Sports scientists are taught to test subjects before designing an exercise program. This is done so that they can then design a specific program to suit the needs of the athletes. However, many commonly used tests require a skill element. If the athletes have never performed the skill before then any data collected is flawed.
One example that I noticed, even with young international athletes, is the broad jump: if children are not practicing jumps in school or in the playground, then asking them to do a maximal effort in training is unlikely to give any relevant data.
I was working on a camp with International Fencers and the sports scientist asked the 20-25-year-old female fencers to perform a series of hops and bounds. He had collected data for over 30 years and noticed how the results had decreased over time. Watching these women try to do the jumps was painful: they lacked coordination, timing, and knee control. They had never done jumping in training and had specialized in fencing from an early age.
Instead of testing a group of athletes when I first meet them, I teach them. That way they gain confidence in me as a coach rather than as someone ‘judging’ them and I also get to see how they move and where best I can focus my efforts. Once they are competent and confident in their skills, then I can start to measure them and devise ways to improve what they do. In this article, I shall share some progressions and teaching methods that have helped me improve jumping performance in athletes from different sports.
Where do we start?
I find the beginning helps. Many young people are unable to do a hopscotch pattern of 1-2-1 feet. Fewer still are able to do this with their non-dominant leg. When testing the broad jump I see a lot of people taking off with a slight delay in one foot. They are unable to push off both feet simultaneously. This is a developmental stage of jumping that needs to be practiced before the distance is measured and is often caused by a lack of balance in the athlete: they step slightly to gain their balance before pushing.
The two-footed take-off can be seen in children as young as five but be absent in soccer players at 23 years old. It depends on how much jumping they have done in the past. If the athlete is doing a slight step in the broad jump it will be difficult for them to achieve full extension at take-off, let alone worry about what they are doing in the air and on landing.
Practice sessions for beginners should be structured so that athletes have to focus on the take-off rather than the distance covered. In this video you can see an example of me guiding the two boys through a sequence of jumps:
Using lines on the pitch or skipping ropes or bodies to jump over helps the athletes think about what they are doing.
Once the athletes can competently do all five-foot patterns:
- One foot to the same foot (hop)
- One foot to opposite foot (leap)
- Two feet to one foot
- One foot to two feet
- Two feet to two feet (jump)
Then you can add combinations of movements or short run-ups into the jumps. There is little point in trying to teach the long jump to pupils who are unable to do a hopscotch pattern. They will just make mistakes faster.
Counting Foot Contacts
I remember being told to count foot contacts in order to measure load within plyometrics. Good luck trying to count the foot contacts with a class of 30 8-year-olds warming up before athletics. Children can do a lot of little movements such as hopping, skipping, and jumping. They stop when they get tired.
Simple Jumping Jacks and Jills are a great way to start children bouncing. You can see many variations in this tutorial:
With teenagers, I don’t measure the contacts until we get them doing bounding or repeat jumps. Even then I would rather do 4 sets of 10 meters or 3 sets of 20 meters and focus on the quality and speed of the movement before counting. It’s simply too difficult to do.
Not all foot contacts are created equal: eight jumps over high hurdles in a row is not the same as going up and down a hopscotch grid. Fast and light can be done more frequently than deeper and longer.
Time to measure
Once the athletes are competent and familiar with the jumping patterns, then I can measure how far they are jumping with a tape measure (compared to them measuring how many peers they can leap over). Not only will they be jumping and landing more safely, they will also be coordinated and confident. I can then look to see if we need to train strength and power with other methods such as resistance training and more advanced jumps.
An afterword on the fencing camp
I discussed my approach with the sports scientist and he was delighted that I was going to teach them. He retested 3 days later: the results weren’t brilliant but the fencers were competent and felt more confident. When we saw them on the next camp, three months later, they were much better.