This is arguably the most confusing time in history to be a parent and/or coach of today’s youth athlete. In an age where seemingly everyone is an expert, phones are anything but, and there is no shortage of information, the “curse of knowledge” should be the least of our concerns.
Buddy Morris was criticized years ago for calling private sector coaches “personal terrorists,” but after existing in that space for the past five years, I have to agree with him. If you’ve been following my work for any period of time, then you know what I mean when I say, passion perpetuates purpose. For those who are new to my work, let me quickly unpack that mantra:
- My passion is speed. I love the rigors of preparing myself for the outdoor track season, but I enjoy helping 12- to 18-year-olds “get there first,” if you will, regardless of the sport they play.
- My purpose is to pay it forward to children. Why? To be honest, I wish I had someone like me to be my guide through those extremely formative years.
- I use my passion to perpetuate my purpose. Speed is the vehicle I use to change the trajectory of young peoples’ lives. It goes way past performance. Yes, the objective is to help them succeed in the arena of sport, but the goal is to help them succeed in the arena of life.
With that in mind, allow me to pay it forward to today’s coaches, parents, and the like by providing you with a system rather than a collection of exercises, along with a prescription for those OTS (off the script) moments when your athletes need certain interventions without disrupting the flow of the session. You need not feel helpless or frustrated or fall prey to scam artists online anymore. Follow and trust.
Speed: A Top-Down Approach
When addressing and assessing the athlete(s) in the early goings-on of the session or training week, most coaches start from the ground and work their way up. It isn’t my intention to say this is “bad” or “wrong,” per se. It is my intention, however, to show you how a different approach may be better for you and your athlete(s).
The Arms Tell a Story
I don’t need to see anything other than an athlete’s arms to begin diagnosing what is good, what needs work, and what interventions to make.I don’t need to see anything other than an athlete’s arms to being diagnosing what is good, what needs work, and what interventions to make, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
Video 1. Athlete performing a 10-meter sprint before intervention.
Video 2. Athlete performing a 10-meter sprint after intervention.
So, while the end result is all well and good, how did we achieve it? I thought you’d never ask. The means used are both simple and effective. Gerard Mach was a Polish sprint coach years ago. When he came to Canada to offer his guidance and expertise, he had to make innovations because, well, Canada is cold. So, instead of his athletes sitting on their hands during winter, he developed what we know today as “Mach Drills.” The Mach Drills I’ll discuss with you in this article are the “A” series, designed for vertical displacement, frequency, and elasticity.
1. A-March: I have used this drill primarily for one reason and one reason only—proper limb coordination. While this drill seems extremely rudimentary and may cause an eye roll or two, talk to me after you ask a group of 12-year-olds to perform A-marching in place and let me know how that worked out for you. My point is, we must not assume today’s youth athlete has the limb coordination to march on the spot (much less, sprint), because I guarantee there’ll be at least a handful of kids in that group mentioned earlier who use same arm/same leg as their strategy to march, jog, and sprint.
Video 3. Athlete performing an A-March on the spot, then moving forward.
2. A-Skip: Rhythm, coordination, and elasticity are needed in order to get from points A to B in a timely fashion. This drill can be done both at low and high(er) amplitudes depending on what your athlete can manage and/or needs (higher frequency or length and power). Something worth mentioning regarding this drill: Don’t be “married” to it, as some children just can’t skip for reasons we may never know. Instead of crushing their confidence by having them fail at it again and again, do away with it and move on.
Video 4. Athlete performing an A-Skip on the spot, then moving forward.
3. Low Running A’s: What most coaches do is have athletes perform traditional Running A’s, or “High Knees,” without the prerequisites required to perform the drill correctly (strength and frequency). To make sure you’re not that coach, put your athletes in “first gear” as Derek Hansen calls these, and have them maintain a 240-bpm frequency, or four strides/second. In order to keep the athletes at the appropriate amplitude, cue them to have their hands at belly-button height and thinking “up and down” as if they’re flicking a light switch on and off as fast as possible.
Video 5. Athlete performing Low Running A’s on the spot, then moving forward.
