Track Speed vs. Team Sport Speed
Clearly there are differences between sprinting 100m in a straight line and the stop-start, multi-directional nature of the sprints and accelerations in team sports. As such, the time dedicated to speed and acceleration training, and the nature of this training, is going to differ between these two types of athletes.
Straight Line Sprinting
Rarely (never say never, but never) will a team sport athlete perform a straight line 100m sprint. Nor do team sport athletes start their sprints from blocks (or even a crouched position), wear spikes or begin their sprint in response to a gun.
Team sport athletes begin their sprints from whatever positions they are in at a given moment. They might be reacting to an opponent’s movements, calls from teammates or to any one of numerous game situations. Team sport athletes also have to sprint in curves and zig-zags, and over variable distances and times in a stop-start fashion.
It’s clear, therefore, that team sports and track sprinting have different mechanical and cognitive demands. Thus, their training will differ accordingly. Whereas a sprinter can focus purely on straight line sprinting technique and starting in response to a loud bang, team sport athletes have a multitude of factors to contend with, many of which are outwith of their control.
Speed on the field, or ‘game-speed’ as is often referred to, is as much to do with cognitive and perceptual components as it is to do with the physical.
Before a team sport athlete initiates a movement they have to process information, react to cues, and select the most appropriate movement response. There are many different ways in which a team sport athlete moves during a game (forward, backwards, side shuffle, diagonal, turning, cutting) and many starting positions from which to initiate a sprint or acceleration.
One sprint could be initiated from the ground after an athlete has been tackled and another could be initiated after two sidesteps and a turn in response to a team-mate passing the ball. Both scenarios require different responses and movements.
Team sport athletes need to arrive in positions that are optimal for them to perform their sporting task, which adds another layer of complexity to the speed training demands of a team sport athlete. Whilst getting from A to B as quickly as possible is the goal, team sport athletes have to arrive at B in a position of control that allows them to carry out a specific sporting action (be ready to tackle, hit the ball, block, pass, etc.). It’s important, therefore, to be as reasonably context specific as is possible to ensure that the multidirectional and multifactorial ‘game-speed’ demands are reflected in a team sport athlete’s speed training.
If an athlete doesn’t have the basic mechanics required for effective sprinting and acceleration, they are going to lose out somewhere along the line. Regardless of how quick their perception and cognition is, technique and sprinting strength will also play a major role in the ‘game-speed’ of a team sport athlete.
Thus, the mechanical and physical components are very important, and are probably easier to train in a transferable way (outside of playing the sport) than cognitive/perceptual capabilities.
If team sport athletes can hardwire good sprinting mechanics into their neuromuscular system they will be more likely to adopt these good mechanics whenever they are called upon to do so. In other words, if good patterns are embedded, the introduction of visual, audible or game specific stimuli shouldn’t affect the athlete’s basic mechanics and thus the efficiency and effectiveness of the physical component of ‘game-speed’ is maximised.
The specific methods used to train speed and agility, with regard to incorporating the perceptual, cognitive and sport-specific demands, is up to and influenced by the creativity and beliefs of both the strength and conditioning coach and tactical/technical coaching team. Once the basic mechanical skills of linear sprinting are developed, an athlete can transfer these mechanics (as best as possible) into agility practices and game situations.
Sport is about Acceleration
In addition to the mechanical and cognitive differences between team sport athletes and track sprinters, we also know that team sport athletes spend more time accelerating than they do running at their top speed.
Elite sprinters tend not to reach top speed until about 40-60m in to a 100m race. Of course team sport athletes are not elite sprinters and will reach their (inferior) top speeds quicker. Additionally, in all likelihood, team sport athletes will rarely sprint undistracted and in a straight line for long enough to achieve their true top speed. And, what’s even more unlikely — should they reach top speed — is that they will be required to maintain this for any significant period of time.
Thus, occasions on which team sport athletes demonstrate full and free-flowing top speed mechanics are rare. Team sport athletes spend more of their time in acceleration and transitional positions, performing repeated and multidirectional accelerations over distances of 5-20m.
Acceleration and repeated sprint ability is therefore an important part of a team sport athlete’s speed training. This doesn’t mean top speed training should be neglected by team sport athletes, quite the contrary. Maximum velocity sprinting challenges the central nervous system and muscular system like no other form of training in terms of the ground contact times and velocities involved. Many coaches would also argue that sprinting acts as a ‘functional strength builder’ that leads to transferable gains in strength and power.
I therefore recommend working on both acceleration and top speed, and utilising distances and starting positions that are appropriate to your sport and/or intended training goal. By having good acceleration, transitional and top speed mechanics we can ensure that an athlete will display the best mechanics at a given speed within the context of the game, whether that be over 5m or 30m.
This article is an excerpt from Jon's e-book The Basics of Speed and Acceleration for Team Sport Athletes which you can download for free on the resources page