When I played baseball in high school, I always dreaded pre-season conditioning. It was brutal and endless. We did every kind of sprint, jump, and stair running you can imagine. We never lifted weights, sadly, but we became pretty good sprinters. One thing our coach repeatedly yelled at us was to “break it down” after the finish line of our sprints. Break it down meant to come to a complete stop as quickly as possible, and look to your right. In baseball, after hitting the ball, you run to and through the first base. Sometimes the first baseman doesn’t catch the ball, and the ball gets away from them. Our break-it-down drill taught us to look for a loose ball, and being at a complete stop would allow us to take off to second base quickly. It was a clever drill that all high school baseball teams should teach.
However, we hated the break it down part. It was hard. We were exhausted from sprinting. Slamming on the brakes makes life much harder instead of jogging it out. However, learning to break it down efficiently and hit the brakes probably helped our performance more than we realized. There’s a reason why slamming on the brakes after a sprint is so hard, increasing the burn to the quad muscles.
Every athlete is familiar with the term acceleration. The formal definition of acceleration is the rate of change in velocity over time. We all think of acceleration as how quickly a person or object can get to a top speed. However, given the formal definition, slowing down is considered acceleration too. We often call that “deceleration” to give it its own name. Deceleration is often just as important or even more important than being able to reach a top speed quickly. Decelerating quickly can help a soccer player make an evasive move from a defender or allow the athlete to get back on defense quickly or keep in step with the player they are defending. If you think about it, deceleration is just as important as acceleration. It’s often the difference between being able to score, properly defend, or get open. Deceleration is the other half of the acceleration equation. The ability to stop quickly is just as important as the attribute of speeding up quickly. It can lead to impressive performance improvements.
Acceleration is sexier than deceleration. And it’s understandable. Everyone wants to go fast, and the audience wants to watch speed. Watching athletes race to top speed is an exciting part of any sport. But, nobody would race with a Ferrari with no brakes. It’s dangerous and outright foolish. For obvious reasons, any fast vehicle needs great brakes to keep the system safe.
Unfortunately, soccer is experiencing a plague of ACL tears among youth athletes, particularly female athletes. There are many contributing factors, but a large one is the lack of quad and hamstring strength that keeps the knee joint stable. Most ACL tears occur without contact and occur during rapid deceleration of running. The knee simply isn’t strong or stable enough, putting excessive strain on the ACL, which sometimes results in a tear. Imagine driving down the interstate and pulling the emergency brake. That brake will…break! That’s what happens with ACL tears. That’s why soccer players and other sprint athletes need to build strength to the regular braking system to prevent injury.
While the injuries are unfortunate, non-contact injuries like these can be easily prevented. We have to prioritize deceleration or hitting the brakes first. Most athletes and even coaches value acceleration and top speed way too much. Those are essential attributes, but that power must be equally matched with the ability to slow down efficiently.
How to Train to Hit the Brakes
Training for this is fortunately easy. You can simply do what I did in high school. Any time you train sprints, train deceleration. If the athletes sprint to a line, teach them to stop before a second line. Here are examples of some great drills for athletes:
The T drill is fantastic for soccer players. It teaches acceleration, deceleration, and three-dimensional changes of direction, all relevant to a soccer match.
You can also do it with a ball.
There are endless variations to work deceleration.
Acceleration does take a toll on the joints, whether it’s speeding up or down. As stated earlier, deceleration puts particular stress on the knee. Obviously, we need to be careful with that.
Research says the muscles and joints associated with sprinting can be impaired roughly up to 48 hours after the workout, depending on the volume and intensity. This doesn’t mean that athletes need the next day off, but intense sprinting probably shouldn’t be programmed the day after a game. High volume and higher intensive sprinting and deceleration drills should be kept a couple of days apart. This is for optimal safety for the athletes.
What’s more important is keeping principles. A principle to maintaining ligament health is not to stress it under fatigue. Coaches and athletes should not, I repeat, should not run sprints at the end of practice or after games. Fatigue creates poor biomechanics. Poor biomechanics leads to ligaments doing the job that muscles should be doing. That’s akin to the E-brake on an interstate. It’s only asking for trouble. Instead, sprinting with deceleration should be part of a warmup but limited in reps. Higher repetition deceleration drills should occur on off-days for conditioning. After practice or games isn’t a good idea. You’ll get the most benefit and the most safety training outside of regular practices.
Again, learning to decelerate is crucial for optimal performance. It will help the athlete to score, defend, and get open. Deceleration efficiency will also help athletes stay healthy. It can dramatically reduce the incidence of ACL tears and other lower limb-related injuries.
The difference between a good athlete and the best athlete often isn’t who the faster one is. That playing field is usually pretty level between the good and the best. It’s the one who can more efficiently change direction, turn on a dime, and have a quicker first step. Athletes who can hit the brakes efficiently tend to be the best athlete.