If you coach any team sports, you know acceleration is king. In sports like soccer, 90 percent of sprints are 20 meters or shorter, while in rugby, 68 percent of sprints are 20 meters or shorter. Given the importance of this initial phase, it's important that athletes and coaches understand and appreciate some of the nuances in mechanics of what to look for, what to say and how to maximize efficiency.
First, let's look at some key characteristics.
Ground Contact Times = ~.18-.222sec
Ground contact times are roughly .20 seconds for the first 1-5 steps, with each step getting shorter. This time is double that of top-end sprinting, which allows for a more forceful and full push.
Forward Body Lean = ~45-Degrees
An ideal body angle during the first step is about 45 degrees, with each proceeding step rising about 5-8 degrees. All of this depends on the strength of the athlete and the sport. For a sport like football, an athlete may accelerate with a higher angle to be in a better position to make an abrupt change of direction knowing at any instant someone is coming to make a tackle.
Positive Shin Angles
During the initial steps, at the moment the foot hits the ground, there should be a "positive" or forward orientation of the shins. This ensures the athlete is delivering positive horizontal forces and isn't putting on the brakes with each step. The angle of the shin during ground preparation and at ground contact should be very close to parallel with the angle of the spine and push leg (as indicated by the red lines in the picture below).
Straight Line Head Through Heel
Athletes should have a long line running from head through heel—this will typically indicate a complete and powerful push by the athlete. The athlete should be committed to getting a full push, not a rushed turnover. If an athlete breaks this line, whether by breaking at the hips or rounding the spine, it can lead to an inefficient orientation of ground contact angle and a poor center of mass positioning.
Low Heel Recovery
Acceleration is characterized by a low heel recovery, which in contrast to top-end sprinting is more cyclical. The lower leg (shin) should stay parallel to the ground during recovery to allow an efficient recovery back to the frontside of the body. If the lower leg rises above this parallel positioning, the athlete is likely trying to push too far behind the body and exaggerating extension.
What to Say
As the coaching world continues to grow and expand, it's becoming more evident that what we say, and how we say it matters! It's not just X's and O's; it's about communication and stimulating motor learning, and a lot of this is done by the words we use.
Acceleration, by its nature, is longer and more purposeful than top-end sprinting, so what we say and the feedback we give should mirror that intent. This means we want to implant cues that naturally give that impression. Words like "push," "drive" and "explode" all implant a picture of long, full actions, which is what we want during this phase. Being able to accelerate is about athletes having a powerful projection, feeling of rhythm, and a smooth rise with each step. At the end of the day, just remember what we say and how we say it directly influences movement behavior.
How We Get There
As much as team sports may be different from track and field, training this initial phase should be similar to a track model. Getting athletes to demonstrate adequate mechanics will go a long way to help accelerative speed, but also reduce the risk of injuries related to poor mechanics. I like the 3-step burst as a daily tool to develop projection, rhythm and rise during the initial steps, as well as Resisted Sprinting for developing sound acceleration power and mechanics.
The major difference between training between team sports and track and field will be the need to advance to different starting stances and transitional phases. In all sports, the need to accelerate isn't always from a static 2- or 3-point stance. It's performed at many different angles and positions, so exposing athletes to many different stances and positions is important. Not only that but in sport, often an initial sprint is preceded by a transitional movement. Meaning a player is walking, jogging, shuffling—and all of a sudden they must shift gears and sprint. These transitional starts are a different skill set, so performing them is a must.
Sleds or resisted running is a great modality to help an athlete feel proper body lean, apply horizontal forces, and give them a specific "strength" stimulus for acceleration. It can be used as a technical tool, with marches, skips, bounds, runs. It can also be used for resisted sprinting. Use various loads from light to heavy and various distances from 5-30 meters to maximize propulsion.
Don't Forget Top-End Speed
While acceleration is king in team sports, training top-end sprinting speed is still very important. Not only does top-end sprinting provide an un-matched global stimulus, but improving max speed will naturally drive up the ability to accelerate. The weight room is a place many coaches are comfortable with, and we all know if we can drive up max strength, all the loads below that will be "easier." The same concept can be applied to top-end sprinting and the ability to accelerate quickly. As top-end speed goes up, naturally so does acceleration. Don't get caught doing just 10's and 20's; give athletes a dose of top-end sprinting and the athlete's ability to accelerate will benefit.
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