Athlete: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina
As an athlete you want to do everything you can to excel at your sport. Success in sport can be divided into two primary categories: Athleticism and Skill.
Skill in sport describes the ability to do a specific task or aspect of sport well. Below are a few examples of skills in the world of sport.
- Throwing accuracy
- Jump shot accuracy
None of these components of sport are directly related to improvements in athleticism. Rather, they are technical skills that require a different type of training, although there are components of overall athleticism that will transfer well to various skills.
Athleticism describes the physical qualities that are characteristic of athletes, such as strength, fitness, agility, speed, power, etc.
Qualities that describe a well-rounded athlete are numerous, but we will narrow the list to six primary attributes.
6. Endurance/Work Capacity
Speed itself can be broken down into three different phases or components.
2. Maximum Velocity
3. Speed Endurance
These 3 components occur in chronological order. You cannot reach maximum velocity without acceleration, and speed endurance is the ability to resist slowing down from maximum velocity.
Acceleration - The rate of change in velocity over a given amount of time.
The ability to accelerate and decelerate repeatedly on the field or court often determines who wins and who loses. For this reason, training the foundations of acceleration and deceleration are crucial parts of athletic development.
What factors allow some athletes to accelerate faster than others?
During acceleration you are attempting to propel your body forward by counteracting forces that keep you stationary. The only way to do so is by exerting high forces (i.e. contracting muscles). Greater force production (when you contact the ground) results in improved acceleration. As a result, stronger athletes can often accelerate faster than weaker athletes. But this is not always the case. The key is relative strength. A relatively light, but strong athlete will typically be able to gain speed faster than a heavier athlete with similar strength.
In terms of acceleration, your goal is to reach your maximum speed as fast as possible. Maximum speed is achieved by increasing the rate that neurons fire, contracting muscles. Increasing the volume of sprints and other high intensity exercises (hops, bounds, jumps, etc.) over time will result in greater adaptation within the nervous and muscular systems.
Power production when sprinting is ultimately the #1 factor differentiating athletes in terms of acceleration. The ability to exert large amounts of force into the ground (strength) and do so as quickly as possible (speed) will allow an athlete to gain momentum.
The final piece to acceleration is the learning of proper mechanics or running form. There is not a “one size fits all” approach to sprint mechanics, but there are factors to assess. For younger athletes this may start with simple coordination drills. As you pick up your left knee, your right arm should drive forward; practice running on your forefoot rather than the heels; keep the body at an angle. As mechanics improve, more detailed approaches should be considered, such as optimal joint range of motion, the ability to triple extend at the ankle, knee, and hip as well as a direct focus on creating horizontal force. You should start a sprint with the thought of punching the ground behind you.
Wall Accelerations: 3x5-10 each leg
You’ve likely heard the phrase ‘all gas, no brakes.’ In terms of sport, unless you are running track, you want to avoid being this person. The ‘all gas, no brakes teammate is someone who can sprint or skate faster than anyone in a straight line, but the second they need to slow down or change direction it looks like a runaway freight train. We all know someone like this, and they’re probably a great athlete. However, they could become elite by focusing on one thing: deceleration.
The ability to decelerate effectively requires greater strength and stability than acceleration. Forces during deceleration put greater stress on the leg muscles and joints, so it is safest and quickest to take several choppy steps while leaning slightly back. The goal is to decelerate as quickly as possible, and in many cases is followed by a change in direction.
Imagine a soccer player closing down their defender, a football player running a curl route or a hockey player recovering after a turnover. All of these are prefaced with an acceleration phase before some other event requires them to decelerate. Accelerate – decelerate – repeat. It is one of the foundations of success in sport.
Banded Linear Deceleration: 3x4-8 each leg
Maximum velocity – the highest possible sprint speed an athlete can achieve.
While there are instances in most sports where athletes are near maximum speed it occurs much less throughout the competition than acceleration. Maximum velocity is reached following acceleration, and typically takes anywhere from 10-40m with elite sprinters taking up to 50m. In many sports (volleyball, basketball, hockey, and many others) it is uncommon, or impossible, to run in a straight line at full speed for more than 10m. This does not mean training maximum velocity is unimportant.
If you improve your maximum velocity from 16mph to 20mph, the speed you accelerate to in game will be greater. For this example, the athlete may only ever reach 80% of their maximum velocity in game, but this speed increases from 12.8mph to 16mph.
How do we improve maximum velocity?
Sprint. The best way to get better at something is to do it. Unlike acceleration, maximum velocity requires athletes to primarily put vertical forces into the ground. For this reason, plyometric exercises such as vertical jumps, depth jumps, and dumbbell jumps are great ways to improve maximum velocity. But remember the #1 way to get faster is to sprint with intent 2-3 times per week.
Speed endurance – the ability to maintain near maximum velocity.
Speed endurance is only a factor in linear sprints of 40-100m, which is very rarely observed in sports other than track and field. Regardless, training speed endurance can benefit athletes because you must also train both acceleration and maximum velocity (hopefully you’re now seeing the continuum).
Sprinting is one of the simplest, yet most effective ways to become a better athlete. As one of the highlights of the Olympics, track and field is referred to as Athletics, and is the foundation for every other sport. If you improve your speed, you’ll be a better athlete, guaranteed.
