The rabbits could smell the smoke, and the temperature rose in the already hot Florida air. Every winter, the sugar cane farmers in “Muck City” burned the leaves off the plant stalks to prepare for the harvest, torching thousands of acres of field and displacing hundreds of swift jackrabbits.
Belle Glade, Florida—nicknamed “Muck City” for the swampy dirt the town is built on—is comprised of only about 17,000 people. Within its limits are two high schools: Pahokee and Glade Central. Like any small town, high school football is king. Except, things are different in Belle Glade. When these two schools play each other—a meeting dubbed “The Muck Bowl”—the size of the city doubles.
Sportswriters from all over the country flock to the town, and the population of the Florida Peninsula converges on Muck City. Those same sportswriters estimate that more than 60 athletes who have competed in the Muck Bowl over the years have gone on to play in the NFL. It’s a staggering statistic, given the small population of the two high schools and the hamlet in which they reside.
When reporters ask the locals how such a small area births so much talent, the most common answer is, “The boys chase rabbits.” When school gets out and the kids see the smoke rising into the sky, they head to the fields to prove their agility. Not only do they chase the rabbits, but they very often catch them—as made evident by the rabbit pelts hanging in the boys’ rooms like championship medals.
This kind of high-intensity, explosive play has set the foundation of athleticism for hundreds of high-performance athletes. While the area of the world you live in might not have burning sugar cane fields or rabbits to chase, if there are able legs on bodies, with competition and fun in the air, a determined coach or athlete can lay the same foundation anywhere.
On the Hop: Using Play as Training
I recently saw a dad on Twitter asking for ideas on how his 5-year-old son could get stronger. He said his son was getting thrown around in a wrestling tournament while noting that he was undersized for his age. The comments were rather unhelpful—statements like “HE’S 5!!” flooded the replies. The Twitter community was agitated by the idea that this dad would ask a training question for his young child, whom he just wanted to see succeed.
Stepping into the conversation, I suggested high-intensity play. Have your son sprint as fast as he can, jump as high as he can, jump off playground equipment, chase his siblings, fall down, get up, and go again! Make up a game that affords all of this, and have a blast. That is all the training he needs right now to set the foundation for an athletic lifetime. The dad loved it and stated that this idea had not occurred to him. He was grateful.
I have used this same tactic with first graders, high schoolers, college athletes, and individuals getting ready to make their pro debut. We play hard! They love it, I love it, and it gets results.
A Trail of Success
Over the summer, I worked with a college football program in Wisconsin two days a week for two months, focusing on speed development. We didn’t go to the weight room once, there were zero injuries, and we ended each session with a speed game. Common themes involved in these games were chasing and fleeing, much like the tag games we played as kids on the playground but with a much higher level of intensity. The skills gained with chasing and fleeing games translate seamlessly to the playing field and are a staple of my training modalities.The skills gained with chasing and fleeing games translate seamlessly to the playing field and are a staple of my training modalities, says @DillonMartinez. Click To Tweet
One specific game we play is called Towel Chase. Four cones are set up in a serpentine pattern, with the runners weaving through the first three and then completing a hairpin turn around the fourth and final cone before the runners have an unabated 20-yard sprint to the finish line. The first partner starts 2 yards in front of the second. Both are on one knee in an athletic starting position. The runner in front has a towel or rag in their waistband like a tail. The goal is to complete the course without the second runner getting a hold of the towel. This is a reaction-started game, meaning the runner in front can take off whenever they want, and the second runner must react and give chase.
The games are both the highlight and the most intense portion of the workout—I often had to drag grown college boys off the field to ensure they stayed fresh enough for the next time we met. On average, the athletes took .12 seconds off their 10-meter flies and .19 seconds off their 40-yard dash time. (I timed the athletes at the start and end of the summer using the Freelap timing system.) In a game like football, every tenth of a second counts.
When creating a good speed game, there are some things to consider. Newell’s triangle of constraints gives us a guide to ensure we construct a worthwhile activity. Created by Karl Newell in 1986, this model posits that “movements arise from the interactions of the organism, the environment in which the movement occurs and the task to be undertaken.”1 In our case, the movement we want to arise is an increase in max velocity, force production, and agility. The three parts of the triangle are:2
- This point takes into consideration the capabilities, the body structures that are adaptable to new forces over time, and the personality and temperament of the athletes participating in the activity. If we are working with a group of 8-year-old kids, we know they generally tire fast and recover quickly. This means we can plan short but frequent bouts of high-intensity play.
- This point focuses on what the task (game) offers the participants, such as the skills the game brings out, the tactics involved, and the desired outcome of the game (how to win).
- This specifies the conditions of the individual’s surroundings. For our purposes, this focuses on the interpersonal relationships between the athletes and the coach or teacher.
These three points form the foundation that sets the stage for the development and performance of athletes of all ages. How do we consider these constraints and create activities to train speed development work and disguise it as play?
First, we need to know a little about our athletes. Are they new to “training?” Do they have a semblance of proper running technique? Are they healthy enough to engage in maximal-effort play? Once we understand the demographics of our athletes, we can make choices about the task.
Task creation will be the most intensive part of this process. Start with the end in mind: What do we want the athletes to be better at for having played this game? Do we want them to be quicker side-to-side or in a straight line? Do we want their vertical jump or horizontal jump skills to be involved? Is there a specific sport we are getting them ready for? Does that sport have any specific movement patterns we can sneak into our game?
- The shuffle, shuffle, go of stealing a base in baseball.
- The backpedal into a sprint for a defensive back in football.
- A high point rebound in basketball.
