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Developing Speed and Agility for Athletes: The Short-to-Long Approach

Renowned speed expert Latif Thomas explains his short-to-long methodology to developing speed and agility for athletes

Latif Thomas

People say all the time that speed and agility for athletes is just like talent: It can’t be taught.

I’m here to show you how that belief is flat-out wrong. Speed is a skill.

The ability to take advantage of the potential of one’s body, and to do so consistently, is a highly technical skill. As coaches and athletes, we often allude to this concept when talking about speed development, but rarely do we discuss how important this statement is and what effects it has on training and performance.

When watching skilled athletes run at full speed, there is commonality in the power and fluidity that these athletes display. They run smoothly and effortlessly. And they run the same way, every time. It is this consistency in the patterning of their movements, the skill of running fast, that creates that “Wow” factor when you see them in action.

Depending on your level of experience in speed development, you may or may not know instantly what these athletes are doing that engenders such awe, but you know it is there. Even though we can’t bring every athlete to elite levels, we can teach them the skill of running fast, where they can apply it to their own particular sport in the context of their own particular level of inherent ability.

Anyone who has learned the skill of running fast knows exactly what it feels like when you reach the point where you’re no longer “trying” to run fast but are seemingly floating over the ground. But there is a progression of development required to consistently reach this point of ease in running. My goal is to explain how to progress an athlete toward the consistent application of the skill of running fast.

Speed and agility for athletes

To begin, let us establish the foundation of this progression. I believe it to be simply a matter of common sense, i.e., another area in athletic development where we have made something complicated that is, in fact, somewhat simple. In an individual’s speed development, one cannot expect to be able to run fast consistently over 100 meters if they first have not developed the ability to run fast consistently over 80 meters. One cannot expect to run fast consistently over 80 meters if they have not developed the ability to run fast consistently over 60 meters, etc. Therefore, with prescribing a methodology for youth speed training and developing an athlete’s ability to run fast, we must apply a “short to long” approach.

With a short to long approach, we develop an athlete’s proficiency over short distances and progress to longer distances once that athlete has shown that he/she can perform a given distance to the satisfaction of the coach administering the program. Therefore, the onus is on the coach to know what to look for in terms of strengths and weaknesses, how to cue an athlete to effectively perform certain movement patterns, and how to fix mechanical inefficiencies. This is the case regardless of the sport; where the emphasis, time or effort is spent will be contingent on the particular demands of the sport and the particular strengths and weaknesses of the athlete. Thus, for youth speed training, not every athlete will necessarily need to spend equal time developing every component/skill that will be discussed here.

Training Speed and Agility for Athletes: Three Major Categories

For our purposes, we will divide youth speed training “speed development” into three major categories:

Acceleration – the ability to quickly and efficiently get to full speed

Maximum Velocity (VMax) – the ability to maintain top and near top speeds

Speed Endurance – the ability to maintain efficient coordination of the limbs in order to slow the rate of deceleration

NOTE: When it comes to training speed and agility for athletes, there will certainly be a temptation to rush to other areas, progress to longer distances, and run workouts that are more exciting. I must stress that in training inexperienced athletes, we must look at long-term development. I know this can be difficult when we only have athletes for a 12-week season or an 8-week program at a facility. While radical improvements can and will be made over the short term, if your true goal is to maximize the potential of your athletes, then you will not rush them into skills and movements they are not prepared to effectively execute.

Keep in mind that the purpose of this post is to discuss how to progress using a “short to long” program. Certain assumptions must be made, such as the assumption that while implementing a short to long approach to speed development, you are also developing the other four biomotor abilities (strength, coordination, flexibility, endurance), which will allow athletes to progress at the fastest reasonable rate. Thus, the remainder of this post will not go into the biomotor abilities or how to train them but will focus instead on speed progressions. In addition, it is assumed that you understand the basic cues and demands of speed development, basic body angles, rest periods, etc., in that the confines of this post do not allow for intimate discussion of these issues.

