Football Speed vs. Track Speed: Part 3

OK! I am guessing that most of you have been sitting through my breakdown and analysis of each of the movement structures just waiting for me to be able to give you something more tangible and applicable to put to use in the training and development of your athletes. Well, I appreciate your patience through my nearly-endless rambling. As a reward, we have finally gotten to the issue of the ideas of physical preparation differences between the tasks.

In case you missed the first 2 parts, or if you just want to review them, you can do so here:

Training for One vs. the Other

To start, based on the ideas of task-specificity and individuality, we should come to the conclusion that the process of perfecting movement patterns first depends on the acknowledgement of the conditions of the task (this is what did earlier with the investigation of the BDS of each). From there, we must look to take the human organism through a process to best set it up for solving that particular task in the most effective and efficient way. It should also then go without saying that if the structure of the movement is different, so will the training. This becomes even more important as athletes begin to go through the specialization process (Note: I am NOT talking about the high school athlete or younger here!).

Edited PASM Verkho chart
P=Specific Motor Potential, T=Specific Technical Mastery, R=Training Stimulus Intensity & Specificity

As you may have heard me say before, the level of mastery that one has acquired in a task will also determine how much that quality may transfer to the motor abilities being displayed in a similar but independent task. In addition, as sport-task mastery & proficiency increase, the contributing factors deemed most important to the task also may change. For example, at lower levels of sport mastery or qualification (let’s say high school or college football), a higher quantitative speed value such as maximum speed attained in a 100m (or even a quality such as maximum force displayed in a squat) is going to have greater transfer than it will when the athlete climbs up the level of mastery & qualification. As this occurs (the athlete climbs in mastery), other biodynamic factors and physical characteristics take on greater importance than the higher general motor ability and the display of it. This is the reason that if we look back at why Jamaal Charles wasn’t able to get to the corner over the Broncos linebackers we should be able to realize that his unique linear speed was no longer AS advantageous when placed on a field on a Sunday vs. a Friday evening. In contrast though, Charles’s supreme maximum speed alone would allow him to make a certain amount of players look silly when he was playing at the college level (i.e. even though he played at a high level BCS school such as Texas).

Can track-speed techniques be efficacious for developing speed in the football athlete?

They can; that is, depending on the level of mastery and qualification of the athlete. With high school or other developing athletes I will always advocate that these individuals participate in track & field in the spring as I would completely expect the enhancement of this motor potential, these motor abilities, and the technical execution/intention taught in the sport to drastically help them at this point in their development as a football athlete.

I also strongly believe that football training specialists (at any level) can learn something of great importance from the approach taken by an educated and experienced sprints coach. Have one conversation with a coach such as this and you will immediately get a clear understanding that their approach is technically-based to a high degree. They know and understand the importance of fine-tuning movement mechanics to match the athlete’s strengths to the demands of a particular event while constantly having a very well-thought out plan of attack on the athlete’s weaknesses. On the flipside, have a conversation with a football strength & conditioning coach and its more likely that they will brag about how many guys they have who can squat 500 or clean 300 pounds. However, few will be able to even recognize the intricacies of how their athletes are moving on-field and more importantly how they will go about changing that movement if they do possess the ability to acknowledge any technical difficulties.

If you have read my work before, you may already know where I am going with this. In my experience, by fine-tuning the smallest pieces of the athlete’s commonly executed mechanics in given movement patterns, you can more directly impact his efficiency and have a greater chance of optimizing performance. This is why the on-field movement is my main movement assessment screening tool. It will tell me where that athlete is, what he currently has, and what needs to occur next in his physical preparation. With the high level of mastery football athlete, it is also the most effective path towards making an impactful change for him.

I am not saying we should ever neglect the strength and power qualities needed to be a well-rounded football athlete (as there are many other obvious strength-related demands for a football player that the track athlete doesn’t have). Instead, I am simply saying, as I have before; I believe that the attainment of pure strength and power characteristics are overemphasized here in this country for the football athlete especially in comparison to our developmental approach of technical movement mastery.

Classic FT Curve
Note: Click on the image to enlarge further

In addition, many coaches and trainers still to this day aren’t thinking of strength in a context-dependent fashion as is needed. During the early parts of either type of acceleration task (track or football), you are attempting to overcome inertia to get your body moving quickly. Thus, acceleration in either task is highly dependent on force capabilities. Relatively speaking, the stronger you are, the easier ability you will have to impart force to the ground and get moving. However, it’s also about HOW that force is being applied and not just about how much is being developed.

Specific Strength Qualities - Supertraining

The optimization of our force capabilities will require our athletes to apply the highest magnitude of force but in the shortest amount of time. Thus, getting one’s body accelerating quickly is a highly technical activity that greatly depends on an athlete’s neuromuscular efficiency. Like with nearly any sport movement action, we are attempting to get the right muscle, to fire at the right time, and at the right intensity, to produce the necessary actions through the kinematic chain to meet the specific demands of the task. Our training methods (whether on a field or in the weight room), must be reflective of this requirement, as well. If not, it won’t be as efficacious as we would hope.