4. Mid Running A’s: Also known as “second gear” per Derek, these are the next step (no pun intended) in our progression. The only change between first and second gear is the amplitude of the strides. In order to achieve the proper height for this drill, cue the athlete to drives their hands up no higher than chest level. Doing so will ensure their feet are “stepping over” the opposite calf. Voilà!
Video 6. Athlete performing Mid Running A’s on the spot, then moving forward.
5. Running A’s: If your athlete(s) can achieve the frequency at the higher amplitude of the Mid Running A’s, they’re ready for “third gear.” If you’re picking up what I’m laying down, then odds are you can guess where the athlete’s hands should be for this drill, right? If not, cue them to drive their hands to eye level, and everything below the waist should fall into place. If the athlete(s) is particularly tight (like yours truly), you may cue them to “lift” their knees past their waist to derive a strength mobility element from this drill as well.
Video 7. Athlete performing Running A’s on the spot, then moving forward.
Intervention for Athletes Unable to Relax
Now, I could take a deep dive into the minutiae as to why relaxation is so important to faster running, but I’ll spare you the nerd moment. You just gotta trust me on this one: If your athletes are straining (check their faces for grimaces), then they’re limiting their speed potential, and we need them to chill the heck out. There is one drill that has yet to fail me: Seated Arm Action.If your athletes are straining, then they’re limiting their speed potential, and we need them to chill the heck out. The Seated Arm Action drill can help, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
Video 8. Athlete performing a Seated Arm Action drill.
Start the athlete at a “walking” pace with a calm demeanor. The goal is to keep this same composure when you speed them up to a “jog” and then to an all-out “sprint”—the relaxation carries over nicely to everything else we’re doing. Another benefit of this drill is the teaching moment you can present to the kids regarding the importance of arm action.
Once they “sprint,” you’ll notice their hips begin to bounce. So, what does this tell us? The faster the arms move, the higher the hips come off the ground, which will allow the legs to cycle underneath them more freely. Therein lies the truth behind the importance of the arms: Not only must arms operate at the same piston-like frequency of the legs, but they must also precede leg action. The arms are closer to the brain for a reason—they’re supposed to move first!
Intervention for Athletes Struggling with Amplitudes
What should you do when the athlete(s) are having trouble transitioning from lower to higher amplitudes? Instead of simply progressing from one exercise to the next, you may find success by “bridging the gap” between the heights.
Video 9. Athlete performing the Running A’s in an ascending (low to high) fashion.
A super-simple progression you could use is the following:
- 5m Low + 5m Mid
- 5m Mid + 5m High
- 5m Low + 5m Mid + 5m High
Intervention for Athletes Having Excessive Trunk Flexion
If your athletes have shown proficiency in all the drills above in terms of amplitude and frequency, but something doesn’t look quite right with their posture, what can you do to alleviate this? Luckily for you, there are a couple strategies we can utilize depending on what the real issue is. Best to treat the cause rather than the symptom.
- Banded Mach Drills: Maybe there is nothing “wrong” with the kid(s), per se; they could just be uptight and, quite frankly, scared. Placing a band around their waist will help them feel supported and safe and may “fix” their posture immediately, allowing for freer movements rather than superficial restrictions.
Video 10. Athlete performing A-March, A-Skip, and Running A’s with support from a band.
You can use this intervention via a tether like the video shows, or you can use it in partner fashion if you’re working with a large(r) group.
- OH Mach Drills (load optional): A simple way to help them stay long and tall is by, well, getting them to stay long and tall by utilizing this exercise. Having the athletes give an effort by reaching toward the sky—and staying that way throughout the drill—may be the ticket for alleviating the “C” shape in their torso. A load may be used to provide them with an object to “push” above their head. A light medicine ball is best, but when I worked with groups of close to 30 athletes, we used 2.5-pound plates. Style points are for Instagram, not real coaching.
Video 11. Athlete performing Mach Drills with and without load.
Athletes Too Rigid?
If the athletes you work with are like me, then you’ve got to grant them some more degrees of freedom. My past life as a powerlifter and football player have left me extremely compressed in my torso, and with the amount of sitting, video games, and sedentary habits of today’s youth, it doesn’t hurt to have a strategy in your exercise pool to help with movement variability.
