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We’ve all heard the adage that “speed kills.” Speed can be the difference in wins and losses. It can be the difference in making or missing a point. It can be the difference in avoiding an injury, or even in surviving a life threatening situation.

In sports that involve sudden changes in direction and reaction to ever changing stimuli – what I call “chaos sports”

– you never know what is coming. These sports include tennis, soccer, baseball, football, basketball, volleyball, and any other sport requiring rapid reaction to unpredictable stimuli – including emergency situations in real life. These sports require what are called “open skills.” You must react in the quickest time possible in any number of ways. A variety of responses may be required. For instance, if you are returning a serve in tennis, you might have to move left or right, forward or back, react to a flat ball or spin, and react to different speeds. Speed, reaction time and agility can make a significant difference in your performance in open skill sports.

In contrast, “closed skill” sports are activities like a 100 meter dash that have identical rules and characteristics every time that they are performed. Closed skills are rehearsed skills with an expected response to a cue. The distance is identical every time and everyone tries to achieve the end goal the same way every time (e.g. run as quickly as possible from point A to point B). In closed skill dominated sports, speed also makes a significant difference, especially with tasks requiring the athlete to accelerate quickly and efficiently.

Speed is a learnable motor skill that can be improved with proper practice and efficient technique. There are three things about speed that you should know:

1.    Speed is a basic bio-motor skill.
2.    Speed is highly trainable.
3.    Speed is highly improvable.

Everyone can get faster. Can everyone make the Olympics? No. Can everyone take a second or two off their 40-yard time? No. But with proper training, just about everyone can improve their 40 yard time. For instance, we recently worked with an athlete getting ready for the NFL combine who cut his recorded 40-yard dash time from 4.5 seconds to 4.39 seconds over the span of a season. This kind of improvement makes the difference between barely making the NFL draft to being a high-probability pick who earns hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Similarly, everyone can become more agile. To borrow a definition from respected sports performance coach Robb Rogers, agility is the ability to perform various foot movement rhythms while simultaneously demonstrating balance and body awareness.

There are a few factors that determine how much of an improvement an athlete can make in his speed and agility. First, the younger the chronological age of the athlete, the more improvements he or she can make. The younger person hopefully hasn’t developed improper or inefficient motor patterns yet. Also, a number of Eastern European sports scientists have identified specific ages when male and female youngsters have an optimal “window” to develop speed and other motor skills. According to the article “Sensitive Periods in Physical Development” by Loki et al., these windows include:

–    Static strength. Ages 13-16 for boys, and 11-13 for girls.
–    Leg power. Ages 13-17 for boys and 10-12 for girls.
–    Arm power. Ages 13-17 for boys and 10-13 for girls.
–    Running speed. Ages 12-17 for boys and 10-13 for girls.

A second factor that influences athletic development is training age. The training age can be thought of as the length of time that an athlete has been training properly in the development of physical skills and basic biomotor quality enhancement. This training age also determines how much improvement an athlete can make in his speed and agility. A 12-year old with no prior formal speed training has a great deal of room for improving his speed. His training age may be low, but his chronological age is at an optimum level for speed development. Training age also influences the number and complexity of the types of exercises and drills that can be performed.

A third and related factor that influences an athlete’s ability to improve his speed is his level of proficiency and his training and competition history. The higher the level of the athlete, the lower the degree of potential improvement. This is due to the law of diminishing returns. Nevertheless, even a small change in the speed of the high level athlete can be extremely valuable. If you think that the time difference between a first place medal and third place medal in the Olympic 100 meter sprint is often measured in hundredths of seconds, it is easy to see that even small improvements could be the difference between gold and bronze.

Most fitness trainers will find a receptive audience for speed and agility training in youth and children. These individuals have a young chronological age, typically have a young training age, and are not yet high-level athletes. Therefore, you can help them make excellent gains in speed and make a huge difference in the lives of your clients.

Speed and agility are also influenced by other physical qualities:

  • strength
  • power
  • flexibility
  • mobility
  • coordination
  • reaction time

For this reason, any speed and agility trainer must assess these factors before working with a client. By identifying weaknesses or potential muscle imbalances, tightness and restriction, or even a lack of structural strength, the speed and agility coach can target his or her training program to improve these qualities and thus prepare the athlete for potential improvement. We have seen athletes improve their 10 yard dash times and thus their 40 yard times simply by increasing their base strength and stability levels. For instance, if you help an athlete develop the ability to put more force into the ground via enhanced strength and power in the triple joint extension action of hip, knee and ankle, you will potentially help him or her to run faster. Add to this an improved structural base level of core abdominal, low back and glute stability and you will have a more explosive, faster athlete, assuming that his or her running mechanics are sound.

By Rich Lansky, CSCS, ACSM HFI, USA Weightlifting Certified U.S. International CoachRichard Lansky is the President of the Agility Training Institute. For more information about speed and agility visit www.agilitytraininginstitute.com.