Achieving Optimal Positioning For Basic Speed, Power, and Agility Development
By Matt Poe


The delivery of strength by way of “speed”, the domination of your opponent by way of “power”, and the elusiveness offered by way of “agility” are all weapons of destruction that the modern day athlete must posses. If you are in a private training business or a sports performance development business, speed, power, and or agility development can become a very strong and lucrative avenue for revenue. Going on my 16th year as a Sports Performance Development Specialist, I continue to find pleasure in coaching athletes to become faster in all elements of moving their body in a most productive manner.

As in the sport of fishing, the art of cooking, or the strategy behind closing the “big deal”, presentation of lures, food, and economic elements are most important for success respectively. However, we have all seen people in these particular spaces fail to be successful because of poor, too complicated, and most importantly, over specific presentations of their thoughts and ideas. Hence, someone is making millions of dollars creating books like, “Cooking For Dummies”, “Business For Dummies”, “Coaching For Dummies”…etc.

My goal for you in this article, as a coach, is to be able to present basic principles of speed, power, and agility with the ability to teach the arm cycle and the leg cycle which will result in “optimal positioning” of the athlete. I want your athletes to comprehend, understand, and leave your “first” session with the ability to teach what they have learned to someone else with a clear understanding and presentation.  If you can understand my sequence of thoughts and pedagogical method, you will be able to successfully present to athletes the following topics, rules, and movements. We will cover 1) the “golden rules”, 2) the four basic principles behind speed, power, and agility movement, 3) the arm cycle used in speed, power, and agility movements and 4) the leg cycle used in speed, power, and agility movements.

Pay attention to the use of “reference points” to the athlete. Keep in mind that all principles put into action through personal drills will promote neuromuscular facilitation. Lastly, understand that the best sports specific movement for most force to be produced efficiently is called “optimal positioning”. The sports specific movement that lacks the needed force application, but is the athlete’s only way of movement at a point in time is called “maximum positioning”.

Ok, let’s begin!

Number One: I present to the athlete the two “golden rules” underlying speed, power, and agility development. Rule number one is our goal is for the athlete is to make all sports specific movements more efficient. The more efficient the movement and the less wasted range of motion of the movement will equal a higher probability of becoming faster, more powerful, and more agile. Rule number two: Without the proper strength training, you will not achieve “optimal levels”. You will only achieve your personal “maximal levels” which may not be enough to gain desired speed, power, and agility results. 


Number Two: I present to the athlete the four basic principles of speed, power, and agility development which aid in optimal positioning. These principles are 1) hip flexibility, 2) force application, 3) foot reaction, and 4) run on the balls of your feet. I define these principles as such:


Hip Flexibility: I stress to my athletes that without active training and flexibility in the hips, the needed range of motion to achieve optimal positioning in the leg cycle and the arm cycle can never be achieved. 
I make them understand that hip extension, hip flexion, internal rotation and external rotation are the most common hip movements in the majority of sports and that just because you can squat 500 pounds and touch their butt to the ground does not mean your hips are flexible. You must be able to square your hips from all origins of motion to the direction of the particular movement in a powerful and efficient manner. Flexible hips will contribute to this thought. Suggested drills to improve hip flexibility may be active dynamic skipping in all directions of the hip as well as off the field stretching programs concentrating on the “entire” hip joint. Remember, the lumbo pelvic complex also has a direct effect to the movement in the arms…the tighter the hips, the more likely to hinder the forces in the arm cycle (see below “The Arm Cycle”).

Force Application:  Force application is most important in the acceleration phase. I teach the athlete that force application is the most important element of increasing foot reaction (“turnover”) and covering distance (“stride”). “As renowned researcher, Ralph Mann, points out, the act of sprinting in football, track and other sports requires the athlete to produce a powerful vertical effort to overcome the effects of gravity and stop downward velocity”(1). Force application is determined by overall body strength and, most importantly, knowing the correct reference point of a high knee. A high knee is defined as the active leg’s ankle always trying to achieve the height of the opposite leg’s knee OR “ankle over opposite knee”.