Video 12. I perform an A-March with a light medicine ball to assist with upper body rotation.
Video 13. I perform an A-Skip with a light medicine ball to assist with upper body rotation.
Video 14. I perform a progression in step-over height while incorporating a rotational element with a light medicine ball.
How did the athlete pictured in Image 2 achieve such a glaring difference? Well, the very long answer to the short question is the arms, with an intervention here and there. The arms tell a story. Trust what your eyes are telling you.
Ready to Run
Now, make no mistake, it shouldn’t be our intention to simply make each interaction with our athletes a drill fest. The athlete pictured in the before/after image above did sprint—a lot—that day. Sprinting can be a very useful drill: We must not be so myopic in viewing sprinting exclusively as a skill, as it can serve as a wonderful conduit to the desired result as well. With that in mind, how do we transition from drill to skill as coaches?Sprinting can be a very useful drill: We mustn’t be so myopic in viewing it exclusively as a skill, as it can serve as a wonderful conduit to the desired result as well, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
Key Considerations for Youth Sprinting
Slow Down to Speed Up
In my experience, you will save yourself a lot of time on the back end if you hold your kids back initially by cueing them to run at an 8-9 out of 10. Benefits of submaximal sprinting early on include (but are not limited to):
- Ingraining two very important traits for faster running: rhythm and relaxation. I thought I was relaxed until working with Derek Hansen, then I had a summer track season riddled with PRs. As the late great Charlie Francis once said, “It isn’t about how fast you can contract; it’s about how fast you can relax.”
- Conditioning the brain: If you pull a youngster off the street and ask them to run, odds are you’re going to be disappointed because the poor kid has never had someone teach them how. This means we need to change their motor behavior, yes? Well, in order to change a motor behavior, we need to get the brain’s attention, and in order to get the brain’s attention, we need to slow things down. It’s no different than the weight room, right? Do it right first, then do it Henk Kraaijenhof said it best, “Sprint training is brain training.”
- Energy conservation: Since the kids won’t be doing their best Usain Bolt impersonation, you will be able to prescribe more reps because they’re not wearing themselves out giving a maximal effort, allowing for more deliberate practice for skill acquisition.
- Heat: Since we’re not expending a ton of energy, we can prescribe more reps. With each subsequent run, more heat is being generated, which will allow for greater passive ranges of motion without any stretching or special interventions.
As physical preparation coaches, we are really good at overcomplicating things. Like a fish in water, sometimes we’re too close to the problem to see it. Using submaximal sprints as a drill can yield tremendous benefits for today’s youth athlete.
(Very) Short to Long
If we can’t get away from the “sport specific” crowd, then prescribing bursts and surges (rather than speed changes over 60 meters) should appease them because most team sports are repeated bouts of acceleration. Other than aiming to please folks who have no idea what the heck they’re talking about, there are several other benefits of keeping your athletes’ sprints to 10 meters initially:
- They’re kids, not elite track stars. My point? Their output is similar to that of a Honda Civic rather than a Lamborghini, meaning they can be “driven” longer without needing a break, repairs, or adjustments.
- Strength plays the biggest role in acceleration. I’ll say that again: Strength plays the biggest role in acceleration. This means that by repeated exposures to 10-meter sprints where their force output is (relatively) high and their ground contact time lessens with each step, strength will be a nice by-product of short sprints.
- The angle of the knee upon ground contact is so positive that this lessens the degree of eccentric lengthening of their hamstrings. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that 10-meter sprints are more in line with a leg curl than a Romanian deadlift. Lots of exposure + advantageous angles = resiliency.
- If you’ve ever done 10-30 sprints of 10 meters each, then you have undoubtedly experienced upper body hypertrophy. Ten meters usually takes seven strides, which means seven arm swings. Repeat that over and over again, and the kids’ pecs will be screaming the next day.
