Coaching speed for children

Most people assume genetics are the factor that determines sprinting. As the cliche goes: sprinters are born while marathoners are made. That may be 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 yester-year. Imposing a technical speed training system upon them 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 those of you who coach children and also those who coach adults in different sports who have not got a ‘sprint’ background.

Shaping the raw material

In one of the many false dichotomies that are thrown up in coaching, there seems to be a conflict between a free-play, laissez-faire approach, and technical coaching. Coaches think either “natural talent comes through” or “my technical model is better than everyone else’s, so athletes need to follow that.”

To address the first point, children need to learn to run fast, it doesn’t just happen automatically. ‘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. A long-term study in Holland noted that from 1985 to 2005 playing time outside for the average childe reduced from 30 hours a week to just 5. Look at that effect over time:

At the 2016 Scottish Athletics Conference, Honore Hoedt shared a study in the Netherlands looked at children’s activity outside,  from 1985-2005. They found that in 1985 the average child was playing outside for 30 hours per week, but in 2005 that had dropped to only 5 hours per week. This has a huge effect over time:

  • 1 week: 5 instead of 30 hours a week
  • 1 year: 250 instead of 1500 hours a year
  • 10 years: 2500 instead of 15,000 hours in 10 Years

So, by the time a 15-year- old girl walks into an athletics club, the 2005 version would have played outside for 12,250 less than her 1985 counterpart. During those additional 12,250 hours of outdoor play, the girl will have walked, skipped, chased, escaped, dodged, fallen over and been out of breath. She will have learned balance, co-ordination, reaction and racing without any adult involvement. The raw material has been moulded and developed.  In this environment, the children will know who is the fastest and the ‘natural’ sprinters will rise to the top.

Compare this to the 2005 child, whose parent keeps them inside except for their twice-weekly visit to an athletics club where they can be taught how to run. Or imagine the 2021 child in lockdown. The head of PE at my daughter’s secondary school said to me recently “You wouldn’t believe how many of the recent year 7 cohort run with their arms stretched out behind their backs, Fortnite style!”

The key point is: the modern child is less ready to receive formal coaching than previous generations. We need to recognize and adapt how and what we coach.

Games with purpose

I always get the best chance to watch how children play when I am waiting in the school playground for my own children to go in to school. What you often see are brief, intermittent bursts of activity, followed by some walking or standing and then some more bursts. When the school gates open and the children run into the park the same thing occurs: this time incorporating the playground equipment and maybe a dog or two. Nowhere do you see queues of children lining up to move one at at time and then be told what to do by an adult.

When I first visited an athletics club to ‘learn’ about speed training, I saw a lot of standing and waiting and then a brief spell of activity before returning to the back of the queue. I learned a lot about queuing but very little about sprinting.

I decided to structure my sessions along the lines of how children organise themselves. I shape the activities to elicit an outcome or response that fits into the overall strategy of ‘running faster.’  Some parts of my sessions are not specific to speed but help the sessions flow or get the children involved early. If the children feel like they are making progress, they are learning something and they get to share and collaborate with their friends, then they are likely to return the following week. If they keep returning they get faster.

The framework

Here is an example of a sequence that I follow. The drills are less important than why/when I do them.

ElementGoalActivity and description
Warm up
10 minutes
Get movingOne of the following:
  • A restricted area game of tag or follow the leader
  • Play on the equipment parkour style
  • Coordination challenges with balls and objects such as juggling or passing/moving
10 minutes
Speed related activitiesWe incorporate the following ideas but change the directions and orders that we do things:
  • Skipping: forward, backwards, sideways, with/without arms, in lines or in a square with the change of direction at each corner
  • Change of movements either on command, at a cone or following a 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”. This is the most technical we ever get with children and is only used once children are receptive.
Theme of the day
20 minutes
Focus on one specific aspect of speedUtilize specific drills and include a competitive element as well to focus on one element such as e.g. Starts, acceleration, repeat speed, reactive speed, top speed.

I select the competitive 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. I don’t want the fast children becoming complacent and I don’t want the slow children becoming disheartened. The fast children need to learn how to lose and the slower children need to feel what it is like to win.
Jumping and throwing
10-15 minutes
All around skillsThis 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.
5-10 minutes
Unwind and express personalityWe 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.

» Related content: Learn more speed fundamentals from Vern Gambetta in Total Speed instructional video.

Continued progress requires continued focus

The great thing about coaching speed to children is that you can see the progress in real time. I’ll end this article with a video from our PE series of a 10 year old girl. Here we are exploring some activities I would normally put in the “fundamentals” section of training. You can see how things start to click, she gets faster, and then I have to put a friendly competition in to motivate her more. This is a great example of how coaches can’t just sit back and watch the progress, they have to actively adapt the environment to keep the progress going as well.