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Incorporating Speed And Skill Drills In A Practice Session

By DMorgan
Created 01/13/2014 - 11:47am
agility drill [1] or some form of sport-specific, acceleration-focused drill that lasts between three and eight seconds in total. Perhaps it is prescribing the first five steps of a sprint, fast break, or breakaway in hockey, or maybe it is an agility drill involving a few rapid changes of direction on a football or baseball field. Whatever you choose it is important to make sure that the drill is done with maximum effort and does not last too long. Once the athlete has become visibly slower and has fatigued the neuromuscular system, any further attempts will no longer contribute toward speed development. This is precisely why rest intervals are not merely a good idea, they are required. For a drill lasting five seconds, rest intervals of 50 to 75 seconds should be prescribed in order to allow for optimum recovery of the physiological systems responsible for short term, high speed movements. The optimal number of repetitions performed by the athletes will vary from team to team and from individual to individual based upon how rapidly or slowly they fatigue and begin to slow, but in general six to eight repetitions of a five-second drill is sufficient for speed development for the vast majority of athletes. For the most part, any speed and/or agility drill will work as long as it is performed with maximum effort and is specific to whatever sport the athletes are engaged in. If a coach decides his team needs more top-end speed, he could prescribe “flying 60s [2]” or “flying 90s [3].” Likewise, if the athletes need to improve their ability to accelerate, particularly when changing direction, then a sport-specific agility drill [4] may provide the necessary stimulation to force performance gains. In order to ease the transition from speed training to normal sport practice, a coach may choose to add a sport implement or specific movement to the end of the final repetition of the drill. For example, a basketball coach may have his athletes receive a pass and take a jump shot at the end of a high-speed drill. By doing so, a coach can help his athletes see the connection between speed and the very same skills necessary for success in their sport. However, there is a limit to how sport- specific a speed drill should be, and using sporting implements such as hockey sticks and basketballs too often can actually slow down the athletes, who instead of focusing on maximum speed performance, begin to worry about how they are handling a puck, football, or basketball. As a result, the athletes are unable to achieve the necessary level of speed to stimulate adaptation and improvement. This defeats the purpose of the drill. It is best to have the athletes remain as focused as possible on maximum effort and speed during the drill, and only toss in a ball or other implement on the last repetition before the rest interval or the transition to normal practice.

Table 1. Guidelines for Duration, Rest Intervals, and Repetitions


Duration of the Drill

Rest Period

Repetition Guidelines

3 seconds

50 to 75 seconds

8 -12

5 seconds

75 to 90 seconds

6 - 8

7 or 8 seconds

90 to 120 seconds

4 - 6



Optimal Skill Development

As stated above, in order to elicit positive in speed and skill performance, both must be trained during that period of time when the athletes are at their neuromuscular and biochemical peak. At first glance, however, it may appear that speed and skill training cannot occur simultaneously, and that time must be added to practice to accommodate both which may preclude other practice activities. In addition, having to choose one form of training over the other, or putting one prior to the other, presents a conundrum. Coaches do not want to sacrifice skill for speed, or vice versa. In reality, both speed and skill development can take place at the same time, during the same window of practice time, without detriment to either. A clever coach will utilize the rest intervals between each repetition of a speed enhancement drill as an opportunity to train a specific skill. This allows for the athlete to remain active during his rest interval, accentuating recovery by boosting venous return among other things, and to make most of his practice time.  Using basketball as an example, a coach could prescribe 10 repetitions of a 3-second agility drill with 60 seconds of rest, during which time his athletes perform a low-intensity ball-handling or shooting drill with maximum focus on improving the skill task. Once the athletes begin to slow in their speed drill, or begin to mishandle the ball or miss shots, it is time to move on to other practice activities. In hockey, the athletes could skate with maximum effort and speed through a pattern on the ice for 5 seconds and then work on stickhandling drills during the prescribed rest interval 75 to 90 seconds. By keeping the athletes in a constant state of high-performance, both with regard to speed and skill performance, and by utilizing the optimum period of time at the beginning of practice where each athlete is at his peak level of readiness for such tasks, a coach can greatly improve the likelihood of his athletes becoming faster and more skilled at the same time. The speed and skill development session comes to an end once the athletes begin to slow down (as measured electronically or visually) and their skill performance begins to suffer (as measured by results).


Installing a Speed and Skill Enhancement Session into a Practice Plan

A normal practice plan typically includes a general-to-specific warm-up to allow the athletes to become engaged in the sport both physically and mentally. In general, warm-up activities consist of some dynamic jogging and walking movements and possibly some dynamic ground exercises as well. Immediately following the warm-up, and prior to other practice activities, coaches should perform eight to twelve minutes of focused and intense speed and skill development using the information above as a guide. Decisions regarding the specific drills to be used are at the discretion of the coach and the specific performance qualities he believes his athletes need to improve upon. During the actual drill, the first athlete (perhaps a captain or veteran member of the team) will perform the activity with maximum effort. Immediately upon completion, he would proceed to a designated area where a very-specific skill, intrinsic to the sport itself, will be performed during the rest interval. If the coach has successfully divided up the team into groups who begin their warm-up at staggered times, or perhaps has set up several of the same stations of the same drill (with other coaches monitoring progress), the first athlete to complete both the speed and skill drills will be properly-rested and ready to perform the second repetition of the speed enhancement drill. Depending on the classification of the athletes a coach is working with (beginner vs. elite veteran), or their present state of preparedness (off-season vs. in-season), the rest interval can be shortened or extended.


Differentiating Speed and Skill Training from Work Capacity Training

It is important to note, once again, that speed and skill training place an entirely different stress on the human body than work capacity training. In other words, the athlete will look and feel very different when training the former as opposed to the latter. Nearly everyone knows what work capacity training looks and feels like. One does not have to work in athletics to know that an athlete seeking to improve his work capacity will perform long intervals of exercise, numerous repetitions, and appear sluggish, move slowly, and feel very tired when the training is complete. The physiological effects of speed and skill training on the athlete are such that he may not appear winded in the slightest, and may even be eager to continue training with the thought that he has not “done enough” to force his body to adapt. Indeed, many coaches will feel hesitant to stop a drill when skill or speed performance dips the slightest bit, but stop they must! Once speed and skill training begins to resemble work capacity training, one is no longer improving speed or skill and may even be hindering its development. The fact remains that improvement in speed and skill can only become manifest when the athlete is operating at peak neuromuscular and physiological efficiency. He must be fresh and moving as fast as he can in order to yield the desired results. Work capacity training is important as well, and a successful coach knows that he must include it in the training of his athletes. But the best time for such training is at the end of practice, when the athlete can finally empty all of his energy reserves and push his body to its endurance limits, knowing that he will have food and a lengthy rest at the finish line.

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