- Limiting the kids to 10 meters per sprint will allow for more work to be done that day because even though they may be giving a maximal effort, their output is still submaximal due to the brevity of the exercise. Most youth athletes will stay between 70% and 80% of their max velocity at 10 meters. This not only benefits their speed potential, by bundling 30 or more 10-meter sprints into a single session, but it will benefit their work capacity as well. The more reps completed in a session, the more blood will be circulated, increasing capillary density and allowing it (blood) to remain in contact with their tissue for longer periods of time. This increases nutrient transfer and waste product removal and decreases electrical impedance, which helps the kids begin to develop qualities of white fiber (those fibers that are fast and explosive).
- Ten-meter sprints are “thought proof,” meaning the rep is practically over as soon as it begins. This is great for shifting the kids into the hindbrain, where little to no thinking takes place. In other words, 10-meter sprints are purely “fight or flight.” If thinking is taking place, then the kids will inevitably slow down, which is exactly what we don’t want!
À la Derek Hansen, a foolproof progression for youth athletes to build upon day after day is as follows:
- Day 1: 10 sets of 10m sprints
- Day 2: 2 x 10 sets of 10m sprints
- Day 3: 3 x 10 sets of 10m sprints
- 1-min break between sets and 3-min break between 10
- And so on…
If You Don’t Add a Sprinkling of Novelty, Then You’re Going to Lose Them
If you’ve ever worked with kids, then you’re well aware that their attention spans are comparable to a goldfish’s. A mentor of mine once said, “You can’t argue with reality.” The bad news is you may need to go OTS more often than you’d like, but the good news is you will captivate the kiddos, leading to higher engagement and buy-in. Remember, the horse that loves to run will beat the horse that feels compelled to every time. Two of the more subtle changes in variable include:
- Shoes: Transitioning from a Brooks Adrenaline 19 GTS to a New Balance XC 900 may not seem like a big deal, but take it from the guy whose calves are deformed: It makes a massive difference in terms of elasticity and ground reaction forces. A shoe with a softer foot bed will be easier on the tendons, but due to their compliance upon ground contact, the calves may tighten as a compensatory strategy to create a reactive response. Conversely, a lower-profile shoe will ask a lot of the Achilles on each and every stride. Keeping that in mind, I recommend progressing from a more compliant to reactive shoe over the weeks and months with youth athletes.
- Surface: Complete 10 sets of 10-meter sprints on grass for a month and then find a track one day and tell me you don’t feel a monumental difference. A softer surface like grass is stable enough to create a response upon ground contact, but it isn’t nearly as elastic as a track or basketball court. Would I recommend a soft-to-hard progression for training surfaces? You got it. In a perfect world, I would suggest grass->turf/court->track. Having said that, are the kids going to spontaneously combust if you run on grass Monday then hit the track on Wednesday? Not likely, but it is something to be aware of, especially if you’re changing start types.
A not-so-subtle change in variable would be start type. There are two types of starts: soft starts and hard starts. Soft starts are typically more upright in posture, and they lack a static overcome-by-ballistic movement (i.e., they don’t break inertia), whereas a hard start most definitely will break inertia and/or be closer to the ground, asking more of the athlete’s lower leg.
Soft starts are useful for a few reasons:
- They’re not a great position to accelerate from, and that is by design.
- They’re taller in nature, limiting the stress on the lower leg that a three-point start would create.
- Since they’re not as taxing as a hard start, you can prescribe more in a session.
- Due to the athletes being more erect, you can begin to proactively problem-solve before issues manifest later in your program with max velocity sprinting. This is useful if you work with track athletes.
Make no mistake, I am not an expert in this realm. But I have had success with both results and athlete engagement with these soft start variations:
Video 15. Athlete performing a Falling Start.
Video 16. Athlete performing a Falling Start with resistance.
If your athletes had a brain fart and have “forgotten” the importance of the arm action with these two start variations, a simple intervention you can use is a Stationary Arm Action drill to cue the piston-like action needed to run fast:
Video 17. Athlete performing Stationary Arm Action drill.
In case you haven’t heard, kids love to feel like they’re doing something. By using a band, sled, partner, or hill, you’re going to immediately capture their attention, as well as derive better mechanics due to the resistance slowing them down and literally placing them in a more optimal angle to accelerate.
