“You can’t coach speed” is a well worn adage by coaches that aren’t very good at making athletes faster. In fact, I don’t think there’s a bigger gap in fitness between what parents think good speed training looks like and what it actually is. It’s a shame too, because there are a number of training practices that are very effective with youth athletes that are not nearly as effective with teen and college athletes. Sadly, most parents don’t get their child involved in smart effective training until they are in their mid teens, where it is much harder to have an impact on certain aspects of speed. Although I see a lot of mistakes in speed training with teen and college athletes, I’d like to focus this blog post on the specific training practices that should be used on youth athletes.
Here are the Do’s and Don’t’s of Speed Training for Youth Athletes:
Overspeed Training. Overspeed training works by having an athlete sprint faster than they are currently capable of. Towing, Band Work, Downhill sprinting, and contrast training would all be a part of this. The developing athlete’s turnover/stride rate can be increased by changing the activity of the CNS. The developing brain makes this an ideal time to make real changes to the athlete. This work is not NEARLY as effective later and is a huge priority of youth training.
Mobility: Developing athletes have great flexibility (typically), but must work to get their mobility to where it should be. Learning how to control positions rather than “falling” through them is key for maximizing efficiency as well as safety.
Focus on Safe Movement Patterns: Youth athletes should be taught how to apply force and from what angles. This ensures that they get into good positions and don’t get hurt.
Rehearse with Cone Drills: Cone drills can be used to rehearse movement and confirm that athletes are getting into the proper positions. This is especially useful for youth athletes, but with every rep we as coaches need to make sure that the athletes are getting into safe and efficient positions.
Use Plyometric Drills: Developing athletes need to learn how to produce force quickly and maximize their own strength prior to beginning true weight training. Plyometric Drills focusing on short ground contact time are an ideal way to do this.
Use Drills with Reaction: Great speed and agility in sports involves decision making. Put the athletes in situations where they need to decide where to sprint and how, as opposed to just letting them do rehearsed movements. (Expanded on below in the “Don’t Rely on Cone Drills” and “Don’t Rely on Ladders” below)
Have Fun: Kids are kids. Everything should be fun and enjoyable so that they want to do more. Competition with others will also get them to push to their fullest.
Do Too Many Reps: Too many reps will turn it into conditioning rather than speed work and the young athletes will get too tired to be effective learners. Conditioning can look like speed work, but it isn’t. If the athlete starts to make mistakes out of fatigue then they are probably working too hard to learn movements. These fatigued movements will also not be as fast and explosive as we would like.
Rely on Cone Drills: Sports are chaotic and too many cone and ladder drills don’t allow athletes to react to what they’re seeing. Rely instead on drills with human movement or decisions. Cone drills often rely on rote memorization rather than decision making. Equip the athletes with the tools to move properly and let them make decisions.
Rely on Ladders: Ladders don’t teach quick feet, they teach feet that don’t move anywhere. Good technique on a speed ladder is to touch in different positions while not applying force. The feet must apply force every time they touch the ground. Speed ladders teach the OPPOSITE of what we need athletes to do. Every plant should have a purpose, not leave the athlete motionless at their center of gravity.