Acceleration Development

Acceleration development should be the primary focus of linear speed development for any athlete in any speed- and power-based sport. Success in any sport requiring running is going to be contingent on the athlete’s ability to accelerate to top speed with little wasted motion or energy (i.e., efficiently). So the foundation of any speed development program must spend the appropriate amount of time focusing on developing this skill.

Before we do any running, we must put athletes in a good acceleration position. An athlete cannot expect to perform a skill if they have not experienced the context in which it must be performed. So before beginning acceleration work, I teach the wall/fence drill. This will allow athletes to feel, both statically and dynamically, the ideal position for acceleration. While they will not be able to hold or maintain this position at full speed, they will at least understand experientially what it should feel like. And this serves as a great starting point for teaching athletes self-assessment, a critical tool for maximal development.

Speed and agility for athletes 1

Wall/Fence Drill – Have athletes stand with their hands against a wall with their arms parallel to the ground. The feet should be behind the hips and the athlete should be at, approximately, a 45-degree angle to the ground. The torso should be erect, hips forward, and stomach and lower back tight so that one could draw a straight (45-degree) line from the head through the hips to the ankles.

This is the ideal body position that an athlete would be in at the outset of acceleration, particularly when accelerating from the ground, out of a 3- or 4-point stance, starting blocks, etc.

From this position, we implement a marching action. Have the athlete raise the right leg so that the ankle is beneath the hips, toe dorsiflexed. On your command, the athlete will march, alternating legs, for a given number of repetitions. They will finish with their leg in the original starting position.

You will see immediate breakdowns in technique:

  • Athletes will break at the hips while performing the march, so that the butt sticks out. The straight line from head to ankle is broken. Cue them to keep their hips forward (squeeze the cheeks).
  • They will not keep their heels underneath the hips. Instead the ankle will pump straight up and down, piston like, so that the foot is out past the center of mass. Cue athletes to pull the heel under their butts.
  • They will not drive down and back so that each foot strike takes place in the original starting position, behind the hips.

Since athletes cannot perform this basic drill in a confined setting, they certainly cannot be expected to possess the skills required for smooth, powerful, and efficient acceleration to top speed. At the outset of acceleration development, I will have athletes perform this drill before each training session. Additionally, of course, we are teaching traditional speed drills.

So what next?

Speed and agility for athletes 2

I like to start with short hill runs. And by short I mean 10-15 meters, max. I put athletes on a fairly steep hill, and we begin with accelerations up this hill. As we learned with the wall march, holding acceleration angles is difficult at this point. With a hill, we can bring the angle to the athlete, putting them in the position we want them to be in. With short hills it is paramount that athletes drive down and back, applying force to the ground. If they don’t, they will immediately feel that their center of mass is behind them and they will not be able to get up the hill with any reasonable speed or power.

Because force application, and the strength demands that come with it, is such an integral part of running fast, we can teach this skill with short hills as well as help athletes experience how much easier and more effective it is when they can activate and fire the glutes so that power is transferred appropriately. At the beginning, athletes will often try to bound up the hill, with the swing leg landing too far in front. This overcompensation is another opportunity to cue the importance of driving down. Like in traditional sprinting, when the foot gets out in front of the hips at foot strike, athletes must spend longer on the ground, which limits force output and slows them down.

Generally, I’ll start with around 10 repetitions with 1-2 minutes rest for teenaged athletes. At this point, I’m not going to get overly technical with the volume. I always err on the side of caution. The more critical element to teach here is self-assessment. And this goes for all phases of speed development. Once you’ve established some of the fundamental skills that athletes should be trying to learn with a particular workout or series of workouts, they must begin to identify positives and negatives on their own. I constantly ask them, “How did that feel?” “What did you feel?” “What were your arms doing?” etc.

Ask questions that get them to analyze their performance. If you are giving them good feedback with each interval, they will begin to come back and tell you how they felt, what felt right, what felt wrong, what they were thinking, etc.

This is an incredibly important component of training speed and agility for athletes and should not be overlooked. But to make it happen, you must be able to give appropriate comments that facilitate their learning.

