The challenge comes when blending the right amount of predictability and unpredictability that will appropriately tax the athlete. We place a ton of value on quality power and resistance training; majority of the time spent in the weight room will be focused on power development and the big rock strength movements (ie. squat, bench press, deadlift, split squat, row, chin-up etc.). These traditional tasks can be beneficial for all skill levels by improving tissue resiliency, force production abilities, and helping to creating a robust athlete. While these are just a few of the tools in the coaches’ tool box, we look to fill in the gaps and incorporate unconventional movements that will contribute to the athlete’s developmental process. Once an athlete has the appropriate training experience, exhibits movement competency and capacities, it is essential to introduce tasks with a chaotic component and cognition.
Athletes are complex adaptive systems, and in order to push the envelope of athletic development, training programs need combine the physical and psychological sub-systems. The objective of training should be to exploit the information provided to the athlete, creating an environment of variability and requiring the athlete to utilize cognitive processes vital to success in competitive sports. A simple way to do this is to include an unpredictable element in the training plan, either as part of the pre-training, within the program, or at the end of the session. This unpredictability is an essential part to the learning process, benefitting athletes by improving coordination, increasing focused variability and creative expression, helping them to develop self-organization, and gaining an appreciation for being comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
One way to introduce an unpredictable element is to incorporate perturbations in pretension/ absorption drills, force acceptance drills, 3D plyometrics, acceleration starts and agility activities. The application involves a partner using a stability ball, contact pad or upper extremities to make contact with the athlete performing the movement. This is a simple, safe and effective way to introduce the individual to the chaotic elements and disturbances (contacts) that take place in sport. This concept can be applied to a wide range of skill levels, and is easy to scale or adjust to ensure an athlete is appropriately challenged.
One of our tactics to improve force acceptance abilities, elasticity and ankle-foot stiffness is to have the athlete perform rudimentary in-place ankle jumps or hops. We will have the athlete react to some form of stimulus (opponent or coach’s cue) and explosively drop into a jump (2-leg), single leg or split stance and stick/ accept the landing. We utilize these pretension and absorption drills to introduce the unpredictable perturbations. The athlete starts with his or her eyes closed, not knowing the direction of contact. Using auditory cues such as a clap or whistle, the individual will open his or her eyes and perform an explosive drop while receiving a slight nudge. The partner is instructed to make contact at any point during the movement and slightly interfere with the athlete’s posture, position and stability, requiring the athlete to self-organize and recalibrate into a more stable position. The athlete has to make a decision on which stance they feel is most effective to complete their task (ie.stick the landing).
We have also found success with incorporating an unpredictable element in our 3D depth drops. The objective here is to challenge the athlete’s ability to accept force in all 3 planes of motion by disrupting the coordination and stabilization of the landing phase. The athlete begins each rep on top of a plyo box or elevated surface with his or her eyes closed, again unaware of timing or direction of contact. They open their eyes from a cue giving by the coach (whistle or touch) and perform a depth drop. Immediately after the athlete steps off the elevated surface, his or her partner makes contact using a stability ball. Rep to rep the direction, angle and the amount of pressure generated by the contact is manipulated. We place constraints on the initial direction of movement (linear, lateral & 3D), and give the athlete autonomy in choosing the stance (ie. jump, single leg or split stance) they feel is most appropriate or what the perturbation affords for the given situation. We have also experimented with an alternate variation in the 3D depth drops where the partner dictates the direction of the movement. Using the previous set up where the athlete starts on top of an elevated surface with eyes closed, his or her cue in this case to begin movement is dictated by a partner’s touch. Once the athlete feels the slight nudge, eyes open and depending on the direction of contact will determine where the athlete lands. Once again, we encourage the athlete to explore the different landing stances. The only stipulation is that they can’t perform the same stance twice in a row. It’s important to note, when first applying these concepts, start with a low box (6-18 inches).