Power – the ability to apply strength or force at high speeds.
Force production is essential for success in sport. Doing so fast can set you apart from your competition. Want to jump higher, accelerate faster, throw further or hit harder? The #1 athletic attribute you can work on to achieve these goals is power.
For most athletes, the goal is to be as fast and as strong as possible, while maintaining the necessary sport-specific skills. The force velocity curve is a great way to visualize power. 1-repetition max lifts would live at the 'Force' end of the curve while maximal sprints would fit at the 'Velocity' end. An effective training program will shift the entire curve to the right meaning that you can move faster, but also move more weight. Below you will see a more detailed version of the force-velocity curve discussing examples of application in sport.
How do we improve power?
Moving any mass as fast as possible will improve power. If you are at home with no equipment exercises like broad and vertical jumps, explosive push-ups, bounding, throwing are great movements to incorporate. At the gym adding loads ~30-60% 1 repetition-max are ideal. This weight provides overload (so the body must adapt and become stronger) but allows you to perform the movement fast. Perform 2-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions and ensure that every rep is performed as fast as possible with proper form. Power training at less than max effort can quickly turn into a low intensity session.
How important is power for my sport?
Your ability to produce force over a short period of time is always a valuable athletic attribute but is more important for some than others.
Absolute Strength: 1-repetition-max lifting efforts. Powerlifters whose primary goal is to lift as much weight as possible are found on the far left of the force-velocity curve.
Strength-Speed: Near maximal force production occurs in the strength-speed block. This heavier emphasis on force production often occurs at 80-90% 1-repetition-max during training. Athletes and sports that require more strength (i.e., football players, basketball forwards as well as Olympic weightlifters) may be found around this part of the curve.
Speed-Strength: Typical power training at 30-60% of 1-repetition-max falls under the speed-strength block. You are attempting to move an external load as fast as possible to enhance power production. Closer to the middle of the curve you may start to see more typical athletes such as soccer players, basketball guards, wide receivers, baseball middle infielders, etc.
Explosive: Jumping and throwing would fall under the ‘explosive’ block. Your goal is to jump as far/high as possible or throw/slam an option at maximum intensity. Athletes in jumping events (long jump, high jump, etc.) as well as some specialty team sport positions (i.e., kick returner and some basketball players).
Speed: Maximal velocity training would fall under the ‘speed’ block. Track and field athletes are the primary examples who fill this part of the graph.
Remember that the force-velocity curve is continuous. Your goal is to constantly re-evaluate and optimize your position on the curve for your sport. A well-rounded athletic development training plan incorporates exercises that target every aspect of the curve.
Stability – The ability to maintain or correct improper positioning.
Stability plays a pivotal role in athletic development. Optimal positioning both during training and gameplay is important for performance and injury prevention. Knee and shoulder and ankle injuries are some of the most common in team sports due to the joint mechanics and stress that is placed upon these areas. The role of muscles surrounding these joints, and many others, is crucial in protecting an athlete from injury.
In sport there are many different forces that act on an athlete throughout a game or contest. Football players can be tackled unknowingly, basketball players take contact while driving for a lay-up, soccer players go in for a hard tackle, etc. These moments of contact increase the risk of injury, but by properly training movements and muscles that stabilize the joint, injury risk decreases considerably. Injury resilience can easily be the defining factor between an elite level athlete and someone who decides sports isn’t for them.
Some of our favorite stability exercises include any core strengthening (anti-rotation, anti-flexion/extension), bottoms-up kettlebell press, single leg balance and any jumps with an emphasis on the landing.
In-Line Pallof Presses: 3x10-12 per side
Mobility - the ability to actively move through a range of motion.
Mobility is not stretching. Re
ad that again if you need to. As an athlete there is a time and place for flexibility training, but in most cases, you are better off being in control of your own movements. Mobility training requires the athlete to activate muscles in a way that challenges the targeted
joint(s). For example, rather than pushing your hips forward during a hip flexor stretch and trying to relax, you actively squeeze the glute to extend the hip. You will still feel a stretch, and in some cases, it may be more intense, but you are doing so actively. As you sit and read this article extend and flex your legs but focus solely on contracting your quadriceps. Do this for 30-60s and your hamstrings should start to ‘loosen’ or relax.
Some of our favorite mobility exercises include Y-W-Ts, glute bridge, 90-90s, T-Spine windmill and a dynamic pigeon.
T-Spine Windmills: 2x8-10 per side
Work Capacity – the ability to tolerate and subsequently recover from a given workload.
This is a different way to approach the “endurance” conversation as very few sports aside from long distance running don’t provide any rest during a game or contest. Athletes may be subbed out, take time between plays to catch their breath or walk as needed on the field (go watch Messi if this sounds crazy).
Work capacity training is not often addressed by strength and conditioning coaches. Rather, sport practices and games typically provide enough progressive overlord for athletes to adapt and improve their ability to recover. In youth athletes, work capacity is often more developed than the other attributes discussed in this thread. Whether it be from multiple practices or games per week, other sports or playing outside with friends, endurance and the ability to recover are the least of an athlete’s worries.