Once athletes have become proficient at the short hill runs extending out to 20m, I will take them to the track or to a turf field. I do not advise doing speed work on grass as it is an invitation to injury. From here we will start out at 20m, starting from a variety of positions on the ground, a crouch, a 3-point stance, etc. I’m looking for the same aggressiveness that was required to accelerate up the hill to now be transferred to a flat surface. Once I see that, with the mechanical elements in place, we’ll extend out to 30 meters, then to 40. Again, the progression is logical. What you should be looking for in graduating your athletes to longer runs is consistency in their movement patterns, proper running mechanics, and an improved ability to tell you what they did right and what they did wrong without you having to tell them first. The best way to assess consistency is to time the athletes’ intervals. When they are consistently running the same times within .1-.2 seconds, it is likely that they are doing the same things each time. At these shorter distances, there is less room for error, but developing these skills early will pay great dividends at longer, more challenging distances.

Now that we are out to the 30-40 meter range, athletes are no longer accelerating. In fact, the vast majority of athletes will be at full speed by 30 meters, so this is the time where we will begin adding Maximum Velocity components to training. If an athlete is not reaching full speed until after 30 meters, they are likely holding back or have mechanical problems that are limiting proper acceleration. These athletes are not ready for longer sprint work.

Maximum Velocity (VMax)

Speed and agility for athletes 3

Even elite sprinters can only maintain top speed for around 2 seconds before beginning to decelerate. Thus, VMax work is geared more toward maintaining near top speeds for longer distances (reducing the rate of deceleration) than running at full speed because the time spent at full speed is quite short. Again, this post is not a discussion of this type of training but rather guidelines for how to implement it.

I am a big fan of fly runs. This is where you will have a buildup zone, a fly zone, and a deceleration zone. With our acceleration work, we’ve been practicing in the 30-40m range, so we will now add a fly to our work at these distances.

Our initial runs will be “fly 15’s.” Set up a cone at the start, at 20m, at 35m and at 60m. The breakdown is this: 0-20m is the acceleration zone, 20-35m is the fly zone, and 35-60m is the deceleration zone. The final 20 meters should be a slow deceleration to a full stop. Since we’ve been focusing on acceleration development thus far, athletes should be quite proficient through 20m. Our new focus is on what they should be doing while at full speed.

Cue athletes to run hips tall and with a foot strike beneath the hips, not behind or far in front. It is important for young athletes especially to focus not on straining to run faster but rather on executing a consistent pace. Our goal here is maximum speed, minimum effort. Again, we can assess consistency here by timing athletes through the zones. If their time to the first cone is inconsistent, it will likely lead to inconsistencies in the fly portion. Because we’re breaking the run into sections, we can identify where things are going wrong (and right) and give appropriate solutions. I strongly recommend videotaping these runs and breaking down the film with your athletes.

As athletes become consistent and proficient at fly 15’s we can simply extend the distance with time. Generally, for athletes who require extended sprints in their training, our meat and potatoes workouts are fly 30’s and fly 40’s. Volume is dependent on the particular athletes. When times fall off, the workout is over. As a general rule, with teenage athletes, we look at a total volume in the range of 250-300 meters before fatigue begins to adversely affect the quality of the workout. But again, this is a generality and you must prescribe distances appropriate for your athletes—thus, the art of coaching.

Because we are implementing a short to long progression, even with VMax work, you are still working on acceleration development. Athletes must accelerate properly to reach true to top speeds. So, where I was previously doing acceleration work twice per week as we made our way to the 30-40m range, I will now do one day of acceleration work and one day of VMax work. When you think about it, we’re getting more bang for our buck because we’re still getting two days of acceleration work in, but we’re also developing our ability to maintain at top speed. Since acceleration work is paramount in almost every sport, we can maintain constant focus on that skill because we’ve mastered it. Consistent acceleration paves the way for maximal development at longer distances.

We also use another type of workout for VMax development. It goes by many names, but we call it “Sprint-Float-Sprints.” This is simply a more advanced progression of the fly XX. Here the goal is to teach athletes to relax once they reach top speed, but without slowing down. This is one of the hardest things for coaches to teach and athletes to learn. Athletes simply must experience this in order to understand it. I’ve never been able to come up with a universally understood cue that got athletes to do this right. The important thing to convey is this: Once an athlete reaches top speed, continuing to try to accelerate will only slow the athlete down.