Furthermore, we have employed chaos with what is refer to as creative 3D plyometrics. Once the athlete has been exposed to various linear, lateral and 3D plyometrics (ankle & hip dominant) and has demonstrated optimal ground contact times, we’ll design a training environment with task constraints that allows the athlete perform various combinations of tri-planar jumps, bounds and hops. The objective is to improve RFD abilities in unfavorable positions. The coach dictates the first movement and the athlete performs 2, 3 or 4 additional plyometrics of their choice. Rep to rep the coach manipulates the work space size, obstacles and if the athlete can use 2 legs, 1 leg or combination of both. These constraints will afford different responses and encourage exploration and creativity. To challenge the athlete further, we’ll throw in a chaotic component where he or she is perturbed while performing the 3D plyometrics. Set up is similar to the previous cases where the athlete begins with eyes closed and immediately after being cued will open their eyes and perform 2, 3 or 4 plyometrics of their choice. The perturbations will be thrown into the mix and will create different affordances depending on the timing of contact. We instruct the partners to manipulate the disturbances by applying the contact during the landing phase, take-off phase or a combination of both. We encourage the partner to be creative with the contact application and explain that no two reps should be alike. When first introduced, we only include a single contact, but will progress to a double contact version.
Another strategy we’ve found to be very effective is to include a slight amount of turmoil to our acceleration starts. When organizing and planning the athlete’s short speed work, we like to design two separate training blocks (2-3 weeks) where the emphasis is on disadvantageous or advantageous starts. The idea behind performing an acceleration from a disadvantage is to teach the concept of being comfortable in uncomfortable situations and develop the ability to produce force in awkward positions. This is when we include perturbations to the start of each rep. The instructions are simple: the athlete begins with his or her eyes closed and from a drop-in (walking) start. Once contact is sensed, the athlete opens his or her eyes and attempts to self-organize into an effective position to complete the task. Once again, these disturbances are not going to be harmful, but provide just enough influence to force the athlete out of posture and positioning. We’ve constructed several different scenarios, where the athlete has to locate and sprint through a pair of cones (goal) or read and react to one or multiple opponents.
One other way we infuse unpredictability into our training program is with what we call a plyometric course. Keith Davids proposes that motor learning and developmental process requires safe uncertainty conditions. As coaches, it is our responsibility to create diverse training environments and unpredictable situations that encourage exploratory behaviors, creative expression, and fosters the athlete’s ability to embrace and learn from mistakes. After witnessing the success we had adding chaos to our athletes’ agility training , we knew we needed another way to utilize these types of environments. This is where the idea for the creative 3D plyometric course was born. We look at this activity as an affordance landscape that has different surfaces, heights, spacing between training implements (plyo boxes) and includes varying task constraints that allows the athlete to accept or reject different invitations for actions that are dependent on the individual’s constraints. The task constraints include the use of 2 legs, 1 leg, or combination of both; and the athlete has to land on each surface/ height, but can’t repeat the same surface/ height consecutively. Also we’ve experimented with increasing the cognitive demand by including two different plyo box colors and instructed the athlete that they had to alternate between landing on each. Rep to rep the athlete has to change their starting location and initial motor response. We force the athlete to be creative and not repeat the same sequence of movements. The purpose here is to experiment with different movement patterns, explore the edges of the motor landscape (Keith Davids) and push the limits of the athlete’s capacities. It is our firm belief that these unique scenarios and environments encourage my athletes to develop general skills and processes that can only help improve sporting performance.
The majority of today’s youth and high school athletes play sports year-round, never actually having what we call a “true” off-season. This has to be taken into consideration when designing a “conditioning” program, along with the bioenergetic demands of the sport and the metabolic requirements of practice. While these factors should complement each other, I’ve often observed them to be quite different and actually counterproductive. It’s important to take a holistic approach when addressing an athlete’s energy system development, making certain to fill in the gaps during the preparation process. Too many of the athletes I work with experience an overwhelming amount of lactic-based work in their sport practice. For whatever reason, it seems to be commonplace amongst team sport coaches that running an individual into the ground is the only way to prepare for competition. It is inappropriate and destructive for these coaches to implement traditional “conditioning” drills that leave athletes bent over in the corner puking.