Hard starts are not to be feared, but certainly respected. If you do, then you’ll have no issues while reaping all the rewards they offer, including:
- Depending on the variation, upper body strength/power integration.
- Starting strength qualities.
- Position-specific transfer due to lower hip heights. (Think athletes who “carry” themselves lower throughout the game or contest—i.e., football linemen).
- Fun—they’re kids for Pete’s sake!
While the variations in hard starts are limited only by your imagination, here are a few that my athletes tend to gravitate toward:
Video 18. Athlete performing Plyo-Step Start and its variations.
Video 19. Athlete performing MB Chest Pass Start.
Video 20. Athlete performing Half Kneeling Start.
Video 21. Athlete performing Kickstand Start.
Video 22. Athlete performing Segmented Push-Up Start.
Video 23. Athlete performing Push-Up Start.
Are these all the hard starts in my exercise collection? No, but these are the ones I find myself coming back to often because—let’s be honest—training kids is similar to training moms (which I’ve done). You’ve got to give them what they want if you’re going to have a snowball’s chance when prescribing the stuff they need.Getting kids elastic isn’t a complicated undertaking: Just employing both bilateral and unilateral plyometrics at low amplitudes will do wonders for them, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
When life gives you tomatoes, don’t make tomato sauce—turn them into bouncy balls! Getting kids more elastic will check a ton of boxes: the three biggest being performance enhancement, resiliency, and systemic output. Getting kids elastic is not a complicated undertaking: Just employing both bilateral and unilateral plyometrics at low amplitudes will do wonders for them.
Video 24. Bilateral Ankle Jumps over distance.
Video 25. Unilateral Ankle Jumps over distance.
Video 26. Once your athletes show proficiency in both Bilateral and Unilateral Ankle Jumps, place a small barrier in their path for a great and fun progression.
Distal elasticity improves proximal function. By spending time with these extensive, low-amplitude plyometrics, you will be doing your youth athletes a great service not only for their speed potential, but also for the way their body performs as a whole. I could go into myriad other jumps, hops, and bounds, but that would go beyond the scope of this article. If you touch on these three early and often, the kids will benefit more than enough.
To review, we have addressed all the drills, interventions, and prerequisites required to run. We have cut the kiddos loose over 10 meters, employing both soft and hard starts, as well as addressed the (often overlooked) elastic component. Now what?
Three Ways to Progress
If time is not on your side, then you can simply stick to a 10 x 10-meter script (flat load) for the kids and change other variables as touched on earlier (shoes, surface, start type), and the kids are bound to improve. Youth athletes are like a brand-new tube of toothpaste: It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re going to get something out of them.
Sticking to 10 sets of 10-meter sprints is as effective as they are simple. If you wish to keep things vanilla (which I have no problem with), an easy way to progress is to simply add a set each time you work with the kids, as Derek Hansen does with professional teams like the Kansas City Chiefs:
- Day 1: 10 sets of 10m sprints
- Day 7: 7 x 10 sets of 10m sprints
Lengthening the efforts is a fool’s errand if they’re still not fast over a short distance. No one cares how many times the kids can run a 6.0 forty. I would rather a blazing fast 10-meter dash again, and again…and again.No one cares how many times the kids can run a 6.0 forty. I would rather a blazing fast 10-meter dash again, and again, and again, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
If you’re like me, then you live for max velocity. With that in mind, I most definitely want to expose the youngsters to longer runs and higher speeds. The only question is how do we do so safely? I’m glad you asked:
Video 27. Using Accelerate and Maintains are a safe way to “link” longer runs as a prerequisite.
Speed Can Be Simple
In a world where there’s no shortage of information, parents and coaches deserve to be shown a tried-and-true way to help today’s youth “get there first” in both an effective and safe manner. My passion is speed, my purpose is to pay it forward, and my hope is that this provides you with a sense of empowerment in knowing that speed can be simple.
If the guidelines in this article are followed and tested, then I am confident the athletes you work with will see results, have fun, and (hopefully) be changed for the better. On the other hand, if the only thing this article did was make you question yourself, balk at me, and/or spark new thoughts, then it was worth it. #SPRINTORDIE
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