The speed grid and training speed in a large group setting

Coach Kelvin Giles once said “If your coach:athlete ratio is 1:25 then you are managing a crowd, not coaching.” It’s not ideal, but it’s reality for many coaches. As I’ve worked more with field sports I’m often tasked with working with up to 50 athletes at one time. In such a setting, you have to make concessions as you transition from theory to practice. But with the right adjustments it can still look like coaching rather than crowd management.

Coaching is teaching

Good teachers are those that are able to reach the most students. If it is possible for a professor to make a profound influence in lectures with hundreds of students, surely coaches working with large groups can also be effective. Like with teaching, coaching large groups is about reaching the most students. That doesn’t mean dumbing down the curriculum, it means being creative in designing the session.

One way to reach the most students is to give them individualized feedback and tasks. Knowledge of sprint mechanics grown significantly among strength and conditioning coaches over the last few years. This is a great trend to see much needed knowledge shared amongst coaches. But transferring feedback to each individual athlete (let along watching each one) can be difficult. Kinograms provide great feedback on technique, for example, but the time required to produce and interpret them on a mass scale is daunting. The same goes with sprint profiling or other methods of individualization. They are all great in theory, but often fail to transfer to practice.

In order to reach the most athletes, we have to take a step back. Think less about the specific angels and shapes and more about the high level needs to improve speed: train fast, train consistently, and train with variety. If we tick those boxes we are a long ways towards our goal of reaching the most athletes, both in terms of speed development and injury prevention benefits of sprinting. Use the right exercises and mechanics often sort themselves out. But there is no replacement for moving fast.

A bad example

We’ve all seen examples of speed training done poorly in a team environment. Typically athletes line up together, sprint the same distance, then repeat. Every sport has a different name for them, but they exist in every sport. Why is this such a bad example? Here’s a few reasons:

  • One stimulus for all is often the best stimulus for nobody. The fast kids might find the specific distance or time too easy, while the big kids find it too hard.
  • Athletes struggle to push themselves. Training fast is our first goal, but it is more elusive than it seems. When the challenge is too easy for the top kids, they often shift into cruise control half way through each rep. And as the slow kids lag behind, they rarely push into the red zone since they are pacing themselves for upcoming efforts. Few athletes really push themselves to their top speed.
  • It turns into conditioning. The slow kids get the shortest rest and often such drills turn into a nearly continuous low intensity effort. This is the opposite of speed training.
  • It’s boring. Enough said.

A good example

John Pryor and his team at SpeedPowerPlay made a few changes to the classic example above that make it infinitely more effective. They call it the Speed Grid and recently released a cheap and simple Speed Grip App that helps coach run it in training.

The basic goal is the same: interval sprints on the field. But small changes help address the shortcomings of the traditional approach:

  • Distances are individual. Coaches set up a variety of distances using cones and group the athletes based on their speed levels. This ensures each athletes is getting a stimulus and challenge that meets their needs.
  • Higher intent and intensity. Now that each athletes has an attainable goal, you’ll see them push themselves to reach it each rep. The finish line for everyone is the same, so the competitive spirit and intensity rises to a new level.
  • Speed targets are pre-defined. Athletes have to cover their defined zone over a certain period of time. Want to set it up for 20 meter sprints over 4 seconds? Then the athlete will be averaging 5 meters/second. How about 30 meters over 4 seconds? That’s up to an average of 7.5 meters/second. Define your speed and you can adjust the zones and times accordingly.
  • Training is testing. You can also move athletes up groups as they more easily meet their targets. In this way, training becomes testing as well.
  • It’s more fun. Again, enough said.

This is hardly the only approach–a recent SimpliFaster article outlined some more great ideas–but it gives a great example of how some small changes to classic approaches can make a big difference. With investing a little more time in preparation, coaches can reach a significantly larger portion of their athletes.