The distance between the bottom of the foot and the ground will determine your force application into the ground which determines the power of the first and second steps during acceleration. Being any higher than the opposite knee will promote “hyperextension” in the back and has a high probability of making the athlete slow down by landing on the heel of the foot and changing the center of gravity of the athlete which will not promote optimal positioning. Taking into consideration that there may be anatomical difference in athletes, “ankle over opposite knee” still serves as a successful reference point for increasing the maximization of force application per individual athlete.  Great force application will always equate to a longer stride length as the athlete clears acceleration into maximum velocity and bounces off the surface “harder” and covers more ground going forward in the air. My athletes never have a high knee problem. 

Suggested drills to improve force application, besides the weightroom, would be a structured plyometric program or use resistive training such as sleds, hills, or sand.

Foot Reaction: May be the single most important universal movement in the areas of speed, power, and definitely agility. I need my athletes to understand that the athlete who stays on the ground the “least amount” of time will win the race. Athletes who spend unnecessary amounts of time on the ground due to weakness of force application or incorrect biomechanics do not facilitate efficiency or optimal positioning. Suggested drills to improve foot reaction may be “rope jumping” or assisted movement loading such as use of a bunji or other apparati.

Run On The Balls Of The Feet:  Running on the balls of the feet is the easiest thing to coach and must be achieved at all times. Not running on the balls of the feet is the most common error that I have encountered in my 16 years of being a Sports Performance Development Specialist. Running on the balls of the feet promotes constant acceleration by leaning the body forward at all times from the foot which keeps your shin at a forward angle, and, in turn, the rest of the body leans forward without bending in the waist. So, you are always in “forward motion” by remaining on the balls of the feet. You cannot achieve running on the balls of the feet without a “dorsiflexed” ankle at the high knee point or the top of the “pull through” part of the leg cycle (see below “The Leg Cycle”).  If your ankle is “plantar flexed” at the above points, you can created “0” range of motion for the ankle to “snap” onto the ground under the hips with the balls of the feet.

Suggested drills to improve the running on the balls of the feet are simple “mach” drills or marching drills. Line drills are also effective. Always go from walking, running, and then sprinting.

Number Three: I get more calls and emails from around the nation asking about the “arm” and the “leg” cycle. Coaches still surprise me of the lack of exposure and or education in these two areas. Let’s talk about them and take a simple approach. Keep in mind reference points!

First, let’s approach the arm cycle. If you can present the arm cycle through the following, below steps, you will be successful as a coach and the athlete will see instant results.

The goal of the arm cycle is to move as quickly as possible as to help produce force application and foot reaction for the legs. Follow the steps below and actually have the athlete execute the phases in front of you!

Remember: The arms control the speed of the feet and initiate all movements!

I.    The Preset Position

•    The athlete locks the arm into a 90-degree angle forming at the elbow.
 
II.    The Start Of The Arm Cycle

•    The start of the arm cycle begins by bringing the first thumb joint (the joint closest to the fingernail) in line with the top of the shoulder keeping the 90-degree angle and movement coming from the shoulder only. This position is called the upstroke.
 
III.    Pulling The Arm To The Hip

•    Keeping the 90-degree angle and pulling with the shoulder, the arm is then pulled to the hip as to initiate the downstroke.
 
IV.    Through a Pulling Movement, Make Sure The Hand Passes The Hip

•    Continuing the pull from the shoulder, the hand must pass the hip into the backstroke breaking the 90-degree angle at the elbow if necessary.

•    The arm will then reflex back to the proper position of the upstroke. “This is the stretch-reflex principle of muscular contraction. Muscle contraction alone is severely limited due to restraints of speed of contraction, but this elastic stretch-reflex helps make up for lack of fast twitch fibers….” (2).

•    Yes, you can break the 90-degree angle!
 
V.    Common Mistakes In The Arm Cycle

•    Less than 90 degree start
•    Dropping arms from the elbow joint
•    Hands being left behind the hip
•    Swinging the arms across the body
•    Running with a fist or wrist bent
•    Slow arms (Punching instead of upper-cutting)

The below is how I teach the leg cycle!

The goal of the leg cycle is to coordinate with the arm cycle in order to produce as much force and foot reaction that is possible.
Remember: Hip Flexibility promotes stronger movement in the arms.

I.    The High Knee (Phase One)

•    The high knee is achieved by the athlete bringing the given leg up to a point where the ankle of the ascending leg is the same height as the knee on the opposite leg with the given leg’s knee flexed at a minimum.
 
