Context Matters to Athletes When Developing Court and Field Speed

Jun 22, 2022

Training an athlete has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.  When you consider the high-tech GPS systems, velocity-based systems, recovery methods, state of the art equipment, nutrition, and high-end facilities from the private sector and colleges it is simply enormous. But is this guaranteeing we are better at coaching? Is it allowing us to know what the athletes need and deliver it to them? I'm not so certain in all cases.

Without a doubt, the technology has helped us understand more about the physiological factors that need controlling to create better performance and recovery.

We are also very much driven by this concept of progression and regression without understanding the reasons a dysfunction might exist in an athlete's speed pattern. We give an athlete one rep and immediately regress to a substandard neurological version of the skill when in fact the athlete simply wasn't given a change to self-correct. Especially when an athlete is given an athletic movement pattern with no context or biomechanical or physical law that governs the pattern during sport or activity.

Athletes, during sport or activity play, perform athletic patterns because a task and the environment where that task exists drives the pattern needed to be most successful. Example; When a soccer player is marking an opponent her movement choices are dictated primarily by the opponent's tactical movements- if opponent moves fast, defender must move fast. The footwork patterns chosen is relative to the ability to orient her body to continue high quality marking of her opponent.

The athletic pattern an athlete chooses is very much subconscious, meaning there is no conscious thought as to what pattern should be used to make a split-second decision.

Richard A. Schmidt, in his book; Motor Learning and Performance, says “Success in skilled performance often depends critically on how effectively the performer detects, perceives, and uses relevant sensor information.”

I have told this story many times over the years but, when playing basketball in college in the mid 80's, my coach made me watch film. I noticed how I moved when defending, and how others moved when they defended. What I was being told to do form a movement standpoint, or better yet- not to do, was completely different from what was actually occurring. This led me down a path of simply watching athletes move with no bias toward what is right or wrong. I did this for several years, especially in 1991-1993 when I was working with professional and amateur tennis players at Bolletteri's and PalmerTennis Academies. During my breaks I use to go out to the back courts and watch players hit and zero in on their footwork. I witnessed thousands of reps and begin to catalog patterns of movements.

What I learned from keeping my opinions out of it and just allowing my eyes to tell me what was consistently occurring was, movement in sport, is totally driven by task and environment. The athleticism the players brought to the table was irrelevant in regard to subconscious selection of movement. In other words, a world class athlete didn't select a different strategy then a youthful beginner. My 3rdgraders during physical education class did the same things my top 40 tennis players in the world did- they perceived and acted on what was perceived.

The question then begs, why do some athletes move better than others? To be honest I don't have the exact answer and I'm willing to bet neither do you. But I will say this, athletes with more experience and exposure in seeing opponents move and operate, their memory captures these patterns and sequences and stores them. As the athletes continues to participate, and these patterns are seen again and again, the more solidified the memory becomes. What this means is an experienced athlete with lots of stored patterns in his or her memory can subconsciously recognize potential patterns before the entire pattern occurs- this leads to predictive movements and quicker responses.

Jeff Hawkins, taught us; “Our brains use stored memories to constantly make predictions about everything we see, feel, and hear” In his book- ON Intelligence.

So why am I talking about memory, predictions, and sensory information?

I believe we too often overlook the importance of giving athletes context when asking them to perform a speed skill. We far too often regress a speed skill into its parts in order to allow the athlete to master, or at least become proficient at the part. We then move to the next part, and so on. Yet athletic movements are organized into a series of patterns (shuffle, run, stop, jump…) driven by the attainment of a task, and all the perceived information that comes with the task. By no means am I opposed to dismantling a skill to make it more efficient- I do this often and call it corrective training. I just don't start there. I want my athletes to have context as to why and how the skill is used. I then can peel layers away during a corrective strategy to find the missing link that is causing a dysfunctional pattern. Going straight to the part doesn't guarantee anything other than I master that part.

The issue I find is we spend too much time asking the athlete to consciously repeat a pattern, or speed skill, when what makes the skill effective is the unconscious organization of limbs and postures based on task completion. Things like the neuromuscular elastic response and biomechanical positioning that allow movement to be quick and effective must be considered. We must ask ourselves if we are attempting to make the skill look great during our training session, which can be done at the conscious level, or are we attempting to clean up the skill in order for it to have greater transfer to the court, field, or ice? To accomplish the second point, we must not stray too far from the skill as it exists in sport.

