For me, strength and conditioning coaching will always be the lifetime search for the Holy Grail, the perfect program, the secret. I've said numerous times that the big secret may be that there is no secret.
I've also always said that it's all about training hard, the Tortoise beating the Hare, and slow and steady winning the race.
However, every once in a while, like Indiana Jones, you find a little piece of the treasure map and move a step closer to that ideal program.
This year I realized that the reason my ship never came in was because I was waiting at the train station.
Even though our stated goal was to improve speed and power I kept convincing myself that the key, the big key, was going to be found in the weightroom.
I can't tell you how many athletes we developed that got stronger and more powerful but, marginally faster. We saw vertical jump increases of 12” in both men and women but often comparatively marginal increases in speed.
If you looked at our training, and at training in general, you'd see programs designed to improve vertical jump but, probably not horizontal speed. The reality was that we consistently trained vertically yet somehow expected miraculous horizontal changes.
In the weightroom we consistently pushed down into the ground in hope that we would somehow push forward better. Just look at Olympic lifts, squats and deadlifts, our weightroom staples. The loads are all translated vertically, not horizontally.
I know I should have known this but, like everyone else, just accepted the conventional wisdom. However as Steven Levitt and Stephan Dubner said in Think Like a Freak
“the conventional wisdom is often wrong. And a blithe acceptance of it can lead to sloppy, wasteful or even dangerous outcomes”.
Sadly, I think we wasted a lot of time? We had always been told that the key to getting faster was getting stronger however, that may have been the ultimate oversimplification.
In keeping with strength and conditioning tradition, we developed a great vertical weightroom program, but neglected the horizontal component.
The guy that really got me thinking about this is a high school chemistry teacher who moonlights as a speed guru. If training can be viewed like a jigsaw puzzle, Tony Holler gave me a corner I needed. Do you remember how suddenly the whole puzzle took shape when you found that corner piece?
Tony's article Record, Rank, and Publish made me reexamine what we had done for decades. Tony's thoughts were simplistically brilliant.
In order to get people faster, we first needed to know how fast they were. Pretty simple idea. How can we get people faster if we don't know how fast they are?
In our programs we would time, at best, once or twice a year. This was usually done at the end of our off season program. Based on that result, we evaluated the success ( or failure) of our program.
Think about it this way. Even if we do know how fast someone is but only “check” twice a year, what chance do we really have to adapt the program or, create change.
In addition over a full year, we had variables like weight gain that had potential to muddy the data. Sadly however, our data over decades was very consistent. Athletes gained weight, gained strength, increased their vertical jumps but too often marginally improved speed.
To make myself feel better I looked at all the pluses but ignored an obvious minus. The only time we really took speed serious was combine time. The NFL placed a premium on speed and with athletes looking to play in the NFL we increased our volume and frequency of sprinting and, TIMED TWICE A WEEK.
With all our other athletes we continued to follow the same approach. Work hard in the weightroom, do a few sprints each week and, hope the speed will come.
Unfortunately the truth lies in the old Peter Drucker adage of “What gets measured gets managed”.
Authors Note: Let's take a quick sidebar here. To be truthful I was afraid of speed. I always saw speed testing as a potential injury, an accident waiting to happen. I was always afraid of the “what if” that came with 100% effort. Tony Holler forced me to confront my fear by setting me straight with some stats. He had timed hundreds of guys and, very few had pulled muscles. Over the years I had done the same but, the few who had pulled muscles scared me away from timing more than occasionally. My “do no harm” philosophy was now clearly getting in the way of me improving my athletes. The really dumb part was that I had timed lots of 10's with no injuries but the few injuries we had at 20 yards and 40 yards were enough to keep me scared, even of 10's. I'm not sure why I didn't just continue to time 10's and not worry. Instead, I convinced myself that we were doing speed work at least twice a week, even if we weren't timing.
The reality was different. We were probably doing lots of 80 and 90 percent speed work and little to no 100% work. Our speed drills ( starts, lean-fall-run- etc.) were really lip service to speed, but, not true speed.
In 2018 we took Tony's advice and began timing 10 yard sprints and eventually Flying 10's ( in our case a 10 yard fly and a ten yard sprint) and the results and buy-in were dramatic. Suddenly everyone was worried about speed. As we measured, the athletes engaged in a way we had not seen prior.
The key here is that Tony had a system ( which we modified to meet our needs). We did two to three ten's, two times a week. No more. Also, no races. Tony's idea was to make athletes compete with themselves and, to remove the injury potential that came with the potential overreaching effect of races. Again, simplistic brilliance.
Tony's ideas were backed up by noted speed researcher JB Morin. Morin stated;
“As much as possible, an effective Ground Reaction Force orientation should be made in the direction of the targeted motion. All exercises (bounds, resisted sled push, pull, broad jumps) should follow this “as horizontally as possible”
Morin goes on to state:
“Very interestingly, no strength and conditioning exercise is better than top-speed running to put the players in this high-GRF-low-contact-time context. Added to the potentially preventive feature of regular, optimally dosed top-speed exposure, maximal velocity work is very likely a recommendable stimulus for this specific mechanical capability.”
The bottom line is that for years we've been missing the key piece of the puzzle. As I described in the title, we've been waiting at the train station for a ship. If you want athletes to get fast, you need to sprint. If you want horizontal changes, you'd better be training horizontally. As a result of Tony's work, I've begun to refer to sprinting as “the real velocity based training”.
( Editors note: The other title for this article could have been An Apology to Steve Bunker. Steve is one of our excellent staff and had recommended Tony Holler and Chris Korfist's work for years. Steve used his timer at our North Andover facility for years before I jumped on the band wagon.)