By Graham Eaton
As spring sports begin winding down, high school athletes will shift their focus to enrolling in a summer program. This extra 8-10 weeks of organized training may give them a leg up on their competition in the fall. They devote time to getting stronger or to competing in summer league games in the hope of getting recognized by scouts. Getting stronger will help all athletes, as will actually playing their sport.
But what about the rest of the year? I see a trend of more and more athletes specializing in sports at a young age. To me, this puts a ceiling on their overall development as an athlete. Without the improvement/experience of strength, speed, general movement, and motor skills, the sport-specific skills will never be optimized.Whether you play football, soccer, basketball, or baseball, inside every high school lies a great off-season program that can help your sport—track and field, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Whether you are a football, soccer, basketball, or baseball player, inside every high school lies a great off-season program that can help your main sport. Depending on an athlete’s main sport, indoor and/or outdoor track and field can be an excellent way to get to the next step on the field or court.
Simple and Intelligent Warm-Ups
Some days, I utilize really long warm-ups. This isn’t because I think a high school athlete needs a long warm-up, although after sitting for six hours and shifting between anterior and pelvic tilt all day, I can say that they do not come in ready to work out.
Many of the warm-up items are simply a chance to work on gross motor skills, general movements, and posture. This makes athletes, well, more athletic. Learning to practice mindfulness, breathe correctly, maintain posture, and develop lower limb stiffness are all important concepts in addition to playing the sport. In my experience, these things do not always create speed by themselves, but make it easier for speed to take hold.
Since speed is a complex mix of muscles and nerves, eliminating poor movement patterns will allow limbs to move better. Speed drills don’t have to be overly complex tasks and most high school track coaches program warm-up drills that are simple and repeatable enough that a player could use these during their main sport as part of their warm-ups.
Honest Speed Development and Assessment
There are five biomotor abilities: strength, endurance, speed, flexibility, and balance/coordination. Improvements in these other areas are commendable to be sure, but increases in these qualities are not as transferable to the field of play as improvements in speed.
After nearly a decade of coaching, I can say without a doubt that speed is the hardest ability to develop. If we know that speed is really hard to develop, why don’t athletes/coaches spend more time working on it?Speed is the hardest ability to develop, so sometimes it is easier to point to endurance, strength, and flexibility gains as proof of a coach’s value, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I think the answer is fear. Sometimes it is easier to point to endurance, strength, and flexibility gains as proof of a coach’s value. Gains in speed may take time to reveal themselves in actual data, or may be so small that the significance is lost on athletes and parents alike. In an eight-week summer program, you must be careful not to oversell your abilities as a speed coach, lest you want to appear as a fly-by-night salesman.
It is easy to dismiss someone as lacking speed if there is no initial success. You cannot be sure of the exact rate of development for each athlete. An example of this is in one of the athletes I coach. As a freshman, he ran a painfully slow 8.05 in the 55m dash. Now a junior, a week ago he ran a personal best of 11.82 f.a.t. in the 100m dash. He has achieved 21.3 mph on the Freelap timing system in a 20m fly. I don’t think he would have surpassed 19 mph as a freshman. This is not an uncommon progression to see with consistency.
Video 1. Athletes get enough chaos from games and practices, so it’s okay to have very simple and linear training and competition. Track and field is a great balance between novelty and simplicity that athletes can have fun doing year to year.
The middle school and high school years are prime years to devote to getting faster.
One study looked at the development of basketball players and discovered that the ages of 7-17 are the best time to develop speed and agility, with ages 12-14 being optimal for acceleration ability.
Most kids ages 7-12 are not doing sprint-/acceleration-based training, nor do I think it is entirely necessary or a good idea. On the flip side, if someone takes up soccer or football at age 13—having never routinely skipped, crawled, hopped, raced, or played tag—expecting instant success would be foolish. However, speed training can be fun and should be age-appropriate.
Speed work will always raise an athlete’s change of direction (planned) and agility (reacting to a stimulus) ceilings. Much as it isn’t possible to be really powerful without having great strength, it isn’t likely that an agile athlete doesn’t also possess at least good speed.
Video 2. Another quality of sport is rhythm, an area of development lost with rushed coaching. Track and field allows for a lot of cyclical or manipulations of temporal timing in running, jumping, and throwing.
If there is one sport that prioritizes speed development, it is track and field. Most high school track coaches operate under the premise that acceleration is the base of speed. When they note proficiency, they progress to maximum velocity work and then speed endurance. All of this is done with attention to appropriate volume and rest periods.