Players in starting position

I do find it somewhat comical that if I tell a player to perform an acceleration burst from a standing position or position-specific stance there is often a laundry list of fixable characteristics that I can change on the spot to lead to an immediate improvement in their performance. Believe it or not, players often have never been taught how to optimize their starting position and the corresponding acceleration mechanics on the field of play. To add insult to injury, many players have also never been instructed on the most optimal ways to accelerate after a change of direction task that may be common to their position (e.g. RB after a power cut, DB out of his backpedal, WR in this route). Being that this is what will often be one of the main determining factors for their on-field success, this is absolutely mind-blowing to me. What is even more laughable yet is that if I instruct them to perform an acceleration burst from their 40-yard dash starting position they immediately recall it in their heads and go through their checklist to themselves and line up to start perfectly…well, they will start perfectly for the execution of the 40 yard dash but not the position that they play on a football field. This is even more common if it is a younger player in the league who may have recently prepared for the NFL Combine or his Pro Day, or has spent the last 4-5 years training at a BCS football program.

40 yard start stance

So, first things first, I personally look to optimize a player’s starting position to match what will have to occur next in his typical movement patterns. Once he is in the NFL, gone are the ideas of the 40 yard or 100 meter start. The only thing we care about is the transfer to the field. Of course, this start position will all be dependent on that which he will most often find himself accelerating from and because of this it changes from position-to-position.

Moss and Revis

Generally speaking though, I will need a stance from him that entails a higher center of mass & gravity (i.e. more upright) but yet biomechanically sound to be able to put force into the ground adequately in the direction that he will need to go. Much like a sprinter start (I am talking the athlete’s intention here not the actual position), I also need to make sure that he is properly attuned to how to leverage himself into the ground through all contributing joints involved in the initial movement action, how to push off with his back foot, and how to set his arms in order to allow them to give additional drive while still being able to do the tactical things that he needs to with his hands. Again, each of these things will be position-dependent (you should be seeing a trend here!).

Of course, velocity over any distance is going to be determined (at least in a basic sense) by stride rate/frequency and stride length. Thus, the body’s position while in the air as well as while on the ground are going to have a lot to say about the ultimate velocity that the athlete will attain. Once the body gets moving, obviously every unwanted movement action or energy leak will equate to slow movement on the field. For example, this type of condition will result in a wide receiver not being open or a defensive back being beat. Because things occur so quickly on a football field, a player simply cannot afford to be schooled early in plays as they will lack the time or distance to adequately make up for it in many cases (whereas the track sprinter will have the conditions to be able to overcome a poor start). Knowing that football field acceleration is much more about short distance acceleration and this quality is more dependent on stride rate/frequency (more specifically the rapid action of the first 3 steps) our physical preparation programming must also reflect this need (see research by Lockie et al 2012, Randell et al 2010, and Murphy et al 2003).

To piggy back this idea and really everything that we have been talking about throughout this entire series, desired strength and power adaptations will only make a difference if they are able to transfer into the exact technical execution of the movement actions involved. Though concentric rate of force development (RFD) is obviously important for a football player early in acceleration, step frequency is also at a premium as we just discussed above. Thus, eccentric and isometric strength capabilities (especially at the joint angles found during the execution of the player’s specific acceleration mechanics) will be of utmost importance to ensuring that the body is able to absorb the tremendous amounts of force rapidly and ground contact times are able to stay short.

Forte Redskins run 4

In addition, because of the higher position utilized by most on a football field and because of the lower speeds being attained early in acceleration (I am talking about in comparison to maximum speed phases), vertical ground reaction forces may be slightly more important to develop than horizontal ground reaction forces for the football player (if we are solely discussing acceleration that is). Obviously though, both are required for a successful performance. Thus, we must make sure that equal attention is given to exercises that require the expression of power in both planes.

Vick running

The final general idea that we must think of here is that with either version of acceleration only one leg is in contact with the ground at any given moment in time after initial movement has occurred. At lower levels of mastery, measures of performance in bilateral movement actions will have greater correlation to success than they will as the athlete climbs the ladder of qualification and mastery. At those points further down the road, I am of the mindset that unilateral strength exercises become more and more important.

I wrote this 3-part series to further enlighten you regarding how football speed differs from track speed in a linear sense. Of course, there is no way that we could’ve adequately discussed every aspect of acceleration so my objective was to simply highlight a few of the stereotypical differences between the two similar, but yet different, movement patterns. I also wanted to give you some food for thought as it comes to training and preparation depending on which type of athlete you are entrusted in helping develop for his/her sport performance.


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