By: Brian Figg, CSCS, CES, PES, NASM, IYCA, USAW
There are three parts of teaching young kids to become great athletes. There is tactical knowledge of the game, skill acquisition, and development of physical ability. To improve physical ability, there must be some set of standards and testing that can be used as a guide. Whether you like it or not, every athlete at some point in their career must be evaluated. This testing allows us as parents and coaches to give our kids the best opportunity to succeed. Combine, showcase, or just the off-season, many programs are using some form of a sprint test. From goalies to offensive lineman, athletes are having this type of test factored into their recruiting status. Today we break this evaluation down into a two-part series and show you how to test better.
Before you can even attempt a three-point stance, teaching body awareness, especially for younger athletes, is paramount. Learning how things should look and feel can not only help your athlete develop better physical literacy, but also make your coaching much more effective by giving context to how you cue an athlete to perform. Begin with having your athletes rock back and forth heel to toe. This will be very important for proper foot strike during the first five steps. Start with feet together and have them slowly rock back to the heels, pulling the toes upward. Follow this up by having them rock forward to feel the ball or “power pad” of the foot. Let them know that during a linear sprint test, the heel will change position over distance, but will never touch the ground.
Once the athlete has suitable balance, have them start playing with hip positions and feel muscles contracting and relaxing. An imaging tool we commonly use is to imagine the hips as a bowl full of water. Instruct the athlete to tilt the hips back as if to pour the water forward, as well as the reverse. This will also help when coaching to engage the mid-section to maintain a neutral spine. Bad mechanics, such as rounding the upper back during a sprint, are much harder to correct if the athlete doesn’t even feel themselves doing it.
This may sound like a waste of time, but now more than ever, children are becoming less active. This more sedentary lifestyle leads to a lack of the body awareness needed to develop proper rhythm and control. With young athletes, this is constantly an issue due to continual development, especially during growth spurts. Before diving deeper into the proprioception needed for sprinting (i.e. starting positions, acceleration, top speed mechanics, etc.), it should be noted that athletes should know how to slow down, land properly, and change direction safely before an emphasis on the sprint.
To enhance the level of body consciousness for the sprint, begin to use drills such as a foot popper for foot positioning and skipping for better rhythm and arm motion. The picture below demonstrates the beginning posture for a foot popper.
(Starting Position of Foot Popper)
Once your athlete can properly balance on one foot, have them thrust the raised foot downward, striking with only the ball or “power pad” of the foot without letting the heel touch. The idea is to keep the ankle as rigid as possible. As they build familiarity with their foot strike, incorporate proper arm movement (i.e. opposite hand to opposite foot). Be sure that arm movement is emphasized at the shoulder and not at the elbow. An imagery technique common for young athletes is to have them act as if they’re trying to get water off their hands by throwing their hands backward. As for the upward motion, be sure that the athlete doesn’t stiffen the shoulder when thrusting and that the shoulder does not cross the mid-line of the body. Gradually incorporate into an alternating skip and finally into an A-Skip, as shown below.
Once drills like these can be produced with ease, they can go from being directly emphasized in the actual workout to being a warm up drill. This will allow the emphasis of the technique portion of the workout to be progressed to proper starting stances, acceleration mechanics, and strength/power exercises than can aid the athletes’ linear sprinting technique.
Regarding starting stances, there is much to be gained from using a variety of different positions. When testing, a higher percentage of coaches will use a three-point start. To get into a three-point start, the first thing to figure out is which foot in dominant. If your athlete is right handed it will be their left foot, and the opposite if they’re left handed. For those lucky few who are ambidextrous, the lead foot should be the one they stand on
(ex. Push Off Leg Positioning: Right Handed) (ex. Swing Leg Positioning: Right Handed)
From this position, have your athlete take a knee and make sure neither heel is touching the ground. Place the hands into a sprinter’s position on the starting line. The weight on the hands will be put on the thumb and first two fingers perpendicular to the direction of the sprint. Raise the hips slightly above the shoulders with a flat back (i.e. neutral spine), with the chin tucked down towards the collar bone to prevent a premature upright posture. Even in this hip raised position, their knees should be over the toes to make sure all of the momentum is going forward. Lastly, they should raise the hand of their most forward leg and wait for their signal to start.
(ex. Starting Hand Position for Sprinting) (ex. Proper Three-Point Stance)
Many parents and coaches out there believe that running fast is an ability you’re born with and that there is no way of making a slow runner faster. The truth is that sprinting is as much a technique as learning weightlifting or learning to jump. Because of this emphasis on technique, drills and body awareness should be put first in a practice or workout session. In the past, most athletes and parents would just put sprinting drills in with conditioning at the end. Also in the past, the argument would be made that young athletes should learn when under fatigue just like they would in a game. To some extent that last part is true for more experienced athletes, but if a young athlete can’t perform a movement when fully rested, how can we expect proper execution when they’re tired? In part two of this topic, we will begin to break down the 40 yd. dash into segments of distance, body mechanics, and other accessory tools used to drive better performance.