When timing experienced athletes in this type of workout, they run faster in the float—or relaxation portion—than when they are pushing to run faster. To most athletes, this doesn’t make sense at first, but there is a reason that you see elite athletes with relaxed faces, shoulders, hands, etc. at the end of a race. They know that they must stay within a certain confine to run faster. If they begin to press, they will break down mechanically and slow down. So, when doing Sprint-Float-Sprints with your athletes, you must get them to understand this. One very clear way to tell if athletes are slowing down in the float zone vs. relaxing is by watching their torso. If the shoulders drop back behind the hips (foot strike will also take place in front of the hips), then you know the athlete is doing it wrong.

Here is how to set up the workout. Set up a cone at 20m, 30m, 40m, 50m, and 70m. From 0-20m athletes accelerate normally, 20-30m athletes will sprint aggressively, 30- 40m athletes go into a float, 40-50m back into an aggressive sprint, 50-70m athletes should slowly come to a stop.

Generally, I stick to this distance throughout the season. If an athlete excels, I may bring the zones from 10m to 15m. Because this workout is quite taxing, both physically and mentally, we don’t do a large number of them in a workout. We may do a max of 4 or 5 total. As with fly runs, getting this on tape is an incredibly valuable tool. With so much going on from zone to zone, it really is difficult to assess an athlete live and time their zones. You really have to pick one or the other.

With this workout, it would be the alternative to running, say, fly 40’s. Depending on the sport and time of year, it is unlikely that I will get away from pure acceleration work entirely, but there are exceptions to every rule. Now that athletes have become proficient in acceleration patterns and maintaining top/near top speeds, we can add a new element to training:

Speed Endurance (SE)

Speed and agility for athletes 4

With speed endurance, we want to be specific to the demands of the sport. For our discussion, there are two types of speed endurance: Alactic speed endurance and Glycolytic speed endurance. Without turning this into a lecture on energy systems, alactic SE is for runs of 30-80m with rests periods of 1-3 minutes between reps and 5-10 minutes between sets. Glycolytic SE is for runs of 80-150m, with rest periods of 5-6 minutes between reps and 6-10 minutes between sets.

At this point, you should have a clear understanding of how progressing distances works. Fundamentally it’s going to be the same here, but again, sport specificity comes into play. There is little need to focus on glycolytic SE if your athletes are never going to have to sprint for longer than 60-70m on a fairly regular basis, i.e., almost every sport outside of track and field. Instead, I would focus on alactic SE. Athletes are going to be competing in a state of fatigue for a good portion of their games, so short sprints with relatively short rest periods are going to prepare them better for the demands of their sport. Because you’ve taught them proper acceleration mechanics and developed the skill of high speed maintenance, they will be able to run faster and longer while tired. If you had not done this progression in this way, once they got tired (in a workout or competition) they would immediately regress from a mechanical and technical standpoint, which of course makes them less competitive athletically and at increased risk of sustaining an injury. But because they have learned the skill of sprinting, as well as self-assessment, they can focus and fall back on the previously learned and repeated movement patterns that lead to running faster and winning more.

With track and field sprinters, the need for longer speed endurance runs is obvious. It is important, however, that we adhere to these rest protocols. I find that many track coaches can’t overcome the urge to reduce rest periods, believing them to be too long to be effective. They are not.

So how is it all put together?

Putting Together Acceleration, VMax, and SE in the Context of a Season

If you have a true preseason or offseason, that is where I would put in the short hill accelerations or even flat surface acceleration work. But if you’re working on limited time frames of a typical season, here is how I would structure the progression, assuming you are working on speed twice per week.

This, of course, is a general guide. Look at it in terms of progressing in distance. As far as volume, these are estimates. Some athletes are workhorses; others are not. There is no magic formula for determining the perfect volume for a workout or workout period, and there are many other variables to consider in prescribing speed sessions. It should vary by athlete based on training age, experience, skill, etc.

M: 8-10 x10m hills

Th: 8-10 x 15m hills

Once athletes have begun to improve:

M: 8-10 x 20m hills

Th: 8-10 x 20-30m acceleration development on flat surface

Once proficiency is shown:

M: 8-10 x 30m

Th: 4x30m, 3-4 x 40m

Once athletes have developed consistency in their acceleration development:

M: 10 x 30m

Th: 6-8 x fly 15’s with a 20m buildup

Choices from here vary by sport. Non-track coaches will likely stick with a format along these lines. Remember, you don’t always have to move up in distance; you can do repeat 10’s, 20’s, etc. Make it specific to your sport. In fact, you should move around in volume, distance, and intensity so that athletes do not adapt and become stagnant in their training.

If athletes aren’t going to maintain an all-out sprint for more than 15-20m, spend the bulk of time on various components of acceleration development, speed endurance, and some VMax work:

M: (Acceleration work) 5x10m, 5x20m, 5x30m (full recovery)

Th: (SE) 2 sets of 6x25m with 1 min rest between reps, 5 min between sets

Do a VMax workout every 3 or 4 workouts.

With track and field, you have to consider meets as part of your program design. So if an athlete is running the 100 and 200 in a meet plus field events, acceleration work and VMax work may be part of that week’s training, generally speaking. Of course, you must consider the above factors, time of year, etc.

For a 100/200m runner who has progressed through the requisite acceleration and VMax skills:

M: 5x30m out of blocks on the straight, 3 x 60m out of blocks on the turn (float at 40m)

Th: 4x fly 30’s with a 20m buildup, 1 x 120m

The meet will involve speed endurance elements so we don’t have to go heavy on that during the week. And both the Monday and Thursday workout cover some degree of speed endurance work as well.

Keep in mind that when doing VMax work, you’re still doing acceleration development. You have to accelerate to get to top speed. When you’re doing (Glycolytic) Speed Endurance, you’re doing both acceleration work and VMax work. To get the most out of a longer run, an athlete must be capable of effectively performing a shorter run. It is for this reason that the short to long approach to youth speed training and development is the optimal method for developing the fastest athletes.

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The Four Stages of Skill Acquisition For Young Athletes

 

The Four Stages of Skill Acquisition For Young Athletes

 

latif Thomas Young Athletes

 

By Latif Thomas

 

We live in fast paced society full of impatient people who want results right now.
This same impatience holds true for uneducated athletes, coaches and parents who want to improve their own speed, their young athletes’ speed or their child’s speed.

 

Lately I’ve seen quite a few colleagues continue to try and stress the fact that when it comes to athletic development in general and more specifically speed development (ultimately they are both the same) we must take a long term approach if your interest is truly to maximize the performance of your young athletes, team and program.

 

When I say long term I mean you need to think in terms of many months and even years, not many weeks and even months.

 

I know what you’re thinking…

‘But Latif, are you saying that you can’t improve speed in a couple weeks or a month?
But my son/daughter/team has a big competition that their life depends on in 3 weeks.’

 

I’m not saying you can’t make improvements in a short period of time.
And while it won’t sell as many Complete Speed Training Programs to say this, such an *approach* won’t lead to optimal or long term results.

 

Quick fixes are like cramming for an exam the night before the test. Sure you might remember the information the next day and even get a good grade. But a few days later you won’t be able to recall much of the information.

 

The same applies to trying to get fast results (pun intended) in a very short time period. If someone tells you otherwise they’re trying too hard to sell you something.

 

Ultimately there are 4 stages an athlete goes through when acquiring a new skill. This has been broken down in many ways and said in different formats. So I’m certainly not taking credit for ‘inventing’ these steps.

 

The fundamental principles of this version, as I came across them, were attributed to top level sprint coach Loren Seagrave. I will add my own experiences to expand his concepts.

 

I will go over them in respect to learning the skill of running fast, which I will refer to as sprinting. Primarily I will focus on sprinting in terms of acceleration development as acceleration is fundamental to success in pretty much every sport:

 

1. Unconscious Incompetence

 

The athletes are not thinking because they have never been told to think about anything. If they have been told to think anything, the advice was inconsistent, wrong or (more likely) both. Therefore the young athletes are not very good at new skills.

