By Kelly Baggett
Although having an impressive 40-yard dash is probably the easiest way to get noticed by coaches and scouts, football requires more then just straight ahead (linear) speed. In fact, the over-value of straight ahead linear speed such as in the 40-yard dash has probably done quite a bit to prevent many from reaching their full potential as players. Improving the 40-yard dash will be covered in future installments but this article is about increasing speed specific to football. In a game of football, rarely does a player get a chance to run straight ahead for any length of time. Even when doing so, this is almost always followed by a need to stop and change direction. The speed quality that is really important for football is agility. You need the ability to change direction quickly and start and stop on a dime. You need the ability to react instantaneously to the opposition. You need lateral acceleration and the ability to run both forwards, backwards and sideways and always be ready to change direction and explode. The better you can do this, the better you will perform on the gridiron.
Make a list of your top 15 NFL players offensively and defensively. Chances are, there is little correlation between their playing ability and their 40-yard dash time. If you pay attention the best usually have an innate ability to react better, move precisely, accelerate, and change direction quicker then the opposition. Show me a guy who can move fast in a 10-yard box. A guy who can move in any direction, change direction, accelerate, move with precision and explosiveness, and I'll show you a football player. The great thing about these abilities is that they are highly trainable. Your top speed when sprinting is under quite a bit of genetic influence but your ability to be quick in all directions and be able to start and stop on a dime is much more trainable.
So how do you develop the ability to have great agility, explosiveness and change of direction? First you have to pay attention to the varying qualities of fitness or strength and pay special attention to the muscle groups that are needed to supply great all around movement, acceleration, and agility. The muscle groups of the hips, glutes, and hamstrings are top priorities. When running linearly in a straight up position the quadriceps do a lot of the work and strength and explosiveness is only required in a limited range of motion. To have the ability to change direction quickly and be explosive from all angles requires that you have strength and explosiveness through a deeper range of motion. The ability to bend the knees, get your butt down and utilize your hips is what you're looking for.
You gotta be strong and explosive through a deep range of motion and be able to bend your knees and quickly explode in all directions. Being explosive in only the upper Â¼ "straight-legged" range might allow you to be fast, but you'll probably struggle with starting and stopping on a dime, cutting, and changing directions. Pay attention to some of the players you see on the gridiron. Guys who are lacking full range explosiveness tend to run around rather straight legged and they lack precision and speed going into and coming out of their cuts. They lack the ability to display precise changes of direction. Offensively, watch the difference between an average back catching a pass out of the backfield and turning to accelerate upfield vs that of a top flight back. Watch the difference between wide receivers known as being good route runners vs those of average ability. Watch the movement of a linebacker turning to cover a receiver upfield vs the same movement by a good defensive back. Nearly all good defensive backs have an outstanding ability to "move their hips" and run with their entire musculature because it's something they are constantly forced to work on as part of their position. It's been said that being bowlegged helps this ability and it's amazing the number of defensive backs with some degree of bowleggedness!
In order to optimize your "football speed" requires that you focus on 3 areas of improvement. First, you must pay attention to flexibility and range of motion, specifically in the hips. You need to have enough dynamic range of motion to get into a low position with ease and move with ease in all directions. If your hips are tight, then you'll have trouble getting down low, changing direction, and exploding out. You'll also be succeptible to pain when doing so.
The next quality you need to focus on is having a solid base of strength in the prime movers through a full range of motion as well as strength in smaller hip abductors and adductors. The deeper you descend into a squatting position the more you utilize the hips, glutes, and hamstrings. Without enough strength in these muscle groups, you won't be able to quickly stabilize the extreme forces that come from accelerating and then quickly dropping your center of gravity and stopping on a dime. Try the following drill and you'll know what I mean. Do a shuttle drill. Stand 10 yards away from a line that you have marked. Sprint hard towards it and as quickly as possible descend down and touch the tape and drive out hard in the opposite direction. Do you feel the stress in your hips and legs? The faster you go the more force it takes to instantaneously stop and change direction. Now try this. Sprint straight ahead 10 yards and just try to stop on a dime without any unnecessary movement. Try the same thing running backwards and then running from side to side in zig-zag fashion. It takes a lot of strength to be able to do this with any proficiency.
The next quality you need to develop is reactive strength. When changing direction, reactive strength is the ability to utilize the force that you absorb and stabilize into a powerful contraction in the opposite direction. When you run in one direction and then stop suddenly and plant to go the opposite way, your body must absorb a lot of force. Much like a leaper can jump higher by dipping down first before jumping because of the transformation of negative (downard) momentum into upward force; you'll be able to accelerate quicker out of your cuts and changes of direction if you have good reactive strength.
In order to demonstrate excellent reactive ability first you need the range of motion required to enable you to get into proper position without any unnecessary hindrances. Next you need to have the strength required to stabilize the forces you create, and then you need to become proficient at "exploding out." Like in the above examples, when you run hard in one direction and immediately change direction you need to have enough strength to quickly reverse the force going in one direction, and redirect it back the other way. Your muscle fibers stabilize the forces you create while at the same time the non- contractile elements, the muscle-tendon complexes, are stretched and store the forces you create much like a loaded spring. When you reverse direction the non-contractile elements release this stored energy and pay you back with a stronger then normal contraction. This is the essence of plyometric or reactive ability. The greater the efficiency of this entire system is, the greater the speed and explosiveness you have when changing direction or moving into and out of your cuts. The less efficient it is, the more you'll have to take unnecessary steps and waste time trying to slow down or explode out of your cuts or changes of direction and the less explosiveness you'll have altogether.
Well that concludes this segment. In part II of Football Speed I'll explain how to how to improve each of these qualities (flexibility, strength, Reactive ability) individually, and then I'll show you a program that puts them all together.