In the first article in this series the secrets of soccer speed, I briefly introduced three aspects that every coach should know and do to help develop fast & agile players. Over the coming weeks I will go into greater detail in all of these areas, starting with the scientific justification for developing speed skills. The importance of developing players that have speed and agility cannot be overemphasized. Their ability to contribute, cover for mistakes on the field and be totally in control are benefits from this soccer training. As a coach, here’s what you need to know to develop fast, agile players:
- The human body consists of over 600 muscles that act on the 206 bones of the skeleton to stabilize and produce movement. The skeleton therefore provides the framework on which muscles can act to produce movement about a joint.
- Dependent on the movement required, some muscles contract to produce the movement, while other muscles work to support the skeleton, and in particular the spine, to maintain posture and prevent movement of other joints.
- Muscles are able to contract and develop force either concentrically (by shortening), eccentrically (when lengthening) and isometrically (with no change in length). It is through a combination of these actions by various muscles that movement is produced, controlled and stabilized.
- For example, when your foot hits the ground when running, all the muscles of the lower body first work together eccentrically to stabilize your leg and prevent your leg from bending too far and collapsing (force reduction). This is immediately followed by powerful concentric contractions to push-off the ground and propel you forwards again (force production). Whilst all this is happening in the legs, the muscles of the trunk are contracting isometrically to stabilize the spine and help transfer force through the body, with the muscles of the upper body working in a similar pattern of eccentric and concentric contractions to pump the arms forward and backwards to assist the movement of the legs.
- All speed & agility actions such as acceleration, deceleration and change of direction go through this same cycle of force reduction followed immediately by force production, which is referred to as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). During the force reduction phase the muscles contract eccentrically, increasing in length while absorbing the force (stretching). This also stores elastic energy in the muscles that can be utilized to increase the force produced during the shortening, concentric contraction phase.
- Therefore, it is vital to train the body to reduce force as well as produce force to enhance the SSC mechanisms. It is also during the force reduction phase of movement that the risk of injury is at its greatest, making force reduction training ie landing/stopping an essential aspect of all good speed programs.
- All muscular contractions require input from, and are controlled by, the nervous system. The nervous system can both send and receive signals to create and control movement and the rate and magnitude of force production/reduction. Small electrical impulses are sent to the relevant muscles along the complex network of nerves that run from the brain through the spinal cord (central nervous system) and out to the muscles (peripheral nervous system). This triggers a series of chemical reactions within the muscle to release energy and create movement, and at the same time receiving signals from sensory receptors within the muscles and joints that detect joint movement position, speed, rate of stretch, that can trigger reflexive muscle activation to protect the joints and muscles and maintain posture and joint alignment. This sensory feedback process is known as “proprioception.”
- The key factor to remember is that the brain does not recognize individual muscle activity, it only recognizes patterns of movement. The brain looks at the movements that are required and creates a coordinated sequence of muscle activity, with all the muscles working together to produce the desired movement. This is known as a motor program.
- Over time, the more a motor program is used, the more efficient and refined it becomes, like a well trodden path through the nervous system. Once mastered, these motor programs can run almost unconsciously, freeing up vital processing space in the brain to concentrate on the problem-solving and decision-making elements of a match or practice.
- Therefore, it can be seen that the ability to move with speed & agility demands a high level of nervous system control and co-ordination, requiring many hours of practice, guidance and development to master these movement skills and perform them efficiently and effectively during a match.
Remember, speed & agility are skills that must be taught, learned and developed just like any other skill. What are you doing to help your players become faster and more agile?