Acceleration development #2: an isolated approach
Updated: Feb 5, 2022
Over the last 24 months, one of my personal development objectives has been to enhance my coaching of speed. This has led to my visit to ALTIS for their Apprentice Coach Program (ACP) (Twitter: @ALTIS), and being a sponge to the content that people share, with Jonas Dodoo (IG: @Speedworks) and James Wild (Twitter: @wildy_jj) pages particularly educational.
Speed is an umbrella term I use to describe acceleration and top-end speed (max velocity). In this post I will dive into my thought process behind isolated acceleration training, the technical model I use with acceleration, the reason I use video, and I will share some examples of providing feedback to players.
This post is somewhat contradictory to other posts, where I have advocated the importance of training being representative of the sport (last week's post was on training the skill of acceleration). Looking back at Newell's model of constraints, isolated acceleration is training the individual only, not the interaction between the individual-environment-task. There have been other models to describe how speed training fits into the team sport puzzle:
Altis: Content - Context (N4S course)
Speedworks: Teaching - Training - Transfer
Looking at this through a skill acquisition lens, as I know others do, I am fully aware that isolated acceleration training (as seen below) does not make better players - I am not working on the skill of acceleration here, I am working on the capacity of acceleration. Even within movement in many sports (team sports especially), acceleration is often only a component part of a more complex movement pattern, so acceleration training in isolation is decontextualised from the sport. I have made an attempt to paint the picture around the rationale for why I have included this type of training in the past. Team sport athletes should not train solely like a sprinter, and last I checked, nobody ever said they should.
Does this make better players?
This kind of speed development absolutely does not make better players, as I touched on before. I would compare it to designing your own car on "Need for Speed", either on Xbox or Playstation (there are multiple layers to the video game analogy - superpowers, co-creation, levels (i.e. gamification) - which I look forward to touching on in future posts). If you made a car with 50/99 acceleration, and 30/99 brakes, the car would perform as it would - pretty mediocre. If you made some modifications and increased the acceleration to 70, it might be improved in certain aspects, like on the starting grid, but the car's performance on turns is likely to decrease because the brakes are unable to deal with the enhanced acceleration and speed. Try fitting a Formula 1 car with Fiat Punto breaks and see what happens!
The perception of the driver is another thing. If the driver of the car knows that the car does not have breaks to match it's acceleration capacity, then the driver will not drive at maximum effort, to ensure that any turn can be made. This is an example of how the affordance landscape changes based on action capabilities.
While there are other cars in a Need for Speed race, the track is pretty predictable. In team sports, there is no track, and the path players take towards the goal or goal line is much more variable. The ability to speed up is so important, but so is the ability to slow down. Beating an opponent often comes from a rapid acceleration followed by a rapid deceleration followed by a rapid acceleration (check my instagram page for some examples over the coming weeks). Speeding up and slowing down are integrated abilities.
Would I would invest as much time into deceleration training?
The ability to speed up is so important, but so is the ability to slow down. Beating an opponent often comes from a rapid acceleration followed by a rapid deceleration followed by a rapid acceleration (check my instagram page for some examples over the coming weeks). Speeding up and slowing down are integrated abilities. Despite what I just mentioned, my first instinct in response to this question was to just leave deceleration training to the game - players often have to slow down to evade opponents, so that can be where they develop the capacity to decelerate as well as the skill to decelerate (timing, deception etc.). I would possibly microdose some decelerations into the warm-up on select occasions. But I typically have not invested as much time into deceleration development as I have into acceleration development.
With this in mind, why do I feel the need to do acceleration training in isolation, if I am happy to leave deceleration training to the game? Only doing this type of work with team-sport athletes is like training one muscle group (e.g. quads) in the gym - there is so much more to the game (or the body). And in the same way that if you only train your quadricep muscles, you will likely cause an injury in your hamstrings, if you only develop acceleration capacity, you will likely cause an injury when slowing down/changing direction. If I only work on acceleration, and never work on deceleration (as well as other aspects), am I setting my players up to fail? A balanced approach is key. Damien Harper (Twitter: @DHMov) is a fantastic resource for deceleration training, and this is an aspect I must personally get better at.
