4 Strategies to Improve Athletes’ Innate Acceleration
Written on January 23, 2016 at 2:39 pm, by Eric Cressey
Today's guest post comes from Lee Taft, who just released his Certified Speed and Agility Coach (CSAC) course.
We often hear or read about coaches and athletes bragging about the “40” time. To be honest, it is an impressive event to see an athlete rip off a 4.3 or better time in the 40. Sensationalism aside, though, a 40-time is probably a lot less important than the ability to travel 10 feet to make a game play.
You see, most court and field sports require athletes to move in such an extreme array of directions in such a short time that training for the 40 needs to have a specific reason (i.e., the combine) for doing so. With that said, I want to share with you my four top strategies for improving an athlete’s innate acceleration. What is so cool about these strategies is they will make a baseball player better at getting an incredible jump when stealing. These techniques will make an infielder snag more broken bat bloopers over their head. Basketball players, soccer athletes, football players, and tennis athletes will also increase their acceleration with the strategies.
So what do I mean by innate acceleration? Well, the body was built with a pretty smart design. It has the ability to feel fear and either attack it or escape from it: the Fight or Flight response. I have learned to tap into this to make my athlete faster. Because this response is innate, all we have to do as coaches is put our athletes in situations that bring out this attack and escape approach. Here are my top four strategies.
#1: Directional Step
The directional step is an “action” more than a strategy by a coach or athlete. It would, however, be considered a strategy the body uses to become more effective at acceleration. Let me explain…
Imagine a baseball player in his “athletic position” that makes up the base stealing stance; he needs to accelerate quickly to the right. The legs each have an important job. The backside leg has the job of pushing the center of mass of the body in the direction of travel (laterally). While this pushing of the body is occurring, the front side has an awesome opportunity to take advantage of the moving mass. It knows the best way to keep the mass moving (accelerating) is to push down and back under the body. By doing so, the front leg can continue to accelerate the mass of the body. This is where the “Directional Step” comes into play.
If the body wants to push down and back, it makes sense to the neuromuscular system to use the posterior chain muscles (glutes, hamstrings, calves) to do so. The creative strategy devised by the body is to have the lead foot turn out so that it is facing the direction of travel. This, in essence, allows the athlete to be like a sprinter coming out of the blocks: pushing down and back with that powerful lead leg. What a great strategy!
To take it a bit deeper so that you understand the reason the Directional Step matters, let’s consider what the action really is. When the body wants to accelerate from a lateral stance to a linear run (base stealing jump) the external rotation of the lead leg to turn the foot toward second base actually aids in the pushing action by the back leg; it is called “action-reaction.” So, when the lead leg turns out (an action) there is a force that goes back into the back leg while it is still on the ground (reaction). To make a long story short, the Directional Step is a really great innate strategy by the body to become quicker.
Have a partner stand in front of you prepared to point either to your right or left. When they do point, you are going to turn and accelerate for 10 yards in that direction. Do this 6-8 times so you can build on your ability to accelerate, using a Directional Step, out of an athletic stance to your right or left.
#2: Hip Turn
The Hip Turn is a great strategy the body has given athletes. That said, some athletes aren’t very proficient or smooth with it. Fortunately, with some corrective approaches and drills we can fix that. The Hip Turn is a way for the athlete to get out of an athletic stance (a parallel stance, like an infielder or tennis player) quickly and retreat or move away from the direction they were facing.
In basketball, coaches often teach pivoting. The problem with pivoting is that it requires friction as the foot turns while in contact with the ground; this is not good for quickness. Luckily, the body once again has this innate ability to make the athlete perform escape or attack movements quicker. During the Hip Turn, the feet lift ever-so-slightly off the ground and the hips and legs turn quickly in the air in order to allow the backside leg to push down and away into the surface. It’s important to recognize that the athlete does not elevate his or her body; rather, the hips and legs simply rotate as they clear the ground contact. Imagine a tennis player turning quickly to chase down a lob over their head. The action they use is a Hip Turn to get into acceleration after the ball.
Basically, the Hip Turn is a way for the athlete to get their legs and feet into a better acceleration angle. This is a great built-in strategy by the body, as when the hips and leg whip around, the back leg actually starts the extension “pushing” just before it hits the ground. There is a resulting impulse or stretch reflex of the muscles that allows the athlete to start accelerating quicker. Again, the rear leg/foot is actively driving into the ground; this causes a “plyometric” response and greater starting speed.
Have your partner stand roughly 12 feet behind you, holding a tennis ball out to the side at shoulder height. You will be standing in an athletic stance, but facing away from your partner. Your partner will yell “GO” and drop the ball at the same time. You must react and accelerate after the ball and catch it before it bounces twice. This drill is a great drill for refining and improving the Hip Turn and acceleration. Perform it 5-6 times turning to the right and left.
#3: Crossover Run
As a kid, did you ever hear your coach yell; “Don’t cross your feet when you move laterally!” If so, they were pretty much wrong in telling you that. Athletes don’t actually cross their feet; they simply turn their hips and run with the lower body and shuffle with the upper body.
What does this mean? Let’s consider a basketball player or a baseball infielder having to shuffle to the right to make a defensive play. If the ball is moving at a speed where the defender can use the shuffle to make the play, it should be used. However, if the ball is moving at a speed and distance that won’t allow the athlete to use a shuffle, the Crossover Run will naturally be used. This techniques is so much faster, yet allows the athlete to keep the head and shoulders somewhat oriented to the ball or the play in front of them. This is why I say the Crossover Run is a run with the lower body and a shuffle with the upper.
The reason I say this is an innate movement is because athletes instinctively perform the crossover action immediately upon the perception of the speed of the play and the distance that must be traveled.
Have a partner stand 10-15 feet in front of you with a tennis ball in hand. You are facing your partner and in an athletic stance. The partner is going to toss the ball up in the air, but to the right or left of you so that you have to move to catch it. The rule is you must shuffle when at all possible to catch the ball. However, if you perceive the ball is out of range for a shuffle to get the job done, then a Crossover Run is allowed. You’ll likely be amazed at how you will naturally do it anyway when it is out of reach. Perform 10-15 times, mixing up the direction to which you move.
#4: Linear Repositioning Step (Plyo Step)
I can still hear my high school football coach yelling at us for taking what he called a “False Step.” A False Step by most people is when an athlete takes a step backwards before moving forward. This action occurs in virtually all sports where the athletes have to react and move in a straight forward or angled movement. What has boggled my mind over the years is in spite of the fact that athletes very commonly take this step, very few coaches have bothered to ask, “why are they taking this step?” Let me explain…
Going back to our fight or flight survival response we are designed to move quickly to attack or escape. In order for this response to be realized into fast acceleration, the body must have proper alignment to do so. In order to accelerate, we must push the ground away from the direction of travel. When an athlete is in an athletic stance, the feet are directly under the center of mass – which, unfortunately, is not a great position from which to accelerate. We need the push-off foot to be behind the body. Well, when a stimulus occurs and the athlete reacts and now knows the direction of travel, one foot will instinctively reposition in order to create a proper angle of force application into the ground. I call this a Plyo Step.
The Plyo Step or Repositioning Step occurs not only to have a better and immediate angle with which to push, but also to give an impulse or stretch reflex to the neuromuscular system. This makes the ground contact time quicker and more explosive.
This directly competes with the idea of a false step being problematic. There is a reason the body repositions the feet upon a quick recognition to accelerate: it needs a more efficient acceleration angle and quicker ground reaction time once the foot strikes the ground.
Stand side-by-side in an athletic parallel stance with your partner. Your partner and you are going to race for 10 yards to see who wins. Your partner is the one who says “GO.” When he or she says “GO,” you both are taking off and racing. Because you don’t know exactly when you are moving, you will most likely take a Plyo Step – and so will your partner. Perform this 6-8 times.
Because athletes are designed to move quickly, I use drills to bring out the innate abilities they already have. This strategy has allowed me to polish the mechanics and postures they use while making them accelerate quicker.
Note from EC: If you're looking to learn more about Lee's approach to programming and coaching speed and agility work, I highly recommend his Certified Speed and Agility Coach course. I'm finishing it up now myself, and the information has been top notch. It's on sale at an introductory $100 off price through Friday, January 29. You can learn more HERE.
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