Acceleration is important across all sports, as I will discuss later. As Vince Anderson says, “The purpose of acceleration is to aggressively push yourself into a tall, running posture.” Field sport athletes often need to accelerate from awkward and disadvantageous positions. Track and field helps teach athletes the rules of acceleration, and they can break them as needed on their field of play while still trying to self-organize and find the optimal line of attack.
One way we connect the dots for our field/ball sport athletes is through the use of various position accelerations once basic acceleration mechanics are taught. It is something that you should work on multiple times weekly.
Areas of Need for Different Athletes
Without being too redundant, I will try to make a case for several sports and how they can uniquely benefit from a season of track and field. All sports will benefit from the strength work and speed work. Some athletes will also benefit from speed endurance workouts, while others will benefit from becoming more coordinated. All will benefit from reducing injuries and learning to compete in meets and at practice.
Likewise, track teams need a population of multisport athletes to be successful. This can be a harmonious and fruitful relationship.
Nurturing Soccer Players
I have lots of soccer players and their parents approach me in the summer, asking to help their “endurance” or to prep them for a 2-mile VO2 max test in the fall. I think these tests are bit archaic and not a good way to measure field readiness.
One study of a 90-minute professional soccer game found the following data. Players spent:
- 17% (15 min.) standing
- 42% (38 min.) walking
- 16% (14 min.) jogging
- 25% (22 min.) running, with less than two minutes of this sprinting
Looking at this data, 75% of this is low-intensity aerobic work. This doesn’t mean that aerobic training doesn’t benefit a soccer player. Of course, it does. But if an athlete lacks speed, they are essentially the best at running around unfatigued but never getting the chance to be part of a game-breaking play.
So, what is thought to be a great aerobic demand is actually not that great. Soccer players go through short bouts of high-intensity running followed by rest in the form of low-intensity aerobic work.The aerobic/anaerobic system contribution in a soccer game is more closely aligned with the 200m, 400m, and 800m than a 5K, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
This is why many good soccer players are naturally predisposed to running the 200m, 400m, and 800m. The aerobic/anaerobic system contribution in a soccer game is more closely aligned with these events than with a 2-mile run or 5K, which by comparison is 80% or greater of an aerobic demand.
I do prescribe and advocate tempo running or VO2 max intervals for aerobic work for soccer players, but if speed and coordination are a need, then those are the things to tackle first. Devoting a large chunk of the week to long, slow distance running would be a mistake, just as having no aerobic capacity would. But speed is special. Speed is a performance enhancer. The aerobic system can help sustain it, but without a base of speed, we are not sustaining much.
An increase in speed and coordination will yield less of a breakdown later in games and leave a reserve akin to a turbo boost for big play ability. Simply put, improving an athlete’s single sprint speed also improves the average of the repeated sprints. A soccer player looking to run circles around their opponents will benefit greatly from joining the track team and competing in long sprints or middle-distance events. Acceleration, max velocity, intensive tempo, and special endurance workouts are an excellent way for a soccer player to stay field-ready.
Video 3. Athletes crave the chance to express maximal effort, and most sports on the field or with a ball rarely give them an opportunity to do so. Track and field is pure, and it rewards peak output or performance all the time, in countless events.
Many soccer athletes also come in lacking general strength and moving very awkwardly when it comes to their linear speed mechanics. Soccer is heavy on lateral movement and deceleration. Some common issues are arms crossing the midline, hands crossing above the hips, and crossover gait. Addressing these mechanics, which seemingly go hand in hand, keeps players healthier and stops them from fatiguing early by improving their efficiency.
Overall, a quick look at some of our top sprint performances in the last two years reveals a positive relationship between track and field and soccer. Soccer players help our team and we help them move better.
- School record 4x200m boys, 1:32.22 (45 degrees and rainy) – 3 soccer players
- 2 All-Time 4x400m girls, 4:04 – 2 soccer players
- 1 and 2 All-Time sophomore boys 400m hurdles, 58.5 and 59.43
- School record 400m hurdles boys, 54.58; girls, 69.75 – both soccer players
I think wasting too much time on training agility and change of direction in gyms in the off-season is not a good idea. They already get this in the form of soccer tournaments and practice in a more authentic setting. What they are often not getting is the speed work.
Football Players – The Perfect Fit
The holy grail for football players is undeniably the 40-yard dash. The average 40-yard time in the NFL for wide receivers, running backs, and cornerbacks is eye-popping. I used the data on nfl.com to find the 40-yard averages from prospects at various skill positions at the 2019 NFL Combine.
