The ‘ART’ of Sports Speed Training by Nick Ward, Strength & Conditioning Coach and Performance Consultant

Nick Ward is a Strength & Conditioning coach and Performance Consultant at Nick Ward Sports Performance Ltd.  He’s an extremely valuable mentor on our team here at Strength & Conditioning Education and has kindly taken the time out to share some of his knowledge of speed training with us.  As the title suggests, Nick discusses the ‘ART’ of Sports Speed Training.

The ‘ART’ of Sports Speed Training by Nick Ward

The practice and profession of strength and conditioning (S&C) coaching is going through a huge growth phase. Typical of the growth of any system, after a while, the principles around which it was based become diluted and the group separates into ‘differing factions’ each supporting one doctrine or another. With S&C growing as a method of training in the health and fitness world (as opposed to a system and the professional practice of preparing athletes for performance), this has led to a major focus on the strength side of training as this supports physique and body composition management goals. Yet S&C coaches don’t spend (or shouldn’t be) all the time in weight room just building strength, but will be working on ways to express strength into abilities on the field of play. We strive to train our athletes to have an impact on their performance – training is a means to an end, not the end in itself. More commonly this is becoming known at the ‘transfer of training effect’. The purpose of this article is to share my developing philosophy and practice of training to ‘get faster’ for sports performance. This mode of training is not commonly used for health and fitness goals and may be one of the many areas that separate goals of the S&C coach from the PT. Primarily I will use rugby league as my model to explain my approach.

Several years ago my situation was that I needed to have a solid philosophy and methods of coaching that were authentic to me. I needed to develop a language and an approach that would remain consistent and dependable in my current and future working scenarios, whatever the constraints. I also needed my approach to be in a language that was accessible and understandable to my athletes and coaches. And finally to consolidate my philosophy into one that was robust enough to withstand the battering that comes from whatever whimsical fads and trends that find their way into sport.

The task I set myself was to review all my learning and experience from as many sources as I could remember. From this I intended to develop an approach that was more effective by using a language of coaching that was easily contextualized by coaches and players; that would bring together kinematic and kinetic elements; allowed for regression from the field back to the strength-based and corrective-based exercise; and very importantly adopted a constraints led approach to coaching modeled on my developing understanding of dynamic systems theory. The last point being key in that training is not the end itself, so just ‘getting faster’ is not good enough – there has to be some execution of skill or outcome that is being achieved. ‘Get faster’ needed to find its place in a single sessions training, or an element of the team training night, that met with the goals of a microcycle and mesocycle phase of contextualised speed development.

Rather than provide a full retrace of my journey I will just provide a few highlights of key experiences. A major influence to my ART of Speed approach was my first three years as an S&C coach. This was spent working largely in track and field and women’s football at the University of Calgary in Canada (where I undertook my masters degree graduating in 1996). I worked closely with Stu McMillan and learned a great deal around the coaching philosophy and methods of Charlie Francis (minus the drugs!) and Coach Dan Pfaff (whom I was lucky enough, via Stu, to meet and observe on the build up to London 2012). Stu and I have remained friends and colleagues for many years and he has gone on to excel as a coach in power-speed sports, and like his mentor Dan, has seen their athletes win many Olympic and World Championship medals. The key learning points from this was to keep training as simple as possible and appreciate some key kinematic positions that athletes should find to maximise the force application into the ground.

The University of Calgary offered a unique playground at the time to learn and develop off some great scientists, coaches and athletes – yet professional strength and conditioning was very new back then and it was exciting being involved in this early period of us finding our feet and finding our place. At this time I became aware of Joan Vickers and her works on decision-making in sports, particularly ice hockey, and this opened up to a world in constraints-led coaching and contextualisation in particular. This knowledge led me on a pendulum trip for a while as I debated and argued how much speed training could really impact on the field, considering the huge number of variables involved. I went from doing loads of SAQ during my Alan Pearson years and eventually falling into the ‘specificity trap’, to deciding it was all about movement and stability and mobility. After this it was purely about ‘ get stronger’ onto just saying if you want to be fast, sprint more!

The key learning for me was to understand that the coupling of speed and decision-making happens in the sport practice and as an S&C coach I shouldn’t try to replicate those scenarios in isolation. I also learnt stay focused on the principle of what I wanted to achieve and not get distracted by what toys were available just to look one step ahead of the rest.

About this time I had completed a pre-season with Hull FC as a speed coach and this was my first experience of rugby league. Later that year I joined Sheffield Eagles as their S&C coach (after being fired from Sheffield Wednesday FC) where I have been involved for over 10 years. Some specific examples of working with players come to mind that strengthened my belief that ‘getting faster’ helped players make better decisions. I was convinced the body had some proprioceptive feedback loop, that even before moving, the brain would scan the task and decide if it was achievable or not and literally put the brakes on or alternatively panic them into making a late or bad decision. I had trained a young Academy fullback at Newcastle always hesitating to close down out wide from a central position, thus losing about 30m of ground to the advancing attacker. Or sometimes he would go late, his head would go back, arms pumps and he was skinned – thus his experience of trying to be quick gave him no confidence. After a period of speed training the coach and player commented on how he was better at scanning the scenario and knowing when to go. Another example was two of my rugby league players, one back row / 2nd row and the other the fullback.

After a block of long speed training 40-70m, the full back would start to score long distance tries – the number of tries from distance measurably increased after this phase and this happened three seasons in a row. The back rower / 2nd rower who chose to join in these sessions, actually scored a 55m break away in one game against our closest rivals (https://youtu.be/kfZ9PZM6o-w around 2:25 min on the player). Did the training make them faster or just more confident? So I could measure 20m – 60m sprint times or whatever – this never really helped to demonstrate adaptation to the field of play or improvements in decision-making. The key learning from these examples was that I could see an improvement in on-field abilities but I may be eternally frustrated in being able to prove it. Then the penny dropped as I recognised that I was ignoring some critical evidence – the subjective views of the player and the coach.

I began to read about dynamic systems theory (Davids 2001) and this really helped me begin to understand learning environments, task specificity and coaching language. About 10 years ago I met Ian Jeffries and we had a great discussion around this. If you haven’t read his book Game Speed it is a must. As well as frequent phone call and visits to Stu and Dan at Lee Valley, I also brought in Kelvin Giles and Jared Deacon to do workshops for TASS (I was national lead at the time and seemed a good use of resources). Kelvin’s movement and play approach with Jared’s language (nothing to something, something to something faster) and linear speed methods began to solidify my own authentic style. The Duncan French TASS presentation on agility training and its division into the kinematic (the movement) and kinetic (the physics i.e. the muscle force characteristics) factors moved me more away from concerning myself with decision-making practices as an S&C coach. The key learning point from all this was that it brought me closer to the technical coaches. And as an S&C coach there are factors I can affect – so go and affect them!

Working with the rugby coaches enabled us to discuss and develop the ‘normal’ rugby practices so I could get out of them what I was looking for and also develop a qualitative opportunity to assess impact in the field. It also enabled me to develop my ‘on-field’ methodology and observational skills to again provide context and an outcome. This would create the tangible link for the players as why the gym-based programme was part of the continuum of physical and performance enhancement and not the end in itself.

 

Eventually the result of my reflections became taking shape. Being asked to present a few speed training workshops for TASS and other institutions started the process of writing things down. I carry a lot around in my head, and as this blog article is probably showing, being quite an abstract thinker, I do not find this particularly easy. I too often believe that my way is just too simplistic, everyone must know it anyway and I am on catch up! Well I guess any feedback you give me will prove that true or not. So the result of all this is what I have coined the ART of Speed Training for team and game sports.

 

Where ART stands for:

A = action

R = recovery

T = transition

I will use the example of the defensive line in rugby league to show what I mean (go to Eagles TV on you tube).

The first movement should be an A for action, where the players accelerate off the line (called line speed). The next movement is T for transition or tracking, for the players will shift as the ball is passed or carried by the attacking team. Then we have another A for action, where the tackler/s re-accelerates to whack the ball carrier, while the rest of the defenders decelerate to a stop at the line. Then we have R, retreat or the recovery movement to get back to position as the players retreat 10m, This is followed by another T for transition and with a one-foot turn, face up for the next defensive set. So my movement formula for line defence in rugby league is A-T-A-R-T.

By knowing the movement patterns, I can observe the players individual way of meeting the task. My Superleague and NRL colleagues have the benefit of GPS where they can also evaluate the kinetics by looking at the accelerations and contact – I have to estimate from game footage and calculate as a percentage of their test speeds. What this also helps me to do is evaluate the rugby game and practices and see if they are giving me enough game intensity, enough frequency of practice to effect change, but most importantly what the rugby training is not offering in certain training blocks, especially position specific needs. The outside backs rarely practice what they need to do on the infrequent, but potentially game breaking moments in a game, and sprint full-out for 60M plus.

The defensive line example provides me with several ways of finding solutions to improve. A – action: there is an initial acceleration, which situation dependent, may be anything from 3m to 10m, and it is NOT a maximal acceleration. The players on the line must have the ATTITUDE, to get off the line with INTENTION, to be ready to EXECUTE the necessary skill (hit or stop). T – transition is a shift, which is an advancing lateral step at a slower speed mostly (sometimes you just have to chase like hell) and this area causes most problems. It challenges footwork, coordination and balance and here you observe the most variation between players. Also you of course realise this is a change of direction so velocity goes to zero, meaning there is bodily deceleration which involves kinematic changes mainly dictated (hopefully!) from the hips transferring to foot placement and action. The next A- action again you will see is a change of direction involving a very rapid deceleration and re-acceleration into the tackle. If the tackler become a marker, their R – recovery is back to an immediate close defensive position, while a third tackler will retreat back to the 10m line a little later than the rest of the defensive line.

 

My training options can be:

  1. Work on the attitude and intent to get off the line (nothing to something as Jared would put it)
  2. Work on nothing to something to a stop at a 7m or 10m distance to develop the deceleration ability
  3. Work on the initial acceleration into the shift, especially the change in velocity, footwork and hips
  4. Work on the out, shift, into the hit
  5. Work on the out, shift, hit and retreat

All those hopefully seem pretty straightforward. Sets / reps / rest etc. are based on all the regular recommendations for distance, time and work to rest periods for speed training on the whole. Some adaptations to this involve playing around with the formula to bring progression and variation to your practice. For example, you may use R-T-A that would mean retreat first, one step turn, and acceleration. And of course we could turn our attention to attacking practices with slow-fast patterns, and rapid deceleration for the big lads where they need to drop a ball inside from an angle or by straightening within 2m of space.

I have been using this method of developing my speed practices for about the last 5 years. Not only in rugby but also for football, netball, cross-country mountain biking, and if I can apply it to golf, then I think you can use this to analyse almost all sports and use it as part of your needs analysis and rationale for your practice selection and development. As you can see the language is ‘sport-based’, the practices are in context with an outcome, it allows me to work in groups and also identify individual solutions that I can keep on the field or take back to the gym. This may be lack of strength uni-laterally for the acceleration or change of direction, or poor hip mobility not allowing better use of the hips. Coaching the practices has allowed me to find better coaching cues rather than biomechanical, and indeed involve the player in finding the solutions.

I have found an approach that is authentic for me as a coach, has taken me 15 years to find, 5 years to refine and still working on ways to effectively evaluate. I hope you have found this outstanding, outrageous or somewhere in-between. Either way I would like to receive your questions.

Nick Ward

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