Speed of thought and speed of action are the real difference makers in most sports. Fast athletes are able to beat the opposition by getting to the ball first or by running past them. Players, who are able to “read the game” get a head start on those who are thinking, “what just happened?” Why, then, do many team sports insist on training the speed out of their teams?
A typical pre-season training session might involve endless runs around the pitch, circuit training, and for some variety, runs up and down sand dunes. At the end of all this, the players are tired, but are they any better? This type of training is still extremely common and can lead to a negative reaction from the players, plus higher chances of injury due to all the bad movement patterns.
I approach pre-season differently. I get the players to:
- move well
- move fast
- move often
- make decisions
Moving well is the most important part of the sport. Most players are either at school or working at a desk, or in a manual job. This means they come to training stiff, especially in the back and hips. It is impossible to run fast unless you are mobile and strong in the hips, groin, and legs. I use an 11-minute specially designed warm-up that addresses this before each session. It starts off getting the hips and back warm and progresses through to full sprints and changes of direction.
Now is a great time to start working on your “structural integrity.” I use the Star Trek analogy of why try to move at Warp 9.5 if the hull is only capable of withstanding impulse power.
Moving fast means starting off working on acceleration, resting, and repeating. The first two steps in all directions are the most important. By giving the players exercises and drills to push off both legs, I get them strong and agile. Correct posture helps them move fast too. We then work on top-speed mechanics (the warp drive) to improve the technique.
As the sessions progress, we can make the sprints longer or reduce the rest time to match the demands of the sport. This ensures the players are used to moving fast and get better at repeating quality movement. It is important that players are able to move fast at the end of each half when the opposition is tiring.
Making decisions is where the players get to apply their fast movements. At each stage, I put decision-making into the training. The players have come to play their sport, after all. Small-sided games are popular at present, as they help get players fit and train their skills at the same time. By manipulating the size of the pitch, the number of players, and the timing of the games, the intensity, and type of fitness can be easily manipulated.
However, these games don’t develop speed or strength, and I have observed an increase in hamstring injuries in those teams that just rely on games in limited areas. If the players don’t get up to top speed in training, then they are unprepared for when they do reach top speed in games: the hamstrings need to be accustomed to running at speed. They work differently sprinting than at any other time.
The small-sided games should be used after the speed training. That way, the players can learn to move fast when they are fresh rather than fatigued.
As sports coaches detest players ‘doing nothing, the recommended work: rest ratios for sprinting don’t go down well in sports environments. Some simple skills like passing or ball juggling can be done in the ‘rest period.’ Young players will start to play pick-up games even when told to rest; their bodies and minds work differently from adults. I get them to imagine that they are lions who have to rest after killing an antelope.
Despite my best efforts, I still see coaches who relish the thought of beasting players in pre-season. If you think that having players rest, hydrate, and work on speed is ‘soft,’ think again. By accumulating lots of high-quality work over the course of the pre-season, your players gain fitness, confidence, and, most importantly, speed.
If you want a faster team, train fast.