Obviously, high school athletes cannot be held to this standard, but if a high school player is looking to crack their team’s starting lineup or get more reps, then getting faster is a great place to start. If NFL players are fast, good college players shouldn’t be far behind and neither should high school players. Some people are born with more of a “speed gene” than others, but if you aren’t training it, don’t be surprised if the needle doesn’t move.
Good track coaches prescribe their teams 12-24 weeks of speed training spanning across two seasons (more if postseason), with two days per week being acceleration- or maximum-velocity-based. Often, coaches track data using timing systems or stopwatches on a weekly basis. A football player who runs 1-2 seasons of track from freshman year to senior year trains for speed 48-96 extra weeks in their high school career.
The term I have the biggest issue with is “game speed.” I have heard it phrased as, “He plays faster than he is.” It is especially common for someone to reference Jerry Rice with regard to playing faster than he was. Jerry Rice was reported to have run a 4.59 40-yard dash. Not blazing, but also not slow.
Either someone possesses speed, or they don’t. Improving max velocity raises everything else. In this case, if the ceiling goes up, so does the floor. Tony Holler says it best: “Train at 100 mph so 80 mph feels easy.” Games are played mostly at 80 mph, save for the occasional game breaker. If each ball carry or route is at a lower percentage of max speed, then game speed will certainly be greater and more sustainable.
Consider the fatigue felt on the 10th play of a drive. With an extra “20 mph” in the tank deep in the fourth quarter, a high school running back may just take one to the house in the game’s waning moments. Football players who play skill positions are often most successful in the short sprints or on a 4x100m/4x200m relay.
A block start is the most difficult form of acceleration there is. Progressions leading to this pay dividends both on the track and on the football field. When football players spend time on blocks, they learn how to balance and project maximally with rhythm. Doing this makes other forms of acceleration become much easier.When football players spend time on the blocks, they learn how to balance and project maximally with rhythm, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Whether using a plyo step to get off the line quickly or giving chase to an opponent from a nearly prone position on the ground after being knocked down, these things become easier to do once the rules of acceleration have been taught. Athletes need to be able to find order and stability in the chaos of the game. Consistent acceleration work can help with this.
The mental component is an often-overlooked aspect of track and field. An opportunity to compete on a 4x100m relay team allows a football player to develop the intangibles that create great competitors. Things like mindset, confidence, and responsibility that are commonly preached by football coaches are also desirable traits in relay teams. The pressure, precision, and electricity needed to succeed here can often make no moment too big for a multisport athlete. I love competitors on my team and football coaches do too.
I have seen a lot of debate on the value of 7v7 tournaments, which I will not go too deep into in the scope of this article. There is value there. Route running, catching, and passing in a competitive atmosphere are absolutely beneficial and probably fun without the extra impact. I still think nothing replaces the opportunity to move faster and better. At the end of the day, game speed still isn’t top speed. Play in the tournaments if the schedule permits, but a few tournaments don’t replace what track and field can do for gridiron athletes.
Basketball Players – Better Without the Ball
By now it is clear that my point about speed and alactic training will also extend to the basketball court. However, ask any basketball player what they want to work on in the off-season and you will most likely hear, “I want to jump higher” or “I want to increase my vertical.”
Track and field training also incorporates plyometric training that aims to increase jumping power by training the stretch shortening cycle. Starting with skipping, hopping, and galloping, athletes typically progress throughout a track season to items like depth jumps and bounding. These all have a wide range in their length of ground contact times. This allows an athlete to work on getting stronger, becoming more powerful and elastic all at once.The combination of the high jump, triple jump, and long jump will ready a basketball player for every type of jump imaginable, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
There are three jumping events that are perfect for basketball players: the high jump, triple jump, and long jump. All require tremendous rhythm and timing, but are unique in their own way. This multimodal jumping experience and training will ready a basketball player for every type of jump imaginable. To get better at jumping, you need to jump and become well-versed in a wide array of leaps. Some of our best high jumpers (6’-6” for boys, 5’-8” for girls) had backgrounds in parkour and gymnastics.
The curvilinear approach to high jump requires much grace, rhythm, and dedication. Likewise, layups and dunks are rarely straight-line maneuvers. Someone who is patient and willing to work through this technical event could see payoffs on the basketball court as well.
The penultimate takeoff phase of long jump gets the takeoff leg in the best position to act as a lever to maximize horizontal velocity and vertical velocity at the point of takeoff. When you think of Michael Jordan’s famous foul line dunk, it is easy to draw the parallels between long jump and layups/dunks.
