Coach, can you make me slower?

These words have never been spoken by an athlete. Speed is the limiting factor to greater success in sports performance. The ability for an athlete to move from point A to point B in the shortest possible time will most likely determine the winner. Increasing the speed or velocity of an athlete has a dramatic effect across every sport or event. In team sports it can be the difference between:

  • Getting out on the fastbreak and finishing the layup; or being blocked
  • Breaking away from your defender and taking a mark in front of goal; or having the ball punched from behind
  • Receiving the cross and sending into the back of the net; or taking the next corner kick

 

In individual sports, where the difference between winning and losing can often be less than 1%, improved speed can have profound effects. There’s no better example of this than the 100m final at a major track & field championship. However, when discussing speed, it is not only confined to anaerobic sports. The ability to maintain a higher overall speed in aerobic events has just as devastating effects (check the splits for the recent men’s marathon world record from Berlin).

It is silly and shows lack of common sense to turn team sport athletes into sprinters and forget about the skill component of the particular sport/event. However, an element of speed work must be incorporated into almost every session, and the way that this is determined will be dictated by the sport (and the coach). Preferably, game speed should be ‘trained’ when the athlete is not in a fatigued state and to make it more time effective, incorporated into a drill where technical and tactical skill elements are being developed simultaneously. The activity or drill must be designed to achieve near maximal speeds (although, some coaches dislike maximal speed exercises due to risk of injury; but this is a bit of a chicken/egg scenario in my opinion).

The only way to increase an athlete’s game speed or event speed, is to practice at these speeds (or close to it). You cannot learn to sprint faster by running at a submaximal speed. Without getting too ‘sciencey’, the ability for the neuromuscular system to increase your motor unit recruitment and apply greater forces needs to be trained. Aspects of this can be done in the weight room, but eventually the transfer needs to take place on the field of play.

Some people argue that speed cannot be taught. This cannot be further from the truth. Anyone can improve their speed for their sport or event; if they do the correct training. They may not turn into the next Usain Bolt (or Christian Coleman), but you will be the fastest version of YOU running around.

If you are an athlete, next time you are at training, ask your coach “When are we doing our speed work?”

If you are the coach, do you want athletes faster or not?

 

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