Given the need for a balanced approach, has this investment into speed training been worthwhile?
I think it has, it has given me a better understanding of biomechanics and how to move faster in general, and I can apply this knowledge to more complex and chaotic environments like team sport situations to provide a more thorough analysis. There is absolutely nothing wrong with simply building capacities, it is often an essential of an S&C coach's role, and there is no reason for players not to become faster. However, I do think it's wrong to ONLY build capacities. Skills pay the bills, and skills must be trained. Again, coaches just need to have a balanced approach to training to ensure:
players can cope with their own constraints - enhanced acceleration capacity means players must also develop their deceleration capacity.
players are attuned to relevant cues in their environment to execute their enhanced capacity to accelerate in a meaningful way - i.e. skills are being developed, as well as capacities.
Why do I do it?
The context around the track videos (example 1 & 2 below) was pretty unique. Hong Kong had just come out of lockdown, and players were not allowed to train with a ball. To provide a different stimulus, we brought players to a track and implemented a 3-week speed program (not a very long period; see program below). After a number of weeks in lockdown, players enjoyed being back in the training environment, and this was a good way to rebuild some tissue capacity and help players learn about their bodies and how they move. Example 3 is a speed session I was taking two player through before their club session on a Saturday morning. This was in essence a microdose of speed within a compact training week in preparation for the season ahead - so it was not a massive investment of time.
Technical model of acceleration
As Dan Pfaff said at the ACP (notes here) I was privileged to attend, "you've gotta coach to something". If you don't have a model to teach to, how do you decide on what to coach. The same principle holds true for something as simple as gym exercises. Coaches have a technical model for back squat, romanian deadlift, bench press etc.
My acceleration philosophy, in 240 characters or less!
The technical model I coach to is nothing revolutionary, and it is something I also took from the ACP. Stuart McMillan and Dan Pfaff both shared their "big rocks" of acceleration, and from this I developed my model of what is important for me in my context. My four "big rocks" of acceleration are:
Forceful knee drive
Straight (or near straight) line of attack [shoulder-hip-knee-ankle]
All of these points are interrelated, and it is the combination of all four which determines the effectiveness of any given acceleration. Typically, arms are flexed and extended to counterbalance the legs, which is something that was cleared up for me in Arizona, as I had previously coached elbows to be locked at 90 degrees (face-palm emoji). However, arm mechanics is not something I typically coach as players have to execute other sports specific skills with their arms - catch, pass, tackle etc. Dissociation of the upper body to lower body is important to allow an athlete to maintain running speed while executing sports specific tasks, such as catching and passing. i.e. robust running (popularised by John Prior).
This is something that I place a high value on, and I make sure to educate players on why this is important. If a boxer was to throw a punch with an unclenched fist, no matter how much force is behind the unclenched fist, the damage inflicted would be minimal. The same applies to "punching the ground". If a player punches the ground with a weak ankle, they will not maximise the speed at which they move. A soft ankle is similar to moving on soft ground, it steals more energy due to the increased contact time. Typical cues I would use:
Punch the ground.
Don't show the person behind you the soles of your feet/boots/shoes.
Barefoot running is also a useful activity to promote a stiff ankle and striking the ground with the ball of the foot.
This is a big teaching point with field sport players, in particular rugby forwards. Many forwards in rugby have a habit of chopping their feet, thinking more steps = faster acceleration. Rather than simply criticising this, it is important to ask why this might be. As players frequently have to change direction, having shorter steps will mean the foot is closer to the ground to enable a rapid foot plant to change the angle a player is moving. If defending, it is important for a defender to be able to quickly readjust their feet to get into a good position to make a tackle. These are just 2 examples.
