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Sprinting in Field and Court Sports

This is an excerpt from Developing Speed by NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association & Ian Jeffreys.

Want to reach your maximum speed in field and court sports? Learn more in
Developing Speed.

Sprinting in Field and Court Sports

While track sprinting is a closed skill, athletes in field and court sports require reactive agility. Athletes must accelerate, decelerate, and change direction in a constantly changing environment, performing skills within the context of the game. Furthermore, athletes in field and court sports need to scan a broader area and use different postures to aid in collisions, allow for deception against an opponent, or to prepare for likely direction changes (Sayers 2000). These requirements result in technical differences between sprinting in a field or court sport and sprinting the 100 meters (Sayers 2000, Gambetta 1996, Gambetta 2007).

Some coaches believe that because the technique between track sprinting and sprinting in field and court sports is different, field and court sport athletes should not be coached on sprinting technique and should just play their sport. This neglects the obvious fact that field and court sports are running sports and that speed is a major component of superior performance in a large number of these. To enhance their athletes' performance, coaches should aim to improve their ability to run at speed, or to sprint, and to develop this ability within the context of their sport.

Although certain technical variations may exist because of the different demands of track versus field and court sports, several of the fundamental principles of sprinting are common between them. Considering that field and court athletes sprint as part of their sport and that better performers in most field and court sports are faster sprinters (Baker 1999), improving the technical and physical components of sprinting is important within the context of their sport and can give the athletes an advantage over their opponents. Consequently, although many track drills are not suitable for field sport athletes, some common drills and techniques are useful to both the track sprint coach and the strength and conditioning coach working with field and court athletes.

Noted performance enhancement coach Vern Gambetta suggests that the primary coaching points to consider in sprinting are posture, arm action, and leg action (2007). These three considerations are the foundation of effective technique and are discussed in reference to the distinct characteristics of the athlete's posture and arm and leg action in the phases of acceleration, maximal-speed running, and deceleration. In coaching terms, the action of sprinting can also be discussed in terms of back-side and front-side mechanics. Back-side mechanics are the actions occurring behind the body, and front-side mechanics occur in front of the body. Each has different aims, and coaches should focus on the key aims of each.

Maximum Speed in Field and Court Sports

Coaches of field and court sports must determine how important the development of maximum speed is. A common perception is that because most maximum sprints in field and court sports are relatively short, maximum speed is relatively unimportant. However, this viewpoint neglects several issues that make the development of maximum speed important to the majority of athletes.

First, elite sprinters achieve very high maximum speeds; therefore, it takes a longer distance for them to reach maximum speed. In the case of male sprinters, this may not occur until 50 to 60 meters. This can be misleading on a number of fronts.

  • Because elite sprinters are faster, they accelerate farther into the race before decelerating; whereas, field and court athletes reach their top speed much sooner, perhaps at 30 to 45 meters.
  • Regardless of whether athletes reach their greatest maximum speed as late as 60 meters or as early as 30 meters into a sprint, athletes are likely running within 10 percent of their maximum speed for half the distance already covered. Therefore, in a 30-meter effort, 15 meters are covered at near maximum velocity.
  • Many sprint efforts in field sports are not initiated from a stationary start. Therefore, when athletes initiate the sprint effort from a jogging or running start, the time and distance needed to reach maximum running velocity is greatly reduced, and so they may run at maximal speeds more often than the recorded distances would suggest.

Second, athletes with higher maximum speeds tend to have a higher rate of change in velocity, which is acceleration. Put simply, the athlete with the highest maximum speed accelerates faster; thereby, sprinting faster at 10 or 20 meters than an athlete with a lower maximum speed.

Finally, higher maximum speed can allow for more effective speed endurance levels during competitions. This is because the relative sprint demands of a field sport are lower for athletes with greater maximum speed because they may not be required to run as many efforts at or even near their own maximum speed. For example, if a rugby player has a maximum speed of 9 meters per second and typically reaches a speed approximately 9 meters per second four to eight times during a game, this presents as a significant stressor. However, if the athlete has a maximum speed of 10 meters per second, efforts involving 9 meters per second are much less stressful because this represents only 90 percent of that athlete's maximum running speed (compared with multiple efforts at 100 percent).

Read more from Developing Speed by National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and Ian Jeffreys.

More Excerpts From Developing Speed