Training the Young Athlete

For many years, speed was considered some mystified aspect of sport performance that was measurable but unchanging. If you weren’t born with track cleats on, the reality was that you were doomed to be slow footed for the remainder of your athletic career.

I hate this mentality. It's a cop out to say that strictly genetics are responsible for everything that you possess as an athlete. Sure, your athletic ceiling is established before you are born. Your levels of fast-twitch muscle fibers compared to slow will dictate in large part what types of sports you may excel in, but in no way do they tell the entire tale of athletic greatness.

Young athletes are an especially significant case. Sure, you have athletes who are a cut above the rest from the time that they're very young. Then again, you have athletes like I was who remain small and underdeveloped until a surge of growth (five feet, one inch to five feet, eleven inches between seventh and eighth grade). It wasn’t until I grew that coaches treated me differently. What if they had spent the time early on to develop me?

Who are we as coaches, trainers, parents, or weekend speculators to establish a ceiling for an 11-year-old's career? The truth is speed can be taught and improved. Techniques can be established, proper angles of motion taught, better arm actions learned, and increased strength created to develop more body control and improve the rate of force development.

While this article is geared toward athletes ranging from nine to twelve, it isn't by any means without merit in older athletes. In fact, if you have athletes who have spent negligible time in their lives learning the fundamentals of speed, this is more a primer for future training. So if you are working with 13- to 17-year-old athletes who haven’t learned these basic drills, by all means start here before you begin worrying about measuring stride length and stride frequency patterns.

The basics

Movement integration: Otherwise known as marching. Sure, it sounds as if I'm crazy telling you to have people learn to march, but try it with some young athletes. You will first be amazed that many will use the wrong arm action when they've slowed down their motions. Same arm/same leg drive isn't uncommon in the initial stages of speed training. Often times, this is the number one cue we have to make—opposite arm, opposite leg. Before we can worry about shin dorsiflexion and proper knee drive, the athletes have to actually understand the movements.

I won’t delve too far into it, but today’s young athletes are looking for the “advanced” training tools that professional athletes use, yet some are incapable of skipping. Weighted sleds, plyometric training, starting stance—these are all things we can train, but we need to start here. Start these drills in place and then advance to forward marches once technique looks correct.

Here are some basic cues for marching:

  • Chest tall
  • Eyes forward
  • Arms bent at a 90-degree angle
  • March with the opposite arm, opposite leg

Things to watch as a coach:

  • Chest crunching forward during the march (stay tall, chest up)
  • Improper arm actions (same arm/leg, no arm action)
  • Knee being swung back and forth rather than driven up and down
  • Foot dorsiflexed (toes pulled toward the shin)

If we look at training as using the minimum possible dose in order to gain strength/ability/skill/power, using marches to establish proper mechanics in motion is clearly the best place to start. If you're consistent with effort, coaching technique here leads to tremendous gains when athletes finally run a true sprint.

Wall drills: We have taught athletes the proper way to march in place and forward. Now, we need to evolve this movement to teach how to propel these new mechanics forward. In order to teach athletes the fundamental position for acceleration, it's simpler to teach it using a wall rather than try to have athletes achieve position alone.

A simple wall drill can change how an athlete perceives knee drive and the feeling of pushing into the ground rather than swinging the legs. Here's a checklist for the set up:

  • Find a proper wall with enough space to allow the athlete room to move.
  • Have each athlete address the wall by placing his hands shoulder height against it.
  • Ensure that each athlete has achieved the “acceleration” position, which is roughly a 45-degree angle from head to feet.
  • Have the athlete extend his feet into the ground so that the feet aren't flat.

Once we have established this position, we can evolve the drill in a variety of ways.

Posture holds

  • Simply tell the athletes to drive their right (or left) knee up
  • Knee should drive up to at minimum belt level
  • Foot should be pulled up toward the butt
  • Foot remains dorsiflexed
  • Maintain a tall chest with eyes forward to slightly down
  • Hold position for 15–30 seconds

You will be surprised at how difficult this drill is for young athletes to maintain. It becomes more than a neurological drill to ingrain proper positioning. It becomes an isometric strength builder. Athletes will complain of it “hurting” their calves, glutes, and feet. This can be a useful teaching tool!

If an athlete is having trouble holding the proper position for 15 seconds, how well does he think he's going to run? I will ask you the same question about your athletes. If these drills are difficult, don’t you think running mechanics and overall speed ability are diminished?

Single exchanges

  • Set athletes in the posture hold position
  • Ask them to maintain their positioning throughout the drill
  • Instruct athletes to switch their position between right leg up to left leg up
  • Athletes must drive their up leg down and back
  • Similarly they must drive their down leg up
  • Coach calls switches and cues between reps

Simple. This drill will teach the actions required in sprinting. You will have athletes that bounce or hop in order to switch legs. Force them to drive down and drive up. This drill can be slow. Speed is second in priority to establishing proper knee drive in extension and flexion. Again, like the holds, this drill will lead to strength development in younger athletes and can be extremely difficult for some to master. Stay the course. The benefits are worth the price of coaching and time spent.

Strength: Many people out in computer land were getting riled up because I wasn't mentioning the need for more strength in athletes before they can fully develop speed. I agree in part because strength absolutely is paramount in developing speed long term, but strength training is different for each athlete.

Running itself will develop strength. Run 10 sprints in a single day at maximum effort and tell me that your legs have little to no soreness. Now imagine that we're having a child learn to run. We're asking for marches, wall positions, and repetitive efforts at various runs and starts. Isn't there a strength component to what we are doing with this child?

One of my favorite forms of strength training for a young athlete (outside of basic body weight exercises) is using plate pushes on the turf. No other exercise can bring out both the competitive element and tax the athlete's muscles better during a speed session. The set up is simple:

Plate pushes

Find an age/level appropriate weight and distance. I find that a 25-lb Olympic weight is the lowest start weight for any athlete. A simple progression in terms of distance would be five yards, ten yards, five yards and back (added progression of a transition and start), ten yards and back, etc. Then we can increase the weight and start again.

Cue the athletes to keep their hips down and drive their knees up and back.

You'll need to keep an eye out for a few things:

  • Athletes who do this easily: Push them to work harder. Everyone can improve somehow.
  • Athletes who can’t start: These athletes can be lacking strength or the idea of pushing into the ground. If the feet slide, it's rarely strength because they all weigh more than 25 lbs. It has more to do with them not putting pressure on the turf.
  • Athletes with lack of control: Their core strength is most likely lacking, as it is in most athletes. Cue them to focus on keeping themselves under control and their cores tight.

In closing

Speed is a skill that can be taught and improved. Yet most will have you believe one of two things—it's impossible to improve or the subject is wildly complex. Neither is the case, and we can make each athlete we see on a daily basis better by keeping an open mind and coaching them the way they need to be coached.

Have the patience to practice the basics. While the sexy drills and bells and whistles often get the most press, it is and always has been the basics that get the best results. Introduce these drills to the athletes you coach and watch their genetics magically improve.