- Who has influenced your coaching philosophy the most?
I have always tried to maintain a balance between developing my experience-based knowledge and knowledge-based experience. With the former being practical and the latter theoretical. Although, far from being world-class, having a background as a track athlete gave me a great sense and perception of what speed, power, and strength training aimed at enhancing running should feel like. I have benefited from some amazing mentors over the years who have been more than generous with their time and knowledge. Vern Gambetta’s GAIN faculty has had a big influence on how I think and what I do. These professionals include Frans Bosch, Gary Winckler, Jimmy Radcliffe, Bill Knowles, John Pryor, Kelvin Giles, and Vern himself of course. Others include Bill Sweetenham, Frank Dick, and Esa Peltola. One professional I would have loved to have met was the late Charlie Francis.
- What are some key considerations for sprint running for football codes?
Track athletes aim to have perfect mechanics in a predictable, ‘closed-skill’, and stable environment. Sprint running in field sports creates the best mechanical outcome in a highly unstable, ‘open-skill’, and unpredictable environment. Coaching and programming based on this philosophy is something John Pryor does better than anyone I know.
There needs to be a balance in how acceleration and max speed is addressed depending on the sport and position played. Whilst acceleration development must be principle-based, field sport athletes typically accelerate from an upright posture. As such, training/teaching acceleration must orientate around creating pre-tension and hip projection from standing and rolling starts. Sometimes max speed requirements in field sports are underestimated. However, how it is trained and coached is certainly different to track sprinters. A footballer needs to obtain max speed or a high % of max speed over shorter distances, whereas a track athlete is intentionally delaying the attainment of max speed as long as possible. Practically speaking, I believe we should aim to develop max speed in field sport athletes from a stride frequency standpoint rather than a stride length standpoint. Noting that, a field sport athlete can develop a substantial max speed based on stride frequency rather than prioritizing the development og a long stride length. This approach will transfer best to a field-sport environment, as a field-based athlete must have one foot on the ground to change direction, accelerate/decelerate, resist and break contact.
Running must be approached as a skill that can be taught and enhanced. As we know, running in field sports doesn’t occur in isolation; handballs, catching, passing, and kicking all need to be executed at speed. As such, when appropriate running and sports skills should be trained concurrently. This requires upper/lower body independence when executing ball skills at speed.
I elaborate more on field sports here: https://www.hmmrmedia.com/2021/10/rethinking-speed-development-for-team-sports/
- Can you explain your approach to holistic preparation?
To improve speed we must create appropriate and adequate training stimuli. Only providing field sport athletes with 1-2 brief speed-based warmups is an inadequate stimulus. There are many indirect methods of speed development that are often overlooked, including flexibility, leg power, and removing counterproductive modalities.
Flexibility – often our single greatest limitation to speed. You can become faster simply by getting more flexible. Furthermore, a lack of hip extension is one of the greatest predictors of injury.
Leg power – unless you can produce it vertically then you don’t have it to apply horizontally. Acceleration is the easiest speed quality to improve, as it is most affected by strength qualities. Having a good countermovement jump usually enables an athlete to accelerate well over 10m. In short, unless you have leg power you will not be able to develop an athlete’s speed potential
Often an opportunity that isn’t taken advantage of is in a return-to-play set. Medium to long-term injuries can be utilized to improve a player technically and athletically.
Removing counterproductive modalities – the disproportional use of cycling is one sure way of dulling speed development. Remove ‘junk’ running from all aspects of the program. In particular, jogging has no application as an endurance mode for any field game. Jogging reinforces poor running mechanics, and poor posture and tires athletes in between high-quality running efforts. Jogging should be seen in the same light as walking, in that, it should not be prescribed or coached. Faster, high-quality running training develops all the endurance required for all aspects of sub-maximum locomotion.
- What would you recommend as areas of focus for developing coaches hoping to improve their application of sprint running for pro sport?
Develop an understanding of how to TRAIN and TEACH speed. Training is below the shoulders and teaching is above the shoulders. Developing athletes are often told how ‘fast’, how ‘far’, and which ‘direction’, but not ‘how’ to run. Real coaching requires knowledge of running and the skill of seeing and teaching athletes how to execute technical elements of training. The attention to detail and coaching skill required to develop sprint running at an elite level puts some coaches off, especially those coaching at the youth level. Consequently, mediocrity is routinely accepted with many young athletes adopting a poor running technique. These poor habits can be carried through their careers.
- What would you recommend as areas of focus for developing athletes?
I believe there are five primary areas of functional and technical capability that must be addressed in conjunction with the appropriate progression of athletic qualities. These five critical areas will be apparent in various degrees across ages, gender, sports, and individuals. Importantly, these five areas are not mutually exclusive and are very much interdependent.
