What Is “Sports Speed”?

As I have mentioned on many occasions, the biggest question that I get from parents is if I can get their son or daughter faster. The answer is a definite “YES”, but I always want to make sure these parents understand that what their probable definition of getting faster is could be quite a bit different than what mine is. The huge majority of people think of getting faster as running a faster 40 yard dash or any short distance that measures one straight ahead speed. While this is true, it is far from complete.

The only sport that I know where straight ahead linear speed is of utmost importance is track and field, but the majority of my clients come to me to improve their speed in sports such as baseball, softball,  football, basketball, and soccer. These sports do have a linear speed component to them, but we all know that these sports are much more defined as being multi-directional in nature. Accelerating in short distances, stopping and re-accelerating, changing directions, cutting, shuffling, backpedaling are the movements that take place in all of these sports much more often than any longer linear speed activity. These are the activities that I define as “sports speed”. All sport athletes who are motivated to “get faster” need to think in terms of working on this type of speed much more often than just doing sprints in a straight line.

What are the factors involved in developing this type of sports speed?

– body movement efficiency and coordination (everything from the stance of an athlete to the coordination of movement skills)

– deceleration and change of direction mechanics (being able to stop the body after moving at high speeds and applying force in a different direction)

– movement strength and explosiveness (proper technique of movement skills done at high velocities powerfully)

– high intensity conditioning (being able to do many repetitions of these movements in game like settings without performance declining)

These are the factors that need to be focused upon in any athletes speed training regimen. Straight ahead speed is still important as that will always be a part of the “getting faster” equation, but it is only one component of many speed skills that are required to be an athlete that is working to be “sports speed” fast!

“SKILLED” Speed & Agility Training

Athletes at the youth level all the way through the professional ranks are always looking for ways to get faster, quicker, and more agile. There are numerous ways to go about achieving these needed qualities to improve athletic performance. Sprint, cone, and reaction drills are being done in a variety of ways to get the bodies of these athletes to get a step faster, or react a bit quicker. While I like most of the drills I see coaches have their athletes do in this regard, the one thing that I believe lacks in these training sessions is coaching the detailed skills and coordination that comes with these movements.

Any speed and agility movement that athletes perform should be broken down as a coordinated skill that needs to be broken down by the coach in detail and taught as such. One thing I see constantly are sport skills being taught with great detail, but when it comes to general athletic movements like sprinting, shuffling, backpedaling, changing direction, etc… the detailed approach to teaching them goes out the window. In reality, these movements are skills just as any sport skill like throwing a ball,  swinging a bat, or shooting a basket are.

As an example of this, let’s take a speed session where we will have our athletes perform a series of sprints to get faster. Let’s say that we decide to have the athletes run six 30-yard sprints. What I see a lot in this scenario are coaches who line their athletes up, encourage them to run hard, blow a whistle to get them started, and try to hurry through them to get them done as fast as possible. There are many errors with this approach and while it does some good for the fitness of the athletes, it does very little to improve speed and teach these athletes proper speed technique.

Sprinting cues before each sprint is ran should be emphasized to focus the athletes mind on certain techniques that they should be concentrating on. It could be a lower body cue such as “punch the knee” or “push down and back through the ground”. It could also be an upper body cue such as “elbows down and back” or “chest tall when in top end phase”. Now the athletes have a focus on the actual skills of developing speed and can run these sprints with a detailed plan of working on them to get faster. Also, there is a rule in speed training which states that if speed acquisition is the desired goal for the day, then for every 10 yards sprinted, one minute of rest is needed. Hurrying athletes to finish these sprints to teach toughness or live by the “no pain, no gain” theory is counter productive to get athletes faster.

Taking a coordinated skills approach to teaching speed and agility is a solid way of improving athletes. When the variables of total volume of workout and rest in between repetitions are also thought out correctly, athletes are now in a situation where they can improve greatly and enjoy the process of becoming the best athlete they can be.

The Art Of Youth Athlete Speed Training

Any coach will tell you that speed is a very important part of a team’s winning formula. While I will admit that speed is a highly genetic trait, there is no doubt that proper speed training is necessary for any athlete to make major improvements with his/her speed. What does an effective speed training program look like? The answer may not be one exact thing, but there are definite characteristics that separate quality speed training programs from average to poor ones. Here is my interpretation of what those effective characteristics are:

1. THOROUGH WARMUP – With any athletic endeavor, warmup needs to be mandatory and the more thorough it is in warming the muscles, joints, and ligaments up as well as increasing the body temperature, the more effective the workout will be. Here is a video of one of my former college athlete clients, Taylor, going through such a warmup:

2. SPECIFIC SPEED DRILLS – Just running back and forth as fast as you can without a plan is a road to nowhere as far as improving speed. Specific drills in the areas of skipping, bounding, and sprinting with proper cueing are necessary to fortify the athlete with the knowledge to understand and execute proper movement mechanics. Here is Taylor going through such a program:

3. MULTI-DIRECTIONAL DRILLS – In most sports, running from point A to point B is not always a straight line. Great speed training programs also consist of multi directional movements, deceleration, and change of direction skills. Once again, here is Taylor doing a series of these “agility” movements at one of her workouts:

4. STRENGTH TRAINING – Speed has a large strength component to it. Great speed technique alone can only get you so far. The body must be able to apply great amounts of force through the ground in an efficient manner to improve speed. Overall body strength trained through basic multi-joint movement patterns (squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull) on a regular basis is necessary to maximize one’s speed. Taylor shows us such a workout:

Make no mistake about it, speed is very difficult to improve. It takes a well thought out plan over the long haul to make it happen. Having such a plan that includes warmup, specific speed drills, multi-directional movements, and strength training is a great way for any athlete to achieve speed gains and become faster.

Training For Speed: The Key Ingredient

What is the key ingredient missing from this speed training session? REST! When any athlete is being trained to develop pure speed, the most common element needs to be rest. All the great speed coaches out there emphasize letting their athletes get thoroughly recovered after a sprint before another sprint is executed. A common rule of thumb used by the top of the line speed coaches is one minute of rest for every 10 yards sprinted. As an example, an athlete doing a series of 40 yard sprints who truly wants to improve speed should have 4 minutes of rest between sprints. To many people, that may seem excessive, but the body needs to be extremely close to 100% recovered to make any meaningful gains in pure speed development. In most sessions I witness, rest periods are much shorter than this and endurance is brought into the equation too much to make speed development possible. There is nothing wrong with a coach having athletes run sprints with short rest periods as a form of higher intensity endurance training, but if pure speed acquisition is the desired goal: think REST!