To be quite honest, we must be able to do corrective and reactive training- let's do both. What might raise some eyebrows is how I personally do skill training in reverse from traditional methods. Let me share…

I 100% believe athletes need context in order for a skill to matter to them intellectually but also physiologically. They need to relate it to something that makes sense to them. For example; I can train an athlete all day long performing a lateral shuffle with change of direction, but when I make it have meaning it no longer becomes about the skill, the skill now simply becomes a conduit to accomplishing a task. This strategy allows me to authentically assess my athletes' movements because they are not trying to please me during an actual assessment.

Watch this video of one athlete mirroring another athlete during a lateral shuffle. The athlete facing the camera is matching the movement of her opponent. She is not critically thinking as to how her limbs are moving- she is focused on accomplishing the task. Now, I don't have to live in this live reactive training method, but I do have to feed it to athletes, so the skill always has context.



During a training session for a team, large group, or individual after the warmup process, I always start the athlete out with a live predictive or reactive drill that represents the type of training I want to work on for that day.

For example; if we are doing short linear 5-yard acceleration training today, I will do what I call a Tier-1 drill. This simply means the athletes knows where they are going, they just don't know when (they will either react to my command or a partner's movement). This does a couple important things. First, it immediately engages the athlete and context is represented. The athlete knows exactly why this short acceleration is important, it's because they must predict and match the speed of the others or against time. Secondly, having the athletes move with greater urgency and reactivity I get a very unbiased assessment of how they are moving today.

Keep in mind, I never do anything that puts the athletes at higher risk. The Tier System Exercises I choose are always short duration and low impact, they are just very dependent on a stimulus (more on this in a future article). When I use the Tier System exercises for actually training (increased reps and sets) the athletes are already highly activated and ready to work.

In the case of a 1on1 or semi-private session I can specifically adapt the session to what that athlete needs based on what I saw during the tier drill.

If it is a large team, I pre-organize the corrective I want to work on. For example; In the case of the short acceleration training, I will prescribe specific corrective drills that will help improve short acceleration.

Here is a potential list I can choose from:

  1. Staggered stance short acceleration done on athletes' own volition while focusing on corrections- i.e.; punch into the ground.
  2. Resisted acceleration or hill acceleration to work on “pushing” through hip.
  3. Arm action drill to work on length of back arm swing
  4. Emphasis on first 3 steps to focus on moving the center of mass forward with distance.

Of course, there are many other options…

A final point I want to make that draws a linear connection to what I mean when I say athletes need context to be able to execute specific skills at less of a conscious state. A very popular training tool and method is the use a lighting system for reactive agility. This lighting system is set up such that the athlete must read and react by quickly running to the light that flashes and return to the start. There are other methods when using the lights, but this makes my point.

Now, we can say this fits exactly into to what I have been talking about of making the athletes move in an intuitive manner- they read, react, and move.

Yes, it does accomplish this. But because the lights are set up in a uniform predictable distance the athlete can time their steps and execution fairly easy once they react to which light lites up. On the other hand, if the athlete had to perform a similar training but it was against an opponent that was also going to be moving, dodging, and avoiding now the athlete must use perceptive and predictive ability that take in to account many more factors. The factors are things such as; speed of opponent, angle of pursuit, boundaries and how to corral opponent, his speed ability versus opponents' speed ability, and so forth. This training now takes on a new meaning to the athlete and eliminates some of the known predictable elements such as exact distance, potential options, and limitations. This example might be extreme because we are no longer working on just one skill- but the point should not get lost in that we, as coaches, need athletes to have context when moving so we see how they truly move, AND, if our coaching is transferring to game and activity performance.

In closing, I just want to emphasize the point that I am not sure if we simply supply drills and break the whole skill into parts and dismiss the importance of task driven training, we are making better movers.

This topic stirs the pot often and should continue to do so until we better understand the influence of our training methods on athletes. If we are so stubborn to admit the brain is leaving us clues as to what it needs to create useable motor programming based on stored memories, and how it regurgitates from these sequential memories, I believe we will continue to be strapped from reaching true potential in our athletes.