 

Seagrave tells his athletes that it is better to look foolish in front of their teammates in practice and get better at the skills than to get embarrassed in front of an audience.

 

I wholeheartedly agree.

 

For further analysis of this concept, let’s look at my current group of male and female high school track sprinters. This year the group is brand new to me so I have the opportunity to build these athletes from the ground up.

 

Because of the success of the program in general, I assumed that most of the upperclassmen would be beyond the level of unconscious incompetence. They would, at the very least, be at the second level of skill acquisition.

 

I was mistaken. In asking them simple, basic questions to assess their knowledge of sprinting (the act itself and the training process as a whole) I quickly realized from the blank stares and self conscious smiles that these athletes didn’t know the first thing about running fast.

 

And that means their coaches are teaching them this stuff. And we shouldn’t place the blame on the current coach in the current sport. Most athletes have been on many teams in many sports over many years of athletics. It’s disappointing that most athletes have gone 0 for life when it comes to effective, modern speed training techniques (regardless of sport).

 

If you are new to the art of speed development, it is quite likely that the level of unconscious incompetence is where your athletes currently reside.

 

Either way it is critically important that you have a specific, pre-planned system for teaching, developing and progressing your athletes if you have any reasonable expectation of either short or long term results.

 

Depending on how effective your system of speed development is as well as your effectiveness at conveying these concepts to your young athletes in a way that they can interpret and apply, they will eventually reach the second level of skill acquisition.

 

Keep in mind, athletes will reach this level at different times so you must always be testing new ways to improve the effectiveness of your program, progress fast learning athletes to more advanced levels of training, yet allow slower developing athletes to continue to progress at their own pace.

 

The second level of skill acquisition is:

 

2. Conscious Incompetence

 

The athlete is starting to understand the skill both conceptually and experientially. They try to execute it but are not very good at it yet.

 

This is the stage where I believe things get tricky. Seven weeks into working with this group and this is where most of my athletes are.

 

And I think this is where most coaches/trainers/parents make a mistake. Many of the athletes are ‘tweeners’. That is, they are firmly entrenched in this second level of skill acquisition, yet they simultaneously display many of the characteristics of the third level.

 

The ‘results now’ coach would be tempted to take any signs of progress and continue on to more complicated and technical stages of training.

 

For example, we are 7 weeks into the season and beyond the halfway point for even the best athletes. (In fact many athletes will be done in 2 weeks.)

 

Yet I just introduced maximum velocity training (top speed training) this past Wednesday. And only to part of the group. Because I didn’t think the group (or any of the individuals within the group) had become proficient in their acceleration development, I did not let them run at or develop their top speed on our speed days.

 

In effect, until this past week the athletes were not allowed to run more than 30 meters at any one time.
(I’m talking about during true speed workouts. Of course they ran longer during tempo and special endurance runs. These types of runs are submaximal and therefore do not develop faster speeds.)

 

For the non-track coach this isn’t necessarily a big deal because you’re going to spend the bulk of your time developing acceleration and multidirectional skills. What you should take from this is the fact that I am not in a rush to progress any athlete even the ones I believe will challenge for a State Title based on time of year. Instead all decisions are based on competence and execution.

 

Young Athletes IYCA track coach Latif thomas

For track coaches it may seem crazy that we have not progressed to doing flyruns, sprint-float-sprints or more traditional speed endurance runs. But the fact is they aren’t ready. So adding that layer just sets them up to do it poorly and therefore underachieve over the long term.

 

So then what are the results of being patient?

 

All of my sprinters, top to bottom, ran their lifetime bests by the 4th week which was the second competition of the season.

 

Needless to say it has been exciting for me and for the athletes. Because they understand the why behind everything we do, they know that they have a long (long) way to go before they can expect to meet their full potential.

 

Most of the group ran personal bests the very first meet. And the truth is none of them expected to (I didn’t either because they were all over the place in practice) because they understood that they had no idea what they were doing.