II.    The Leg Extension (Phase Two)

•    Keeping the ankle over the opposite knee, the athlete then extends the leg with a dorsiflexed ankle.
 
III.    The Pull Back (Phase Three)

•    The athlete then concentrates on pulling the leg back under the hips snapping the ankle into a plantar flexion and landing on the balls of the feet splitting the length of the grounded foot.
       
IV.    The Heel Recovery (Phase Four)

•    At this point the leg must recover back into a starting position with the heel cycling through dorsi flexed back into the high knee position.
               
V.    Common Mistakes In The Leg Cycle

•    Ankles below knees
•    Little or no leg extension
•    Pulling back too far behind or too far in front of the hips
•    Little or no heal recovery
•    Slow foot reaction

I would be amiss if I did not mention the torso which may very well be the most important part of the entire journey to achieve optimal positioning. The torso is the bridge between upper and lower body movements. A weak core will only destroy and weaken any forces produced by the upper body or lower body traveling across this “bridge”. I will briefly comment on this area. The five major principles of torso positioning are listed below that facilitate optimal positioning:

1.    The core muscles must be in “great shape”.
2.    Maximum lean is chin over top of toes.
3.    Do not bend in waist!
4.    Bring hips through after all types of acceleration!
5.    Maintain an upright position when in any type of flight.

The three most common mistakes that hinder optimal positioning in the torso are:

•    Too much or too little lean,
•    Reverse lean.
•    Weak core.

Wow! Seems like a lot of information presented to you. You’re the coach. You must “know it all”…haha.

After 17 years, I still have the success of achieving optimal positioning in speed, power, and agility movements with the above principles. I have been successful with hundreds of professional athletes like Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys, Derrick Mason of the Baltimore Ravens, Chris Jakubauskas of the Pittsburg Pirates, and former players like Ohio State All American Sprinter and Tennessee Titans Wide Receiver Chris Sanders, former linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings Lamanski Hall, as well as former defensive end Josh Evans of the New York Jets. Most importantly, I am able to present the same principles to a 6 year old that I present to a professional athlete. This ability becomes a “secret” to coaching. If you cannot present to variable populations the same information in an understanding and comprehensive manner, I would look into enrolling into a coaching class. 

All my athletes on all levels take the “same” multiple choice knowledge test to see what they have learned from me after the first session. I have actually had 5 year olds score higher than some pro athletes. I know this is not a result of my teaching…lol.

Now, let’s review the information presented to you! The golden rule of all rules is that the athlete becomes strong enough to achieve his or her sports specific movement. As the athlete gets stronger and more flexible in the hips, he or she will have a much easier time in developing the correct ranges of motion to achieve maximal force application which ultimately leads to increased stride lengths and stride rates, sometimes the later called stride frequency.

Does this always happen? “It is possible to increase stride length and stride frequency without altering the ground force applied, but it will typically create a decrease in the other components,  resulting in no effective change in speed” (3). So, there you have it! Creation of force application is always a good thing no matter how you look at it!

The arms control the speed of the feet. The hips must remain flexible to be joined by a strong torso to maximize the arm movement. The athlete must not forget to initiate every movement with the arms and a high knee such as in the acceleration phase of all sports movements and must maximize his or her hip and leg strength to pull the feet back under the hips at all times during these movements. Remaining on the balls of the feet with a dorsiflexed ankle will facilitate optimal positioning in all sports movements and especially keep the probability high of  the athlete remaining in a forward motion.

I’ll leave you with this: “Square your hips towards all targets of motion through development of total body strength, hip flexibility, force application, and efficient arm cycles and efficient leg cycles to be the athlete who achieves optimal sport specific movements and positions and, most of all, remains on the ground the least amount of time”.

References:
1. Dintiman and Ward. The Encyclopedia of Sports Speed. The National Association of Speed and Explosion, Box 1784, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948; 2009.

2. Lee, Jemison. Neuro-Biomechanics of Maximum Velocity. 2009.
http://speedendurance.com/2009/02/09/loren-seagrave-neuro-biomechanics-of-maximum-velocity/. Accessed April 13, 2010.

3. Schweigert, Doug. Pros and Cons.Strength and Conditioning Journal. June 2002, Volume 24, Issue 3, (28-29). http://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Citation/2002/06000/Pros_Cons.6.aspx. Accessed April 13, 2010.