‘I think my acceleration is very good. That’s the key for me’ – Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt wasn’t wrong. Numerous biomechanical analyses of Bolt’s World Record of 9.58 s from the 2009 World Championships have identified Bolt’s ability to accelerate for longer and thus reach maximum velocity later in the race as a key determinant to this ground-breaking performance. The importance of the acceleration phase in sprint performance is widely accepted and coached to great effect.
Speed in field sports athletes has been highlighted as a key component to success where a sudden change in direction or pace is central to the game (i.e. GAA, soccer, basketball) (Beashel, Sibson, & Taylor 2001). An athlete’s speed is a direct consequence of their ability to accelerate efficiently. In sprinting, for the most part acceleration is linear (event-dependent). However, in team sports, in addition to being able to accelerate efficiently, team sports athletes have the added demand of deceleration and change of direction. When compared to sprint performance, acceleration in team sports is equally, if not more important for successful performance. Despite this, the education of athletes on proper acceleration technique is often overlooked in team sports.
Teach them the technique before training them to be fast
The key to improving athletic performance through efficient acceleration is to first teach athlete’s the rules/principles of acceleration before they can break them. With team sports athlete’s this can often prove more difficult due to movement patterns they have developed over time. Teach athletes the basic technique of linear acceleration before advancing it to be sport specific and multi-directional.
Without delving into the mechanics of acceleration too much, there are three main components in teaching athletes to accelerate efficiently.
- Projection angle: refers to the athlete’s body angle relative to the ground at the beginning of acceleration and their ability to cover ground by producing high levels of force and horizontal velocity. For coaches, the focus should be on encouraging a straight line from the heel, through the hip and through the shoulder when initiating acceleration (Figure 1).
- Rhythm: is concerned with an athlete’s ground contact. In the initial stages of acceleration producing high levels of horizontal force is vital in order to accelerate the athlete’s body mass forward (Morin, Edouard, & Samozino, 2011). This should be accompanied by longer gaps in time between ground contacts.
As the athlete progresses through the movement, producing vertical force is important for maximising acceleration. The focus should be directed toward generating as much force as possible with the while spending as little time on the ground. Ground contacts in this instance should get more frequent.
- Torso lift: refers to the steady increase in the athlete’s body angle relative to the ground. When coaching acceleration mechanics in team sports, torso lift should not be the focus. Team sports athletes require an increased visual awareness when compared to sprinters, thus projection angle for team sports athletes should be more upright on initiation of acceleration.
Programming for acceleration
Teaching the key acceleration principles should be the basis for any incorporation of acceleration training into a team sports environment. As previously mentioned, to develop the correct movement pattern for efficient acceleration the key focus should be on the projection angle and rhythm.
Once athletes develop the sense of what constitutes efficient acceleration, the focus should transition toward a sport-specific approach. Introducing a range of acceleration drills focusing on sport-specific situations should produce the best transfer to increasing accelerative performance in competitive situations.
- Beashel, P., Sibson, A., & Taylor, J. (2001). The world of sport examined. Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd: UK.
- Morin, J., Edouard, P., & Samozino, P. (2011). Technical Ability of Force Application as a Determinant Factor of Sprint Performance. Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 43(9), 1680-1688. doi: 10.1249/mss.0b013e318216ea37
Evan Crotty is a postgraduate researcher who is currently studying for a PhD in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. Evan’s current research interests include Biomechanics, Sports Performance and Anatomy. You can contact Evan via email at email@example.com or view his research profile on Researchgate