3 Steps to Help Young Athletes Get Fast, Faster

Twenty-first century athletes need 21st-century approaches to training.

If you train athletes, then you know Ball is Life. That's to say playing the sport is frequently prioritized over preparing to play the sport.

Of course physical preparation increases performance, reduces potential injury and builds resiliency. But getting buy-in from young athletes is challenging. The same young athletes are in greater need of general physical preparation now, more than ever. Johnny B. Good-At-Baseball can line drive the ball over the fence but walks sideways because he's only ever rotated one direction all 10 years of his life.

Competition invites overstuffed calendars, erratic scheduling and high-volume tournament play. Athletes have little left over for training. Or rest. Unpredictable schedules equate to inconsistent training. It's like Groundhog Day—every session is the athlete's first. Strength coaches and athletes share frustration thanks to inefficiency. A once seamless 12-week progression becomes a series of soundbites.

I found myself caught between pushing and pulling my athletes. I strained to preserve the integrity of the drill, yet I observed their inability to transfer speed training into game speed. I revisited theories on learning and realized there was a flaw in my program. The problem was with blocked practice. I required athletes to attain mastery before I exposed them to new drills and exercises. Learning is most effective when it is interleaved, or dovetailed, with other material.

The question I kept asking myself was, "Am I structuring training in a way that makes my athletes game ready?" It's clear that athletes need competition-paced speed skills earlier. Progressions made scientific sense, but not common sense. My athletes were stuck at the start, mastering basics that lacked context and application.

Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I restructured my progressions.

First, you need to understand my thinking. My speed training progressions are:

  • Rehearsed to Reactive
  • Slow to Fast
  • Segmental to Whole

The modern youth athlete's schedule is evolving and, by extension, the needs of their training session are, also. Rather than working through 6-, 8- or 12-week progressions with athletes, I return to the basics every session and layer in drills that provide more context.

This is my 3-step process:

  1. Rehearse
  2. Reinforce
  3. React

Step 1: Rehearse

First, my athletes build the foundation by revisiting mechanics.

It refines technique. It slows athletes down enough to feel the movement and recall the pattern. Recall is necessary for permanence of learning. It also bridgea the dynamic warm-up as an extended warm-up.

Step 2: Reinforce

The next step links to application. I help athletes begin to feel the movement; whether it's applying force to the ground or creating tension in their abs. Few unknowns are present. Athletes know where they are going and how they are getting there.

The increased complexity and speed reinforce competency and learning while allowing room for further feedback.

Step 3: Reactive

Athletes facing time constraints and pressure operate with their sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system engaged. Under this influence, time to process movement strategy isn't available; movement is organic and occurs in reaction to the demands of the task.

This appears earlier in my program to create instinctive movers. The drills you use will depend on the type of athlete, whether they are over- or underpowered, and the goals for the session.

The unknowns are increased to reflect sport. An athlete may or may not know where they are going, when they are going, and how they are getting there.

Progressions are still present. Rather than between programs, they exist within a single program. These steps all progress phase by phase, but the transition from mechanics (rehearsal), to application (reinforce) to integration (reactive) is the backdrop.

Sample Programs

Below are two examples, one focusing on linear acceleration and another focusing on lateral change of direction, of how I put my process into practice.

Linear Acceleration

  1. 3-Hit Wall March 2 x 5 ea.
  2. March Behind Sled Push 2 x 10-15 yards
  3. Lean, Fall, Run (With or Without Ball Catch) 4-8 total

Lateral Change of direction

  1. Shuffle Shakes With Step-Out 2 x 8 sec + 5 ea.
  2. 1 or 2 Shuffle w/ Shake Fake 2 x 5 ea.
  3. Reactive Shuffle 3 x 5

Closing Thoughts
Twenty-first century athletes need 21st-century approaches to training. Blocked practice (not periodization) feels smart because we assume it builds the foundation necessary for future success. However, we've found that a different approach was needed to help busy athletes benefit most from their training.

I wrestled with the idea of giving them "advanced" stuff early in a program. The truth is they are playing sports more frequently than ever. Sport is almost entirely reactive. My thinking now is to let them be athletes and build the movement skill wholly each session rather than phase by phase.

Photo Credit: Nastco/iStock

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Topics: COACH | STRENGTH COACH | STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING | SPEED AND AGILITY | YOUTH SPORTS | SPEED AND STRENGTH | PERFORMANCE COACH