11 Critical Tips When Evaluating a Speed Development Program
This article was recently published in the Fauquier Times, Prince William Times, and Gainesville Times special section: Health, Wellness and Beauty
Speed, speed, & more speed! Athletes are getting faster and faster these days and coaches at every level are telling kids the same thing; “You’re going to have to get faster if you want to play at the next level.” It’s the reality of competitive sports, but how does an athlete get faster?
The majority of athletes are not born fast; truly fast athletes have been given genetic gifts. Parents that were fast as young athletes generally produce kids that are fast. It’s very similar to the height gene. If parents are both under 6 feet, in all likelihood you’ll be under 6 feet and have a tough time making it in the NBA unless you are lightning quick and can out-jump everyone in the gym.
So, if a young athlete is not genetically gifted with speed, can they really train to get faster? As a Strength and Conditioning Professional and Athletic Performance Coach, the answer is yes. However, it’s important that parents and athletes realize that a Performance Coach can’t take an athlete that runs 4.9 seconds in the forty-yard-dash and make him run a 4.5. If a coach or trainer promises this to you, it would be wise to consider that he or she is most likely telling you this to sell his/her services. The goal when working with a Performance Coach is always to maximize the athlete’s potential and get them to run their fastest at every opportunity. Those opportunities could come in the shape of contests, games, combines or showcases.
Nicole Rodriguez, a performance Coach at Athlete’s Performance in Phoenix, AZ trains athletes to prepare for the NFL Combine and explains it this way: “Most of the elite athletes that come to AP to prepare for combine prep are already first-round picks. Our goal is to make incremental improvements, get them running their best times on a consistent basis and keep them injury free.” This is easier said than done because most of these athletes are not track athletes. Like most field sport athletes, football athletes are used to accelerating and decelerating and changing direction to either make a would-be tackler miss or to actually bring a ball carrier to the ground. Some of them seldom run more than 10-15 yards at a clip, but at the combine everyone has to run a forty yard dash with the added pressure of all 32 NFL teams watching and the stakes are high. A slow time can send an athlete’s draft stock plummeting which can cost him major dollars in his first NFL Contract. So it’s important that they run their fastest time.
It’s no different for most travel soccer, baseball, softball or lacrosse athletes. Evaluator’s all want to know how fast the athletes are. In fact, more often than not, high school athletes are being evaluated in this same manner. Coaches want to see if they have what it takes to make it at the college level and they need to compare their times against their peers.
So how can a Performance Coach help improve speed? Here are 11 critical components to look for when seeking a Performance Coach for speed improvement.
1. Evaluation: Aside from the obvious arm swing errors, only a well-trained coach will be able to determine where an athlete falls short in running technique and lack of power. A good facility will utilize tools like the Functional Movement Screen to determine any deficiencies in an athlete’s mobility, flexibility or core strength that can limit speed improvement or lead to injury. Hand-held or electronic timing instruments should be used to create baselines to track improvement. Some facilities also offer video analysis, which can provide some real-time feedback for athletes.
2. Plan of attack: Following the evaluation, an “attack plan” should be developed based on the specific needs of the athlete. If training in a group setting, the most frequently observed deficiencies are considered the focus when designing the programming.
3. Review the Running Basics: There are three essential components that make up running form, and each can contribute either positively or negatively to an athlete’s speed.
a. Head and Neck Posture: Start at the top. When the athlete runs, does the head tilt back? Does it move side to side when he/she runs? Does the chin jet out into a forward head position? The head should stay level and looking straight ahead. Poor head posture can slow an athlete down and needs to be corrected.
b. Arm Swing: Great arm swing can really improve the power and confidence in an athlete’s running gait. The arms should be in the “Frozen L” position with the hands open. The arm swing should track forward and backward and never cross the midline of the body (the nose). The arm swing determines the stride length, so the thumbs should start at the nose and end at the hip pocket. An arm swing that is too big or too small will cause either long over striding or short choppy strides.
c. Upper Body Posture: One of the toughest things to correct during the acceleration phase of sprinting is torso posture. Knee drive should not cause rounded back posture. If it does, then most likely deficiencies in core strength and poor everyday posture may be the cause. “Tall spine” can be coached all day long, but doing wall runs, falling starts, heavy sled marches and heavy sled sprint tows will help correct this problem.
