The idiom, ‘Sprinters are born, marathoners are made,’ assumes that the major factor in sprinting is genetics. That is accurate if your goal is to become a world-class sprinter. However, if you are an average human being and your goal is to run faster, then environment and coaching become important factors too. This is especially important with children.
The modern-day child is less active and has less ‘free play’ than those of yesteryear. Imposing a technical speed training system, derived from adults, upon children is likely to fail: they simply lack the physical and cognitive capabilities to cope.
By observing how children play, and using my technical knowledge of what good sprinting looks like, I try to create training sessions that are fun and purposeful. The ideas may be of use to coaches and teachers of children and also to those who coach adults in different sports who have not got a ‘sprint’ background.
In this article I shall outline why ‘how’ you coach is as important as ‘what’ you coach and give examples of speed training sessions that I use with children.
Children learn through play
Children need to learn to run fast: it doesn’t just happen. ‘Learn’ does not mean that they have to be ‘taught’ by a coach: the learning can be implicit. But, in many societies, this implicit learning does not take place because the children have limited play time (Jamaica seems to be an exception).
A child playing 3 hours of video games a day instead of playing outside for 3 hours a day, will not develop speed as well. If children are allowed and encouraged to play with each other, in safe spaces, then they will start to move faster.
Hopscotch and jumping rope in the playground improve foot mechanics and strengthen bones and muscles. Games of tag and evasion as well as pick-up basketball require a repeated burst of acceleration that is the foundation of top-speed running.
When I dropped my children at school I spent hundreds of hours observing them play before being called to lessons and hundreds of hours after school when they went to the park next door with their friends. They punctuated their high-energy bursts of movement with some chatting or cartwheels. They changed games frequently and changed groups too: people came and went as the games evolved or new equipment such as a ball or rope arrived. Not once did I see children stand in a line and wait for an adult to tell them what to do.
And yet, that is what happens at many sports clubs.
I decided to change how I coach and make the sessions more child suitable: based on how they play and interact with each other. I called these, ‘Games with a purpose.’
Restructuring your training session
If children have fun and they feel like they are getting better, then they will come back to your sessions. Here is an example of a sequence that I follow. The drills are less important than why/when I do them. You will have a couple of drills that you feel help the children and that they understand. You will also have lots more game ideas. The important point is to know how and when to implement them.
Warm Up 10 mins: get moving, wake up, and shake off the school shackles.
Either: A restricted area game of tag/ follow my leader
or: Play on the equipment parkour-style
or: Coordination challenges with balls and objects such as juggling or passing/moving.
Fundamentals 10 mins: Speed-related activities.
We keep the same ideas but change the directions and orders in which we do things.
Skipping: forward, backward, sideways. With/without arms. In lines or in a square with a change of direction at each corner.
Change of movements either on command, at a cone, or following or matching a partner: walk-skip, skip-run, run-skip, hop to skip, walk to skip, and so on. 5-10m for each.
Foot taps (ankling) on the spot/ moving forward. “Happy feet”.
Hip locks: stationary to walking, singles to doubles. Using sticks/ ropes/ bands. “Push to the sky and pause”.
The hip locks are the most technical that we get with the younger children and they are put in once the children are warm and receptive.
The theme of the day is 20 minutes: Drills to work on one aspect of speed. Competitive element.
Starts, acceleration, repeat speed, reactive speed, and top speed.
I always handicap any competitive element: I select the pairs to match them evenly or if they select, I give one a head start. The idea is to get each child racing as fast as they can, regularly. If I have done it correctly, there is a close finish each time. The pairs are working concurrently for part of the session and consecutively for the remainder.
I don’t want the fast children to become complacent and I don’t want the slow children to become disheartened. I swap the partners as necessary to avoid potential conflicts. The fast children need to learn how to lose and the slower children need to feel what it is like to win. My aim is to help young people strive to be better and also learn how to overcome obstacles.
Jumping and throwing 10-15 minutes: all-around skills.
This has nothing to do with speed but all of our young athletes try everything. The throwing takes longer due to the recovery of the implements.
Game 5-10 minutes: unwind and express personality.
We play a final game that allows the children to organize and compete in small groups. This could be a relay, a pass-and-catch team effort over 400m, paired hare/ hounds tag, or even dodgeball.
As the children mature and gain confidence and understanding I add a technical point or two in the sessions. I am in no rush to demonstrate my technical knowledge to them. I have learned to be patient and draw upon it when the children have shown that they are receptive and that their bodies are ready for specific work.
I do not want children to drop out from our sessions because the early maturers are winning every race and drill that we do.