- Running technique
- Strength training technique
- Postural strength
- Force reduction ability
Other key growth and development considerations:
- Develop key physical capabilities before puberty to minimize the loss of coordination during puberty. Place an emphasis on moving body weight at a young age to prepare for changes due to puberty and continue to reinforce this throughout puberty
- Children grow up and then grow out; we must take into account the strength-to-length relationship. Get them strong before they grow long
- Establish pristine movement patterns through full ranges of motion and through all planes from the youngest age groups on
- Understand the difference between developmental age and chronological age
- What are common challenges performance practitioners can make in developing speed?
Under the training and not challenging athletes. As an example, I see so much programming of jumps and plyometrics for developed elite athletes that would be applicable to 14-year-old kids. Furthermore, athletes can often ‘sleepwalk’ through sessions, not being challenged. Research shows us that unless we have an error rate of 15-20% then we aren’t challenging our athletes. Unless we have ‘success or failure’ consequences built into our sessions then learning will be very limited.
- How do you measure speed development in team training?
The obvious one is GPS. I discuss this in detail at: https://www.hmmrmedia.com/2021/10/rethinking-speed-development-for-team-sports/
Coaching observation is a dying art. I do feel that current technology is ahead of coaches’ capability to apply it. However, hardware/software platforms are becoming a lot more accessible and easier to use. To measure speed properly we must isolate it as a quality. I have always assessed speed formally with timing gates and assessed specific leg strength qualities with jump mats and via the speed bound index. Ultimately a coaching eye, experience, and judgment are still required to interpret video/data and apply it to the practical environment. What can be heard, seen, or sensed, still largely cannot be measured. In many ways, it is better initially to learn how to coach speed without the use of technology.
- What is the relationship between general running capacity and speed?
This relationship is very important. It is often not well understood and often overlooked. Some considerations:
- It makes sense to profile players that are either ‘fit-not fast’ or ‘fast-not fit’. General running capacity is not a difficult quality to attain or maintain. Speed, however, takes longer due to the higher degree of motor skill involved. As such, ‘fit-not-fast’ players should have speed training and complimentary strength programs as their primary training direction, whereas ‘Fast-not fit’ players should continue to be allowed to run fast for maintenance.
- Maximal aerobic speed (MAS) training does not have to be distance dependent. Field sport athletes do not have the ability to maintain good running form at a constant speed for any longer than 3-4 seconds. Therefore, setting long intermittent distances at 100m or greater develops and reinforces poor running mechanics, which in turn, develops poor running economy
- Running drills were originally designed to specifically strengthen the muscles in postures and actions that are like those that occur during the sprint action. It is through strengthening in the specific positions that technique is improved. Running drills promote good posture, specific lumbopelvic strength, and functional flexibility drills. These drills can also be used very effectively as a local lumbopelvic conditioner and general conditioning modality
- What does a typical speed session look like?
Probably an oversight I see a lot of younger coaches is proper planning going into a session. By that I mean, clear objectives and consideration of appropriate methods. Good-detailed planning should take just as long as the session takes to coach – often twice as long. If coaching a larger group of players implicit methods are essential. Implicit coaching is infinitely more effective, but session preparation requires much more foresight. Implicit, or outcome methods are where the exercises and drills are the coaches. This increases effectiveness and task-intrinsic-based learning, which is more permanent and effective. Consideration in terms of the type of feedback is also important. Whether this is extrinsic, intrinsic, or a mix of both.
The structure and sequence of the session require thought. John Pryor’s motor racing analogy is brilliant and a great way for young coaches to conceptualize the planning of a session:
- Where will you pump up the tyres? – a warm-up can be utilised for more than it implies. It takes about 10mins before an athlete is ready to undertake speed and leg power development. Therefore, this period can be utilised for specific mobility and functional development via specific drilling that develops calf and lumbopelvic integrity. If done well, there is a seamless blending of mobility and drilling that escalates to more dynamic movement. We all accept athletes can’t sprint in the part of the session, but they should be under challenge either
- Where will you build the motor? Elastic and reactive leg strength developed through jumps and plyometrics not only underpins speed qualities, it is also a great way to prepare the nervous system for speed development. We must not forget too: if you want to get faster you must run fast. Having an appropriate and adequate speed of volume is essential but requires judgment
- Where will they learn to drive the car? Running is a skill and drills don’t equate to skill. If you want to improve your running skill you must teach it directly whilst running. The primary benefit of running drills is to specifically strengthen athletes in postures and actions similar to those that occur during the sprint action
- Where will they race the car? The best way to facilitate training intensity is competition. Matching players of similar ability to race against each other creates a great atmosphere and energy