I think it is important to acknowledge this and realise that their technique is possibly an emergent behaviour of the environment that they have spent so much time in. But I also think it is important to bring players' attentional focus (Nick Winkleman term, The Language of Coaching) towards their movement actions in different scenarios on the pitch. If they are in a defensive line and they are unsure of what will develop, short and choppy steps may be something that will benefit them in that situation, so they close down the space in a controlled manner. However, in a different scenario, for example a kick-chase or a line-break, then players may be in a position to accelerate maximally (may or may not, context dependent) and I believe a powerful extension and "pushing long" is optimal for this situation. One warm-up exercise I like to include is a hopping race over a 5-10m distance The focus on hopping is to push long and by being in a hopping race situation, players can practice pushing long. Typical cues:
In a 5 or 10m race, asking "Can you cover this distance in as few steps possible?" (If this promotes foot contact too far in front of centre of mass, then a different cue/task is recommended).
Forceful knee drive
If you wanted to use a hammer to strike a nail forcefully, you would raise the hammer high. The higher you raise the hammer, the more force you can create. There is an optimal point though, which depends on the physical characteristics of the individual. The same can be said of knee drive in the acceleration pattern, if there is very little distance between the foot and where it will strike the ground, the force that can be generated upon the foot striking the ground will be limited.
One thing that can negatively effect knee drive in the acceleration phase of sprinting is backside mechanics. One a player has forcefully extended through a stiff ankle, there must be an immediate retraction of the knee to ensure that the athlete has time to forcefully extend from a high knee position. If the knee is not immediately retracted after extension, the athlete won't have time to punch their knee through in anticipation for a powerful extension before their foot has to touch the ground, thus limiting the effectiveness of the step. Typical cue:
Drive the knee through a pane of glass / shatter the glass (Nick Winkleman, The Language of Coaching)
Line of attack
This is an overall body position/postural concern. The aim here is for the athlete to have a straight line from heel to shoulder when accelerating. Typically the line would include the head, but sprinters can afford to look down at the ground (neck in line with back), but team sport players need their head up to scan what is happening around them. With every step in acceleration, the angle between the line of attack and the ground is increasing.
Often times, coaches will cue for players to "stay low", but as seen in the video below, this can cause an athlete to break their line of attack and stumble out of the start position. I remember I was explaining this to a group of players 2 years ago, and one player suggested to "be like and airplane, not a rocket". This is a fantastic cue and it promotes a great visual for what acceleration looks like. Acceleration is a balance between horizontal force and vertical force, and when an athlete slips, I try to explain that they tried to exert too much horizontal force and not enough vertical force. Typical cue:
Be like an airplane.
Feedback video 1. Sample video feedback I send to players.
An example of how these concepts come together to lead to an effective acceleration is shown here:
Feedback video 2. Video detailing foot drive back into the ground, also termed "negative foot speed". Looking at shin angles is also a way to determine the direction of the force.
Feedback video 2. highlights how all concepts are building blocks to construct the acceleration movement pattern. Without a stiff ankle, the player cannot drive forcefully into the ground. This is preceded by a forceful knee drive, to allow the player the opportunity to drive forcefully into the ground. The line of attack affords the athlete enough time to punch their knee through, in preparation for a forceful extension.
I use video analysis for two reasons:
to give players a visual representation, and then they can match what they "feel" to what I see.
to give me an opportunity to give accurate feedback. Of all the aspects of the technical model I spoke about above, as a coach, I can only focus on one thing at a time, and even then I still struggle. Video feedback helps me to help the athletes by giving more thorough feedback. It is also a way for me to develop, the more I look at various sprint profiles, the better I get at coaching them (although it is a slow and steady growth process right now!).
I like to use the slo-mo feature on an iPhone or iPad, this enables me to view the entire movement in detail and it provides a better visual than normal speed video. Here are some examples of slo-mo acceleration videos I have taken in the past: