A Week in Heaven
In May of 2015 I experienced a week of Heaven while apprenticing in Phoenix with the amazing staff and athletes at Altis. Unforgettable. Inspiring. Humbling. Educating. Validating. It was a track fan's dream. Most importantly, it was an experience that opened my eyes to the skills the greats have. For one week, I was shown "the way." Among many of the moments I will never forget, I found myself speaking with sprints coach Chidi Enyia. The topic: Jamaican Toe Drag. Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt, two of the fastest athletes in history, both recover their lead block leg so close to the ground that it often creates drag. Some of the best are using this tactic to ensure a quicker second stride and to gain more horizontal favor. The admiring eye wants to think of this as a speed secret that cracks the "basic start" code. However, a biomechanics expert would argue that this technique is more abrasive to the hips and does nothing to properly transition an athlete to a more appropriate vertical strike position. As Chidi and I continued dialogue I asked, "why?" in reference to many athletes and coaches adopting the toe drag technique. Chidi's answer couldn't have been more perfect, "monkey see, monkey do."
Talent and proficiency are not synonymous. We confuse this in the sprint and sport world often. While a certain baseline of work and practice is needed to prepare every collegiate or professional athlete towards success, it is easy for an outsider to jump down the association rabbit hole. We tend to link great athletic feats with perfect technique, impeccable mindset and lifestyle congruence. Put simply, our perceptions are often not the reality. That can be said in reference to coaching as well. I will never forget Mike Boyle's words at Perform Better Chicago 2015. Referencing a quote from Margaret Mead, Boyle reiterated "What coaches say, what coaches do, and what they say they do are entirely different things." I can simply offer this advice, don't trust "it" until you see "it." We often embellish, we often mislead. Always look further and find out for yourself.
From Monkeys to Man
I am often asked by interns and young coaches, "where and who do you get new information from?" My answer is simple, "almost everyone and everywhere." However, obtaining information and choosing to put that into practice requires some critical thinking. As discussed in Part 1 , application is everything in the training and adaptation process. The endless training modalities one can implement brings light to a well known John Maxwell adage , "Methods are many, principals are few. Methods change often, the principals never do." When it comes to acceleration, coaches need an expansive, but deliberate vocabulary. We also need to provide dummy proof and transferable drills to create context. Climbing up your progression ladder through the mastery of reps is crucial. Athletes need to earn the right towards advanced progressions, drills and exercises. While discussing shoulder position and heel recovery may be important, one should first create an environment in which there exists a high level of respect towards skill mastery. Your cues and drills will do nothing without an athletes attentiveness towards every rep.
Exploring the relationship between your dialogue and the outcome of your athletes training is crucial. Put best by Nick Winkelman, Head of Irish Rugby Performance, "what we say matters." Understand that it's not just what we say, it's when, how, and where. Expanding further, it's also of the utmost importance to know when to be silent and identify what not to say. While training is a science, the art arrives in the punctuality of understanding how to effectively dance with your athlete through dialogue. While speed kills, we don't want to be "speed killers."
Case Study: NFL Free Agent/ Former College Football Player
Push > Pop . Cover ground > Bounce Up/Away. Stay low > Rise Up.
Acceleration For the Dummy
-A. "Early Riser"
Possible Symptoms: age, low relative strength levels, technical comprehension --doesn't understand horizontal force/angles, overly quick ground contact time, prefers vertical strike, impatient
-B. "Optimal Sprint"
Key Contributors: Understands the "middle way," strike or contact/angles/position/posture are compatible with the readiness of the athlete. Comprehension meets physical readiness. This athletes rises as they run much like an airplane taking off a runway. This athlete usually has the best front side mechanics. Powerful yet patient.
-C. "Late Riser" or "Drive Phase Monkey"
Possible Symptoms: Married to the barbell, tight anterior chain, anterior chain strength bias, push dominant, coached to think "low man wins" and "drive phase" = optimal acceleration, head down to long, kyphotic/anterior pelvic tilt, no sprinting rhythm (always a pit bull), to aggressive
Thank You For Reading! Please share to make the #speedmafia grow! #SmilesAndSprints
Look for my DVD/Book to expand upon this article in the near future.