The triple jumper is tasked with sprinting near max velocity and completing a “hop, step, and jump” in left-left-right or right-right-left fashion. The first two phases should be off their dominant leg. This means they exert forces on their body many times their body weight. They must self-organize through repetition and find the perfect blend of speed and height necessary to apply meaningful/purposeful force to the ground. This allows them to find some semblance of balanced distribution between phases.
Video 4. Motor skill acquisition is a fancy term for learning, and it’s our goal as coaches to get athletes comfortable with being uncomfortable. Expose athletes to general and different activities that promote athletic movement, not just different motions for variety’s sake.
All plyometrics and jumps are beneficial because movements in basketball are quite unpredictable. It may be necessary to jump unilaterally and bilaterally from all manners of positions. As with acceleration, learning how to jump and land correctly can allow an athlete to find optimal lines of attack and positioning in the fray of the game.
Baseball Players – Winter GPP?
This is always the hardest sell. We have not had a lot of baseball players join our track team, so I can’t speak to individual success stories. Baseball players are bigger and stronger these days. Lots of high school athletes follow suit and spend time in gyms developing rotational power, and preventing shoulder/arm injuries, as they should. Looking at this week’s MLB injury list—there are still lots of hamstring injuries popping up. Why is this?
While baseball is a sport that requires a tremendous amount of torque, force, and talent, it is pretty sedentary. I do not have a baseball background or understand all the nuances of the sport, but I can imagine that all the rotation present in baseball can cause compensation patterns elsewhere if careful care is not paid to these imbalances. If mobility isn’t great and there is too much anterior pelvic tilt, the hamstrings could end up paying the price. This isn’t to say that this is the only injury that athletes sustain during baseball games.
I would advocate sprinting to any baseball player, and lots of good baseball trainers seem to be getting on board with this idea as well. The weight room is so beneficial for baseball players, but it is impossible to prepare the hamstrings for forces of sprinting just in the weight room alone.
Lots of time must be devoted to the skill of the game. Hitting is a complex task that I assume needs lots of reps and balance to make sure the nervous system and joints aren’t overworked over the course of a long season. There are often doubleheaders and multiple games a week.
I would urge high school coaches to make sure their players are just as physically prepared to sprint out of the batter’s box to first base as they are to hit and throw a slider. You can have your cake and eat it too. First base is 90 feet, or about 27.5 meters, away. This is the length of a decent acceleration phase for a high school athlete. No sprinter would walk onto a track and immediately do a 95-100% acceleration, but I have seen a few area teams go right into batting practice without much physical preparation.High school coaches should make sure their players are just as physically prepared to sprint out of the batter’s box to first base as they are to hit and throw a slider. Click To Tweet
In addition to the speed training, joining a track team can also expose baseball players to the importance of a proper warm-up. We never do the same exact warm-up, but we always do the same format. I think it helps the athlete to first rely on a generic warm-up routine that they can slowly take ownership of as they grow aware of their needs. On meet day, they should do their own derivative of these and scale the ladder to something maximal before their race.
- General drills
- Mobility/dynamic stretching
- Sprint drills
After sitting for 20 minutes, a batter in the on-deck circle or a center fielder could ready themselves better during the transitional periods between innings.
Moving better will help a baseball player. Getting faster can reduce the incidence of hamstring pulls. As with the other sports, max velocity improvements could make the difference on the field as well. A 10m fly improvement of just .05 can make a difference when running out a ground ball or catching a flyball deep in centerfield. Indoor track and field during the winter months would be a perfect fit for a baseball player looking for a supplement to their gym work.
Rethink Track and Field in the Off-Season
If you are a coach who is still unsure of the value of track and field for your field sport athletes, I recommend catching a track practice in the near future. You will see sprinting, jumping, and even lifting in the weight room. Track and field athletes need to be complete athletes and an increase in athleticism means an increase in several biomotor abilities. This is more transferable to the field of play than just adding strength at the local gym.
In conjunction with continuing to practice sport-specific skills like dribbling, shooting, and catching, 10-12 weeks of speed training on a team can give athletes a competitive edge over a rival school.
A few closing points…
- The best football teams also typically have great track teams and 4x100m relays.
- Great jumpers can be made. Jumping breeds athleticism and the best basketball players can and need to jump well.
- Soccer players looking to be game breakers should run track and get faster. In our league, a lot of the best players also run track.
- Baseball players need to not only hit, but also sprint, steal bases, and keep their lower limbs healthy.
Make it a goal for the next school year to incorporate indoor or outdoor track and field into your training program. Approach the track coach and see what they have to offer your program. Either way, prioritizing speed development is always a great idea.