How to start out in teaching the sprint start

Speed has many different components. While they are all related in some way, they also have their unique properties. Perhaps one of the most unique is acceleration. You can’t even think about top speed unless you can get there in the first place. How athletes overcome inertia and perform over those first few steps is critical in nearly every sport.

Understanding acceleration

When we think of acceleration, what often comes to mind is the classic toe-off position:

Just in this snapshot you can see a lot of things happening:

  • Primarily horizontal force production
  • Positive shin angles
  • Horizontal torso lean
  • Long ground contact time
  • Short stride length
  • Low stride frequency
  • Low velocity

Each of these points is in stark contrast to high speed running, where vertical forces, short ground contact time, and an upright posture are dominant. These differences are big enough that they make an impact on how to teach acceleration to athletes without much experience in sprinting.

» Learn more: Vern Gambetta’s Soccer Speed DVD is now available for HMMR Plus members to stream.

Teaching acceleration

The points above might be interesting, but explaining them to your athletes isn’t going to get them into that nice drive position. Thankfully, it’s actually easier than that.

I recently rewatched two of Vern’s classic DVDs on speed: Total Speed and Soccer Speed, both now available for HMMR Plus Members to stream. They spend a little time discussing mechanics, but spend more time on how to put mechanics in practice and are chalk for of training ideas that can help your athletes learn how to sprint.

As James Marshall wrote about last week, teaching speed to kids is about the environment you put them in. The same is true for athletes of all ages: it’s all about environment. A good drill isn’t about replicating positions. It is about creating an environment that points the athletes the right positions. The body is a good problem solver, and when you give it the right problem it often finds the acceleration positions we are looking for on its own.

In watching the videos a few things stood out to me. Creating a good environment often comes down to three different things:

  • Variation
  • Chaos
  • Pressure

Each element has to be used in moderation, but each provide a potent training effect. Below are some examples from me and Vern.

Variation

Standard drills look to improve technique through repetition. Differential learning, on the other hand, looks to improve technique through variation. It is a method of training that emphasizes that learning can come from exploration of movement patterns. In his book on Strength Training and Coordination Frans Bosch went into detail about how we can change up our environments, tasks, and organism. We talked about that in more detail in an interview. But we don’t always have to get that fancy. Simply finding a few basic variations can do the trick with beginners.

Typical acceleration drills will have athletes find the proper toe off position against a wall, or doing repeat 10-meter starts. Vern’s staring point is different: he wants to getting the athletes to start from different positions. Here is one example from his Total Speed video:

This is one of many simple variations. Start from a seated position, kneeling position, etc. The possibilities are endless, but you only need a few.

Once athlete get comfortable you can vary things even more by starting out of moving positions, such as a jump or roll. Such exercises have the added benefit of simultaneously developing physical literacy, coordination, and other important qualities.

Chaos

Whether you’re running in a controlled environment on the track, or the mayhem on field, adding a little chaos to training has its benefits. Simply put, if you know where your next step is going to be, your body can prepare for it. That can be good or bad: if you have bad habits, you’ll just prepare using those same bad habits. If you don’t know what is coming next, you have to fall back on natural tendancies such as reflexes.

Adding chaos can also be simple. One of my favorites is a simple shoulder bump and go:

You can also get more complex and develop games or obstacle courses that combine the variation and chaos elements. My only piece of advice here is to consider the transitions: if your goal is to get an athlete to stay lower during their drive, but you force them to get over a hurdle after two steps, then the course design might be fun, but it will be counterproductive to your goal.

Pressure

The final point isn’t so much a distinct point as it is about weaponizing the first two points. When the body is under pressure, it needs to be efficient or it will fail. There are no short cuts under pressure. Finding ways to put a little pressure on the athlete will increase the intensity and, more often than not, improve their technique as well.

How do you do this? Nothing puts someone under time pressure like a little competition. We all think we train hard, but when we line up next so someone else we somehow find a way to go faster. It’s that little magic that can often do the trick. And it also makes simple “drills” become more fun and engaging.

Starting with simple

The examples above are not the exclusive means of training acceleration, and just a few tools from my own toolbox. But I think they demonstrate how simple it can be to start improving an athletes acceleration abilities without any equipment or even any words. Sprinting is simple at its core, and its best to keep teaching it simple too.