form of acceleration or max speed drills. The other three days are dedicated to improving the skill of game speed and linking movement patterns. On these days, there can be some overlap when performing attacking, lateral, or retreating drills.
Get creative and think of game scenarios in which athletes need to rapidly change their direction of movement. Manipulate the volume of drills as you see fit for your athletes and time your athletes regularly to ensure their speed continues to improve over the course of your program.Get creative and think of game scenarios in which athletes need to rapidly change their direction of movement. Time them regularly to ensure their speed continues to improve. Click To Tweet
The drills do not need to look perfect every rep—as a matter of fact, they should not. If an athlete can perform a drill perfectly every time, they own that skill, so find a way to increase the difficulty of the drill by changing the speeds, angles, or movement patterns. Also, take note of the differences when linking movement patterns toward the left and the right, as I have seen a good bit of asymmetry (this is most likely due to an athlete playing primarily on one side of the field). Continue to build on your athlete’s strengths while working to eliminate any movement deficiencies that can expose them on the field.
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