If you know anything about my philosophy around training for athletic performance, you know that the sports practice and the skills necessary to do well in sport come first. Lebron James would never have been even close to the basketball player he is without, well, playing basketball. Kind of a no brainer, right? Sports skills come first bar none. I am a strength coach, what I teach are the techniques used to build the most strength and develop athletes into the strongest, fastest, most powerful versions of themselves that I can develop; yet I am sitting here telling you that it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is sports practice. After sports practice you have to add strength to your athlete; the stronger they are the more resistant to injury they are, the more force they can produce and the better off they are at showcasing their skills against opponents. Once athletes are strong, can control their bodies and produce great force, they need to get fast. Speed is extremely important in sport but trying to move a body fast that is out of control is a recipe for disaster. Each of these qualities build on each other to create a powerful athlete.
So the number one way to improve your athlete’s performance is skills training. The more they practice and the more years they spend learning a sport, the better they get at performing that specific action. Competing, practicing and using drills that most closely mimic that sport is the most specific way to train and learn skills. This should be your number one priority. It is the responsibility of the sports coach to teach and the will of the athlete to put the extra work in to learn the skills necessary to perform well.
Though skill is extremely important, if we go back to our Lebron James example, we have to look at the things outside of practicing, competing, and drilling that improved his skills. He did other things to improve his ability to produce force. As we talked about earlier, force production is directly related to strength, our number two priority. Strength training not only reduces the risk of injury by making the body much more resistant to the forced applied to it, (opponents’, impacts, lateral forces, etc.) it also helps create a better athlete by making athletes have greater ability to control their movement. They are also able to apply more force into the ground, the bat, the ball or their opponent, just from being stronger over all. Thus transferring that force power and explosiveness built in the gym to their sport. Making this happen is the responsibility of the strength coach, as they know what exercises are going to have the best transfer to sport and how to progress athletes to keep them injury free and performing their best at the most important competitions.
Strength is the prerequisite to speed. Increasing strength will allow athletes to produce more force at a faster rate which directly affects stride length and stride frequency, the two most important factors for running faster. If athletes can increase the length between each ground contact and the amount of ground contacts they make over the same period of time, they will cover more distance in less time. The best way to make this a reality is to get stronger.
Though getting stronger is the best way to improve rate of force development, if that force is applied incorrectly then we run into issues. Running fast is about the combination of proper mechanics, force production and the training effect that comes from actually sprinting over time. We all know that sprinting fast and changing direction on the field or court is extremely important for performing well in most sports. Sprinting and changing directions are both skills that can be augmented by strength. The mechanics and skills of sprinting need to be evaluated, trained and practiced to make sure that athletes are performing to their full potential. Once specific strength training is added on top of this, elite athletes emerge. This is the responsibility of the strength coach and sports coach in concert, to create the best adaptation for that athlete for their specific sport.