On July 27th, 1996, my love affair with sprinting took me by first sight. On a hot Atlanta track, the Olympic 100m final featured a legendary field. Frankie Fredericks, Ato Boldon, Dennis Mitchell, Linford Christie, and Donovan Bailey headlined a race in which the winner would win the rights to the title of "Fastest Man on Earth." The script was epic. False start after false start led to the previous games winner Linford Christie's disqualification. I remember watching him leave the start line. Dejected, as this was to be his farewell competition, Christie exited the track in absolute disbelief. He was forced to watch from the tunnel. A clean reaction to the next gun led to an average start but an epic finish. Showcasing breathtaking maximal velocity, Canadian Donovan Bailey traveled 27 m.p.h and covered 12.1 m/s to finish in a world record time of 9.84 seconds. He was a cheetah in a gazelle's body. The scene was absolutely electric as he roared and high stepped past the finish line. He broke the record, won gold and set the track world on fire. Weeks later, his 150m showdown with the 200m world record holder Michael Johnson carried much bravado. Bailey cemented his title as he pulled away in this epic match race.
The next year was different. I proved to be a bandwagon fan as Maurice Greene upstaged Bailey during the 1997 Athens World Championships. Greene not only had epic acceleration, but he was one of the few sprinters who could transition smoothly to maximum velocity AND maintain or decelerate very little on the back end. Mo Greene, his pre-race swagger and breathtaking speed, made me curious. My research started with my parents dial up internet. I hunted interviews and underground articles and over the next couple of years was always led back to a buzz word that his coach John Smith coined, "drive phase." Greene, his teammates Ato Boldon and Jon Drummond, used their drive phase to create distance from block clearance to maximal velocity. Their heads were down, they pushed out low and created big separation with their limbs. They were smooth on the track, gradually rising up like commercial airplanes taking off a runway. And so it began. As a middle school sprinter and into my high school football days, I set out to have the best "drive phase" of any athlete I competed against.
"Drive out. Stay low. Keep your head down. Push, Push, Push." For the last ten to fifteen years, I've heard it, seen it, and at some point said it and done it. We, as coaches, often take cues and absolutely bastardize them. Early on in my career, I started watching my young athletes accelerate in a hunch backed position. I'd see my high school "track guys" sprint with their head's down at 20 or 30 yards when their bodies already reached maximum velocity at 15 yards. I used sled sprints all the time because the speed gurus raved about them. I coached a big stride length and saw some of my athletes swallow up ground but do so at the expense of pulling themselves over their lead strike foot. Even worse, my sins of the past included my own athletic experiences. I over pushed and often "casted." As a result, I experienced every hamstring and quad issue one could imagine during my playing days.
As a young coach, one relies on the works of the greats before them. An avid fan of the great Charlie Francis, I found myself early in my coaching career putting kids on the ground to accelerate all to early. Sprinting from a ground based prone position is said to teach an athlete how to accelerate from a low to high position all the while helping them find ideal acceleration angles. If you're reading this, you're probably doing that right now. But what are your athletes getting out of it? If an athlete can't master a 2 pt start, the earliest acceleration progression, why should we put them in an even more disadvantaged or chaotic state? If an athlete doesn't have certain postural prerequisites like stability, mobility and relative strength; than why are we giving them a taste of complexity?
All to often in our profession we gripe and complain about our younger athletes wanting instant gratification. I think more often than not we are often guilty of wanting that as coaches as well. I see this every day on social media. The world wide web can be a beauty and a curse. We get the goods and the bad's of peoples opinions, we are invited to look at how people WANT to be perceived and we can use it as a source of marketing and motivation. Information sharing is a unique positive if you find reputable sources. Reputable is the key word. In my opinion, reputable coaches have a philosophy and corresponding work that combines scientific backing, experience, and integrity with their peers.
It can be very hard for a young coach to find exemplary sources. I hope, at minimum, we all aim and work to be exemplary. One of the easiest ways for me to self assess and internalize how I fit is congruence with the people I deem as industry leaders. In the sprint world their are many sources. My favorite's include Tom Tellez, Mike Young, Dan Pfaff, Stu McMillan and EVERYONE at Altis. Recently, I have really enjoyed the research of JB Morin and James Wild.
Listening to great coaches and digesting new publications can help validate you and also point you in the right direction. With that being said, make sure you never lose sight of application in processing new information. Knowledge, theory, and models are extremely important. However, coaches need to understand that effective application is everything. Effective application and the athlete/coach relationship accounts for the marriage of theory, reality, communication and readiness.
Drive Phase Saga Part 2: From Monkey to Man --The Evolution of Acceleration