Everyone knows speed is an important part of performance, but what is sport specific speed?   As an athlete reaches higher levels of sport, the speed of the game increases.  However, the type of speed can also become more specific.
 
It doesn’t take a pro coach or biomechanist to see that sport specific speed is more than running in a straight line.
 
Accelerating, stopping, quickness, agility and change of direction are important parts of game speed.
 
Depending on the sport and position, athletes will use different speed skills including; linear sprinting, agility and multi-directional speed. How often and how far they go each time varies a lot. Still there are some foundations of speed we can begin with.
 

Linear Sprinting

 
Sprinting has two main components; acceleration and max velocity. Acceleration is speeding up rapidly, and maximum velocity is sprinting over ~75% of full speed. Since sprint distance varies from just a few yards to the length of field, athletes typically need both acceleration and max velocity skills. Science tells us that the biomechanics and technique for each are distinctly different.
 
Two clear differences you can see between acceleration mechanics and max velocity mechanics are; body angle and leg action.
 

Angle

 
Draw an imaginary line through the foot contact with the ground and the center of mass (a few inches behind your belly button), this is the Powerline. If the power line is efficient there will be a straight line that runs through the shoulders and head as well.
 
During acceleration the angle is smaller. Somewhere between 45°- 60° from the ground. Compared to max velocity sprinting where the powerline is nearly vertical or 90° from the ground.
 

Action

 
It’s also easy for the untrained eye to see a clear difference in the action of the legs. In max velocity mechanics the athlete uses a cyclical action, with a “butt kick” and “step-over the knee”. In acceleration efficient mechanics are more of a “piston” action with the knee punching forward and then driving backward.
 

Muscles and Strength

 
The differences in the motion and the body positions affect which muscles contribute most. Although most of the body’s muscles are always used in sprinting, some contribute more to acceleration or max velocity running.
 
 

Agility

 
While sprinting speed is very important, most sport aren’t a track meet. Team sports aren’t linear and elite players have great agility as well. Agility can be looked at in two key components, Quickness and Change of Direction. Sprinting speed is great, but if you cant change direction, you’re going to get burned.
 

Quickness

 
Lightning fast movements in 1-2 steps can make all the difference in reacting to an opponent or leaving one on the ground.
 
These are the body fakes and quick re-positioning movements that happen in attacking and defending through-out most sports. Picture and ankle breaking move in basketball or a fast juke by the running back in football.
 
Quickness requires the reactive strength to apply force to the ground quickly, and the body control/balance to make it efficient.
 

Change of Direction

 
On the field or court the game constantly changes direction. Athletes are already moving in one direction when the play changes, then they have to slam on the brakes, and get moving a different way. Players need to change direction in fewer steps and faster than the opposition to have an advantage.
 
change of direction
When the opponent changes from going one way to another, the ball changes areas of play after the pass, or a rebound sends players scrambling after the ball
. These are all cases where change of direction skill will make a difference.
 
To be efficient in change of direction you need great eccentric strength abilities to decelerate, power to reaccelerate and the movement mechanics to apply it at the right angles. Stability in the joints and core also ensure efficient transfer of energy, and prevention of injury.
 

Improving Your Sport Specific Speed

 
Now that you have a clearer picture of what it means to be fast, and a little of what each means, it’s important to know how to improve it.  The Ulitmate Guide To Speed Training is a resource where you can learn all about speed training.
 
For all of our movements, we have the formula for speed. Proven by decades with elite athletes across 27 different sports. This is the biomechanics of speed, simplified.
 

The Big 4 are basically the “formula” for speed. No advanced degree in physics or neuroscience necessary.
 
  • Big Force
  • Small Time
  • Proper Direction
  • Optimal Range of Motion
 
That’s what we coach. It’s true for building the foundation or for sport specific speed. (You can read more about it here)
 
This formula has all of the complexity underneath, but it‘s simple to apply and understand. It can also save you decades and help you achieve better results with your athletes. That’s why I use it.
 
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” ~ Albert Einstein
 

Big Force

 
You have to apply force to the ground to go somewhere. The faster you want to go the more force you have to apply.
 
Observing the difference in muscular development between a sprinter and a marathoner should give you a clue.
 
This doesn’t mean you need to be just bigger or become a powerlifter, but biomechanics research tells us very large forces have to be applied by the athlete to move fast.
 
The Big Force you need is developed by sprinting fast, using specific sprint and plyometric drills, and getting in the weight room. There are 6 different strength qualities we train, and focusing on Max strength, Strength-speed, and Speed-strength are keys here.
 

Small Time

 
In sports, speed counts so applying that force in a small time, while in contact with the ground, is critical.  You don’t often see the opponent saying, “sure, take all the time you need to generate that force, I’ll wait.”
 
Yes you need a Big Force, but you have to apply it to the ground in a (very) small time. This requires the right strength and motor control qualities. We develop those through technique drills that reinforce a small ground contact time and through plyometrics and strength training drills that develop Rate of Force Development and reactive strength, instead of Max strength or Power.
 

Proper Direction

 
Force is a vector which means it has a direction as well as quantity.  Efficient and effective movement requires not just the right amount of force, but applied in the right direction
 
Proper direction is achieved through the right motor pattern (technique) and the stability of the body to apply it that way. When the structures of joints, muscles and tendons aren’t up to the task, we have what we call “energy leaks.”
 
The motor control to create Proper Direction is developed through technical drills which teach athletes to move optimally. The stability to transfer those Big Forces comes through specific training drills, while developing strength with resistance training and in our functional strength components.
 

Optimal Range of Motion

 
Goldilocks had it right, not too much, not too little, but just right. We need optimal range of motion in our joints, muscles and tendons. In some movements we need large range of motions, and in others we need smaller. The key is that the athlete can move without restriction or compensations.
 
Many of our technical exercises and dynamic warm-up drills develop this range of motion. In addition we use mobility work such as self-myofascial (foam rollers, balls, etc..) in conjunction with stretching techniques or working with a tissue specialist.
 

Sport Specific Speed

 
To play your best game you need several kinds of speed. The exact mix depends on both your sport and position. However, every player needs to start with speed fundamentals before moving to sports specific speed.
 
By creating a foundation of speed and agility, athlete have more tools in their toolbox. As their training becomes more sport specific they have more to draw upon. Players all have strengths and weaknesses, but you can’t afford any glaring holes. As an elite player you need:
 
  • Acceleration
  • Maximum Velocity
  • Quickness
  • Change of Direction
 
You don’t’ have to leave this to chance. While you may need the right genetics to be the fastest in the world at these, through the right training you can improve. Improve both your physical attributes and your motor control and you’ll be faster.
 
Speed is a skill, and like any skill it can be taught.