By Julie Gooderick (MSc, BSc Hons, ASCC)
A large number of recent articles for junior athlete training have been centered around optimizing strength development. Whilst clearly important for all sports, in many sports speed development is just as important in the production of a well-built athlete.
In sports such as tennis, hockey, volleyball and football, speed and movement is often the dependent factor for success in a particular skill. Preceding any speed or strength development, be it the technical skills or absolute capacities, is co-ordination. A solid base of co-ordination will undoubtedly increase the speed of skill development in youth athletes, and coaches should be mindful of this.
Co-ordination exercises used in warm ups or in rest periods will enhance motor control as well as being a fun stimulus your young athlete is likely to enjoy. This is something to bear in mind when planning a speed development pathway for your junior athletes.
Speed development must encompass forward, lateral and backwards movements. During early years (girls aged 6-8, and boys aged 7-9), children have an accelerated adaptation to speed training. The improvements gained in these critical years are related to development of the central nervous system, which shows rapid growth during the early stages of life.
In this time coaches are recommended to use short bursts of activity (in all directions) rather than high volume work. This type of training is best used with longer rest periods, however any coach who has ever worked with athletes of this age will know that suggesting any sort of rest period to a 6 or 7 year old results in them getting bored, running around, and generally causing some sort of trouble to your session!
This is where the use of co-ordination drills can come in. Using relatively static co-ordination exercises such as ball skills, allows the recovery you want for your speed development, whilst also enhancing your athletes’ capacity to learn skills.
Additionally, it keeps them entertained and enjoying the session. These young ages are a good time to develop the ABCS of athleticism – agility, balance, co-ordination and speed. In a speed or agility session, you can bring in the other components in rest periods or warm ups and enhance your athletes physical literacy as much as possible.
From age 12, female speed development progresses at a much slower rate compared with males. Up until this age, males and females should be able to be trained together, both following similar speed pathways. As your athletes hit puberty (girls 11-13, boys 13-15) and beyond, the majority of speed improvements will be through developments of the anaerobic system, as well as muscular and tendenous changes.
Long rest periods will still be of importance, and this can potentially be a time to revisit technical skills of speed mechanics as your athletes’ co-ordination and motor control may have decreased following rapid growth.
Post puberty, strength will play a significant role in enhancing speed capabilities. Keep in mind that skill trainability shows a decline after the ages of around 11-12. Speed, like any other form of training, requires technical skill and co-ordination. Taking the time to teach your athlete correct running mechanics, forwards and backwards, as well as different methods of lateral movement will enhance their efficiency of movement, and build you a more robust and effective athlete.
Having said that skill trainability declines after 11 or 12, bear in mind that it IS possible to teach an old dog new tricks. It will often take longer and you may have more barriers to break down in terms of mobility and boredom, but we have all inherited athletes age 17 or so, who run like a wounded animal.
In these athletes, taking time out of warm ups, in rest periods or even in whole sessions, to teach correct mechanics will be of benefit in the long term. Yes, they will probably complain to you that they want to do the high intensity work their mate is doing on the next court, but this is usually short lived once they see improvements in their performance, and start to FEEL like they are moving better with less effort. They will eventually enhance their movement efficiency.
In terms of testing your junior athlete on their speed capabilities, absolute performance measures such as timed sprints may only give you half the story. Video analysis gives you information about your athletes’ technical proficiency of speed skills, and may allow you to understand areas in which your athlete is lacking in their speed development.
Simply having a timed test, will either give your the answer of yes, they are fast enough compared to peers, national requirements or whatever you are aiming to achieve, or no, they are not yet fast enough; but without some sort of visual analysis you will not understand why. When selecting tests to analyse your athletes speed, consider the requirements of the sports they are training for. For example, testing a tennis player on a 20m linear sprint would have very little relevance, given that half a court is only around 12m long. Selection of speed tests should (as with all other physical tests) be based upon a needs analysis of the sport and the training age of the athlete.
In summary, consider the key times to enhance your athletes’ speed development. Speed development has a high skill component, and is based on a foundation of co-ordination. These foundations can always be revisited, regardless of the age of the athlete, in order to enhance their technical proficiency of speed work, and ultimately their efficiency.
Never be in a rush to progress your athlete onto the glamorous resisted or repeated sprints, or any of the higher intensity work without building foundations. Start your athlete’s speed pathway by giving them the co-ordination required, teaching them the skills of speed and eventually build them to become a rapid and efficient athlete.