Of course, we do drills related to these movements, but how many of those drills are done with 100% effort? Competition serves as the jumper cables to maximal effort in these movements.We do drills related to these sporting movements, but how many of those are done with 100% effort? Competition serves as the jumper cables to maximal effort in these movements, says @DillonMartinez. Click To Tweet
Now that we have determined the movements, how do we ensure they happen? This is the part that can help lock in maximal buy-in from your athletes. Have your athletes help you create the rules of the game. Their input and ownership of the activity will increase their effort.
I’ve seen it time and time again: give the team or individual the basic parameters of the game and what you are hoping they get out of it, then let them come up with a few rules they think will make the game more interesting or fun. Often, they will come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of. Make sure to write these down for future sessions.
Of course, while having the athletes give input is fun and engaging, it is not always optimal when you have tight training windows and need to be as efficient as possible. To ensure maximal buy-in without this strategy, the third and final point of the triangle comes in: Environment.
The environment of the training area is a massive factor in creating a game. Obviously, the space, the type of flooring or ground, and the ceiling height play a role, but more so, this whole approach to training can hinge on the interpersonal relationships that are a part of the environment. Do you, as the coach, have the ability to get your athletes excited about a silly game you made up? Can you convince them of its value? Have you laid a foundation of trust that results in unquestioning buy-in from your athletes? How is this cultivated?
The Right Game for the Environment
There are hundreds of articles on this topic, but for our purposes, let’s keep it simple and break it down by age group.
4–6-year-olds: This age just wants to have fun and can achieve that by doing almost anything. If you are energetic enough, you can get them moving in a multitude of ways. At this age, any type of gross motor mixed with fine motor work with even a smidgen of intensity will enhance overall skills. Make it fun.
- Example: Move with the music. Have a speaker and set playlist with songs that have both a fast and slow tempo. Tell them they need to move to the speed of the music. This will give them a chance to move in a variety of pathways while also working on much-needed body control.
7–10-year-olds: This group is just starting to figure out what movements they are decent at and highly enjoys doing those skills. Ask them what they like to play and go from there. Their engine will go and go if you keep it engaging, but remember, run fast, jump high, fall down, get up, and go with intent. Make it fun.
- Example: Drag race. Set up two identical obstacle courses that start with a depth drop of about 20 inches. Keep the course as straight as possible while including things they need to jump over, move around, or go under. Make sure there is a section of the course long enough for them to get to top speed.
11–13-year-olds: In this range, the kids will want to start focusing play on specific sports. Take aspects of all their favorite games and meld them together: the physical nature of football, the high-speed aspect of track, the precision of basketball, etc. They have more body control and can now take on larger challenges pertaining to movement. Make it fun.
- Example: Ultimate Frisbee 1 on 1 (ideal for smaller groups). The coach stands in the middle of two participants who are about 5 yards apart. On go, the athletes take off running, and the coach launches a Frisbee down the middle line the two athletes are running on. Each athlete’s goal is to catch the Frisbee. This one is a blast!
14–18-year-olds: This group is too cool for fun. They have been brought up in an “embrace the grind” culture. This group is the toughest sell, so cater to the fact that the result of these games will make you run faster, jump higher, and be more confident at executing both. Connect the games to things you know they love, like sports teams or specific players, or create a reward system or record book to increase the likelihood of effort. But again, make it fun, and it will take care of itself.
- Example: Timed relays. Because of the instant-feedback-dependent nature of this age group, you can time the games with the same equipment used in the workout portion of the day! Then, creating an all-time record board for each game is a great way to boost intent from your athletes. Combine the team aspect of relays, and you are left with a great game.
The parameters of the relay are only limited by your creativity. Try to incorporate the specific skills you worked on that day, though. If it was a linear day, include a lot of linear movement—if it was a lateral-focused day, include a majority of lateral movements.
19 years old and up: Believe it or not, at this age, athletes are back to the enthusiasm of the 4–6-year-olds. I play some of the simplest games with my oldest, most athletic groups. The simpler the game, the less they have to think, and the more they can focus on going as fast as they can.
- Example: Vertical egg toss. With a partner, the athletes try to get as far apart from each other, as in the traditional egg toss game. But the rules are very different: instead of only one egg, there are two balls. And instead of throwing the ball to their partner, both partners throw it straight into the air and then sprint over to catch the ball their partner threw. If they both catch the ball, they then start 5 yards farther apart, and so on. Very simple, but it gets them to top speed, emphasizes communication, works on catching, and is an overall blast! Make it fun.
Lessons from the Muck
We can overcomplicate training modalities to the point that our athletes have no idea of the intended outcome of the session. When athletes run fast and jump high, there is no doubt about what is being worked on. When the Floridian footballers were chasing rabbits, they knew exactly what the goal was: to increase agility, speed, and quickness through a fun, competitive, and engaging modality.Ultimately, we are training athletes to compete in a game. Let’s let games train those athletes, says @DillonMartinez. Click To Tweet
We would be wise to incorporate purposeful play that might not be very “serious” into the world of strength and conditioning, which all too often takes itself too seriously. Ultimately, we are training athletes to compete in a game. Let’s let games train those athletes, particularly if the rabbits aren’t there to do it. Keep it fun, keep the intent high, and watch athleticism grow.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF
1. Haywood K. and Getchell N. (2014). Life Span Motor Development. Human Kinetics. pp. 6.
2. Dehghansai N, Lemez S, Wattie N, Pinder R, and Baker J. “Understanding the Development of Elite Parasport Athletes Using a Constraint-Led Approach: Considerations for Coaches and Practitioners.” Frontiers in Psychology. 2020;11. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.502981.