Integrating Structure and Play For Speed Development
Speed and agility are flashy words in the eyes of parents and sport coaches alike, especially in the ever growing youth sport business. I say business because there seems to be the unfortunate trend of making youth sports more about winning and less about development, with money being a barrier to entry in some populations. That is a different topic for a different time, but in writing more in depth about how I structure sessions I find it necessary to discuss the integration of taught skill and game based speed or agility training. If you haven't read the breakdown of how I plan training sessions, you can read that full article here.
Admittedly, speed and agility training is something I struggle with teaching, because there are many factors that go into each that need to be considered, especially with kids. I also came from more of a combat sport background, which didn't require much sprinting. Coordination, strength, intent, and genetics all play a role in developing speed for kids. But just like the warm-ups I use with my athletes, I've found that teaching both skill and incorporating fun is a successful way to teach speed to a young athlete.
After warming athletes up through series of structured exercises and a series of movements designed to help them self-organize, I spend 15-20 minutes of the remaining hour to teach speed or agility (or change of direction, more on that later). Just like the warm-up, the speed training portion follows a similar flow: start with more structure and end with more fun.
That 15-20 minutes of integrated structure and fun is planned out in the following three segments:
1. Teach One Skill Or Concept
If you follow the thought process that speed or agility is a skill, then this makes sense. Now, I mention Skill or Concept because I believe them to go hand in hand. Each session I teach one skill to learn a major concept. This may be a Wall Drive for acceleration, which I use to familiarize the body with the angles of accelerating into a sprint. I may teach a snap down drill or athletic stance as a way of teaching force management and decelerating the body. I find it also worth noting that I will teach Change of Direction Mechanics, but true Agility has a reactive and perceptive component that is less taught and more developed (more on this later). Or I may teach an A-Skip/March to teach the elevation of the knees or posture of top end speed. The major thing I try to get across in this segment is the major concept or the why behind the skill I am teaching, but ultimately, I will spend less than five minutes teaching a specific skill.
2. Utilize Skill In A Drill
After spending a few brief minutes teaching a skill or a concept, I spend several minutes putting my kids through one drill that allows them to utilize the skill and practice it. If we've worked on change of direction skills, this may be a reactive deceleration drill. If we've worked on Acceleration skills, then it might be timed 10 yard sprints, or a falling start sprint. I spend only a few brief moments on the teaching part, because I find more value in letting kids experiment with the concept instead of over-coaching or nit-picking little details.
During the drill, I often ask the question: "How does it feel?"
This is something I find crucial. Teaching a skill can help athletes identify the feeling of key concepts, but they need to be able to identify those concepts in motion. Just like self-organizing within the warm-up, the question of "How does it feel?" or "Do you feel _____?" is aimed at them putting together the pieces of the skill on their own. I may give a pointer or two, but the goal is to let them solve the problem so that it has a better chance of sticking with them. In all, we spend less than ten minutes on this type of drilling.
3. Play A Game That Utilizes The Skill
I find it necessary to go into length on this. I use a lot of games for two main reasons: intent and fun. The higher the intent an athlete puts into a drill or game, the faster they will sprint, make cuts, or compete. Additionally, kids will choose the fun thing ten times out of ten.
We have to remember as youth coaches that we're not dealing with pro athletes, we're dealing with pro ten year olds. The only thing they're professional at is being a kid.
The goal then, is to create game scenarios that maximize competition and intent, are fun, and also promote the utilization of the taught skill from the beginning of the session. Now, this is where creativity and quick thinking as a coach comes into major play. You may have to change your game on the fly based on who is present in your group (if you run class style groups like I do), the space you have available, and the equipment available (assuming you are sharing space and equipment with other groups or classes).
The main goal of these games should not be on teaching, but on the intent and fun. I set the environment to teach the skill for me, or to at least be the optimal pathway for winning. If I have taught angles or knee drive as part of acceleration mechanics, I'll use races, games of cat and mouse, or reactive drills from a pushup position. If I've taught change of direction mechanics such as getting low and shifting weight, I'll use a game that is easiest to be won when utilizing those positions. If I've taught deceleration, I may play a game of chicken (see video).
Additionally, I find that in utilizing games, they have the added benefit of teaching true agility. If you look at agility compared to change of direction, there is a perceptive component that cannot be overlooked. Athletes need to be able to use acceleration, deceleration, and change of direction mechanics based on the ever changing demands of the sporting environment.
True agility, in my opinion, is reactive and not just mechanical.
There are neural components at play such as reaction times and rate of force development that all factor into how agile an athlete is. I'll use myself as an example, as I'm great at change of direction mechanics, and controlling or producing force; as a competitive weightlifter I have developed these qualities to high degree. But put me in on a pitch or court with a ten year old, and the perception needed apply those physical characteristics doesn't pan out to great agility. This is where utilizing games is truly beneficial: the need for perception and reaction can only be developed by perceiving and reacting. I do my best in the game portion of our speed and agility training to do this within an environment that utilizes the taught skill as the path of least resistance for success. In all, I utilize games for about ten minutes in our speed training, or roughly a third or half of the time we focus on speed.
Now, I go into this length to provide a thought process. Just like previous articles, this isn't to say that this process is superior to others, but to show how I approach this specific aspect of training kids. Especially in a world of clickbait one-liners and viral videos, providing a deeper insight into how I plan out sessions is something I hope you find more valuable. I also hope it leads to further discussion as to what speed training for young kids might look like: thought out and also fun.