 

We are now at the point where many of the athletes are starting to show glimpses of competence. Here and there they will run a repetition where they will execute to expectation for several strides or meters.

 

(Let’s just say I have well above average standards for what qualifies as ‘competent execution’ of a particular skill or movement pattern.)

 

The most important element of this is the fact that they are able to identify those moments. Because they have been taught to assess their own running as well as their teammates, they know what to look for.

 

Because we break the process down into segments, they know what it should feel like.

 

That makes them excited to train because they aren’t just ‘running to run’. The athletes are now willing to work harder and stay later because they can see and feel specific improvements to their running ability.

 

Recently one of the coaches said to me ‘Wow I can’t believe you have them here at 5:30 on a Friday night and they’re the ones asking to stay longer and do just one more start. Last year they would have been out of here by 4 o’clock.’

 

This is what happens when young athletes buy into your coaching.

They take the initiative to get themselves to the next level without any prodding or pleading from you.
But it starts with establishing a foundation of development and basing your progressions on their level of competence and execution, not time of year or relation to major competitions.

 

If you are truly interested in maximizing the performance of your athletes, you will adopt this philosophy with your own coaching.

 

3. Conscious Competence

 

The athlete has developed the skill but cannot perform it automatically and mindlessly. In this stage, unconscious action returns one to previous bad habits.

 

In my experience this is the stage that athletes will spend the most time in, once (if) they finally reach it. How quickly they reach this stage is, in large part, dependent on the coach’s ability to get their message across and teach (and cue) the different stages of running fast.

 

I also find this stage to be the most frustrating for both the athlete and the coach.
Let’s use acceleration as the example. We’ll define acceleration as the moment the athlete begins moving until they reach top speed.

 

I’ll continue to use track sprinters as the example, but the rules are essentially the same if you work primarily with football players training for the 40 or baseball players training for the 60, etc.

 

When exiting the blocks we need to teach athletes they must reach triple extension with their front leg before the back leg touches the ground. This is best accomplished by driving the lead arm up and over the head and pushing fully and completely back into the block pedals.

 

To ensure athletes don’t ‘pop up’ right away and/or drop their hips immediately limiting their ability to accelerate effectively and reach their true top speed, the head should remain in line with the spine.

 

Ideally, the exit angle should be 45 degrees. As the back leg hits the ground, the athlete should drive the foot down into the ground like a piston. They should push the foot down into the ground fully, so they feel like they are leaving the foot on the ground *behind* them at toe off. Ground contact time should be longer than is comfortable as they attempt to overcome inertia and get moving. Heel recovery should be low, as if the athlete was ‘running on hot coals’.

 

Now these are just *some* of the things you must teach your athletes must to do in order to exit the blocks and set them up for a fast race.

 

And that only covers the first 2 steps.

 

So you can imagine that a young athlete will have a difficult time coordinating all of these movements correctly, in the right order, at the right time with an appropriate amount of explosiveness and power.

 

You can also understand why they spend so much time in the second stage!

 

After several months (and potentially years depending on your level of expectation) of trying to put the block exit together, and assuming they have the strength levels to even put themselves in such a position, athletes will develop the timing and coordination that puts them at an acceptable level of competence.

 

(What is acceptable is going to be different for each athlete and depends on their biological and training age, talent level, etc.)

 

When doing block work in practice, they will often get it right. And they will know the differnce between a good start and a poor one. They will be able to identify the positive (I got full extension, I was patient on the ground, My upper body unfolded naturally), as well as the negative (I didn’t get extension on my drive leg, I didn’t drive my lead arm, I was impatient off the ground so I was spinning my wheels).

 

And so you’ll both be confident that the next competition will bring great results.

 

However, since we’re dealing primarily with high school aged athletes and younger, what we see in practice and what we see in a meet are wildly different things.

 

In a meet your athlete is nervous and excited. They are worried about the competition and placing where they need to place. They want to run well and run correctly so as not to disappoint the coach, their parents, their teammates, themselves.

 

Since the newly acquired skill is not automatic, but requires complete focus to execute correctly, any distraction will cause the athlete to revert back to their old habits.