4. Lower Body Power Development: The ability of an athlete to accelerate and decelerate is the biggest contributor to on field performance. It’s not always the absolute speed athlete that gets to the ball first. The player that can recognize, react, and explode to the ball are often seen as the fastest. A great example of this is Usain Bolt (fastest man on the planet). His start is average for an athlete of his caliber, but his absolute top end speed is incredible in races like the 100 and 200 meter sprint. He crushes opponents in these longer races. Field sport and court sport athletes need more starting and stopping speeds to be effective in their sport. Developing lower body power through use of plyometric drills, medicine ball throws and Olympic lifts are all great tools for developing power.
5. Strength Training: The fastest athletes on the field are typically pound for pound the strongest athletes on the field. Athletes that are good at basic strength exercises like chin-ups, push-ups, dips, squats and lunges can handle their own body weight very well and can therefore move their bodies faster. Developing strong core strength as well as upper and lower body strength is a must for an athlete to improve speed. Hip hinging movement patterns like bent-knee deadlift, regular deadlift and Kettlebell swings are excellent moves for improving hip strength and power in hip extension which is very important in running and jumping.
6. Super Stiffness: Especially in the lower leg, athletes that are stiff and strong in their calves, achilles tendons, ankles and feet are able to apply more force into the ground without energy leaks. This stiffness helps the athlete propel their bodies forward, without it the stretch/reflex cycles would be too slow. Exercises like jumping rope, bounding and single leg hops will aid the athlete in creating the much needed lower leg stiffness.
7. Flexibility and Mobility: Unfortunately, this is one area that most coaches overlook in their training regimen. An inflexible, immobile athlete struggles with cutting, change of direction and lateral movement, but linear or straight ahead running is generally not impeded by a lack of flexibility. Injuries due to imbalances or asymmetries can occur from a lack of mobility and that’s why a great dynamic warm-up and mobility drills should be a part of every athlete’s training sessions.
8. Nutrition and Recovery: One of the main causes of inefficient athletic movement is poor body composition (too much body fat). Once or twice a season, you’ll hear of an athlete dropping 5-10 pounds and getting faster. It does make sense that if an athlete’s strength remains constant and he/she loses significant body fat and body weight they will most likely move faster and more efficiently. Pound-for-pound he indeed got stronger. Good nutrition, hydration, and quality sleep are the main factors in reducing body fat and increasing efficiency of movement. Athletes today, more than ever need to be well educated on the foods that provide the best nutrients to improve their body composition.
9. Coaching Performance vs Conditioning: A good coach never confuses conditioning with speed enhancement. The biggest difference is in the recovery. In speed improvement, it is better to run 6 up-hill sprints at 100% effort with 1 minute rest in between sprints than it is to run 10 up-hill sprints at 70% effort with 30 second rest in between. Always remember: any coach can make an athlete tired; the good ones make an athlete better and faster.
10. Facility and Resources: Do your research before choosing a performance coach or training facility. Make sure the facility has room to work on speed development, even if it’s outdoors. You can only make minimal speed improvements when space is limited for drills and running. Ask what types of drills and training will be done and who will be coaching those drills. Ask about the size and makeup of the group your athlete will train in; athletes should be grouped by age and ability. Make sure the facility has good tools to work with: medicine balls, plyo boxes, weight-loaded sleds, weights, etc.
11. Mindset: Saved the best for last! An athlete must develop a belief that through discipline, hard work and consistency that they can become faster. Psychology trumps physiology almost every time so if you believe that you can get faster, you will. If you don’t, you won’t. A good Performance Coach should always be “pumping up” athletes with encouragement and the motivation to work harder and be applauding improvement, no matter how minor.
Although speed has a lot to do with who your parents are; making these 11 critical components a part of an athlete’s training program will give them the best chance to get faster. However, it will not be easy. It takes time, knowledge, discipline and most of all EFFORT!
Colby Schreckengost is owner/director of training at Next Level Fitness & Performance in Haymarket. Next Level trains over 600 athletes per year from beginners to professionals. Colby holds a BS and MS and is a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Tulsa. He is a certified personal trainer and Sports Nutritionist. He also holds certifications with the Titleist Performance Institute and is a certified Functional Movement Screen Specialist. Next Level specializes in Sports Performance for Athletes and Life-Changing Body Transformations for Adults. For more information on getting started at Next Level, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, call 703-754-0161, or click this link.