 

I have a talented 55m runner who can execute in practice sometimes (he’s still at the 2nd stage). He nods his head when I tell him what I want. He can identify good and bad efforts. But as soon as the gun goes off it all goes right out the window and he immediately goes back to running like a football player (because he is one). I call it ‘hacking’ – running as hard as possible with no particular attention to technique or
timing – just trying to catch up or make up for a bad start.

 

At our State Relay meet this past weekend my best female sprinter got the baton in second place, about 5 meters behind the leader. Because her only goal was to win the event, she gave no thought to technique or form and reverted right back to her old inefficient bad habits.

 


(I couldn’t complain much since she ran the girl down, the team placed 1st overall and only missed a school record by .05 in the first run of the season, but she wasn’t happy with her split and poor mechanics was the reason.)

 

My point? Just because it looks good in practice does not mean it will look good in a competition. Be prepared for it and try not to let your young athletes see your frustration. Because you will get frustrated because you’ll feel like your athletes just aren’t listening to anything you say. They are, it just takes time.
Getting frustrated with them will not help them figure it out quicker.

 

Here is the final stage of skill acquisition:

 

4. Unconscious Competence

 

The skill has become automatic and performed perfectly with no conscious effort. Attainment of this level takes not only practice, but mental imagery and rehearsal. It can take up to 500 hours of practice to achieve unconscious competence with a skill.

 

I won’t spend a lot of time covering this because it’s not likely your athletes will truly achieve this level of competence during the finite amount of time you have to work with them.

 

Such competence often comes at the higher end of the collegiate level and elite/professional levels.
But I will touch upon the importance of mental imagery and rehearsal.

 

When an athlete ‘hits a mark’, meaning they get one piece of the puzzle right during a run, I always review it with them.

 

I have them explain what they did, how it felt and why they think it was the correct action.
Then I tell them to ‘save the file’ in their head. I want them to continuously replay that file in their mind so they get mental reps of perfect technique.

 

This will increase the likelihood of getting it right the next time they physically execute the movement pattern.
Before they run it in practice and before a race, I tell them to visualize the perfect start, the perfect drive phase and transition (if you believe there is such a thing),etc. Have them feel the emotions they will feel when entering the blocks, feel their feet driving down into the track, feel the excitement and satisfaction of coming in first place. I want them to make the perfect race a reality in their mind before they run it.

 

Remember, the brain can not tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. By telling yourself something over and over or imagining something over and over, it becomes a reality in your mind. So use this as an opportunity to practice perfection in the mind so it carries over into physical reality.

 

* * * * * * * *
These are the 4 stages young athletes go through when acquiring a new skill. They will spend most, if not all, of their careers in the second and third stages.

 

This assumes, of course, they have good enough coaching to even get them out of the first stage. Sadly, most athletes don’t even know that they don’t know what they are doing. They couldn’t explain, in detail, how to go from a standstill to full speed. At least not in a way that makes sense.

 

Use these stages as a guideline for developing your young athletes. Be patient, but set high standards for execution. You will see some incredible improvements.

 

If you aren’t 100% sure how to teach your young athletes how to run explosively and efficiently then you’re probably leading them down the wrong path.

 

But there is always time to step back and start doing it right.

 

Summer youth training

Latif Thomas

Speed Training for Young Athletes – Part 2


Speed Training

 

“What are the most important elements of Speed Training to teach when working with young athletes?”

 

That’s the first question I answered in ‘Part 2’ of my interrogation with Latif Thomas…

 

LISTEN RIGHT NOW:

(more…)

Speed Training for Young Athletes – Part 1


Young Athletes

 

World-renowned Speed Coach, Latif Thomas, asked me to answer questions live on an internationally broadcasted conference call.

 

He allowed his audience to email any questions they had for me.

 

Roughly 100 questions came pouring in that night….

 

LISTEN RIGHT NOW:

 

 

Want to Know My Complete and Uncensored Training System for Making Your Young Athletes Fast?

 

Click Here Right Now —> https://CompleteAthleteDevelopment.com/

 

– Brian