At The U of Strength, we’ve been successful in following a high-low model, consolidating stressors by organizing CNS intensive movements on one day and CNS extensive movements on another day. We place an emphasis on developing the aerobic system via extensive plyos, tempo runs, resisted sled marching, med ball throws and aerobic circuits. If the aerobic component of the athlete’s bioenergetic system is under-developed, then his or her ability to recover will be impaired and he or she will fatigue much faster when required to produce repeated high-intensity bouts of activity. Conversely, We focus on improving the a-lactic power system through sprinting, agility, intensive plyos, loaded jumps and resistance training. We concern ourselves with quality over quantity, and make it a priority to determine the minimal effective dose for each athlete. During the early stages of the developmental process, it’s crucial to ensure novice athletes are receiving the least amount of work to elicit a positive change and the necessary adaptations. Athletes need to be able to express the power component of the energy system and adequately recover between reps, sets and individual training sessions before trying to develop the capacity or the ability to repeat explosive bouts of movements at a certain work level.
When necessary, we do address the capacity component and primarily focus on the a-lactic system, typically spending 3-4 weeks prior to the start of the athlete’s main competitive season. Depending on the athlete and the problem we are trying to solve will determine the drills or activities. There are times when an athlete is required to pass a “conditioning” test, like a 300-yard shuttle run. In that case, we make sure the athlete is prepared and spend part of the time addressing the specific energy system component. If the athlete doesn’t have to prepare for a specific test, then all of our capacity work is completed in a task-orientated and competitive environment. Coaches need to fully understand the bioenergetics demands of the respective sport and manipulate the tasks, time constraints, and rest intervals accordingly. We firmly believe that in order to properly prepare an athlete that it’s essential to include specific sensory information. Instead of performing mindless “conditioning” drills, The purpose is to challenge the athlete’s ability to problem-solve, make effective decisions and complete role specific tasks under fatiguing conditions. This is a great way to evaluate their movement solution tool box and observe what happens when fatigue is present (ie. do they revert to a single strategy? or demonstrate dexterous movement?). Recently, I’ve been experimenting with more 2v2 and 3v3 scenarios. This is meant to expose the athlete to team task situations, exploit the accumulation of fatigue, manipulate the information, and influence the shared affordances. Utilizing an internal constraint to challenge the team members’ ability to control their decisions and actions in a coordinated manner.
The current definition of agility is “a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus”. Coaches often miss the change of speed element and think the fastest response is always best. This is typically not the case, at The U of Strength we teach our athletes that they need to control their speed. This will allow them to react to the stimulus with an appropriate response and solution. The ability to quickly decelerate and under control is essential for athletic success.
Another important part of agility training that is often overlooked is the connection between the perceptive and cognitive processes. The quality of an athlete’s movement will be directly related to the quality of decisions made. We promote, the athletes who can quickly make effective decisions will likely gain a step on their opponent, even if there’s a difference with physical abilities (speed, strength and power).
The cognitive components are organized into 2 different categories:
Here are some progressions we follow to facilitate the ability of being under control and making effective decisions:
1. Increasing the work space
At the U of Strength our goal isn’t building the strongest or fastest athlete, it’s creating the most resilient athlete. With early specialization and the playing of sport year-round, there’s an extreme amount of stress placed on the athlete’s system. Most young females’ athletes naturally cannot handle that workload. This is why we’re seeing a high rate of non-contact and overuse injuries, like soft tissue tears and stress fractures.
This is addressed with speed, power & strength movements. Depending on the time of year and training level will determine the emphasis:
▪Deceleration Mechanics (Speed/Change of Direction)
- Closed and Open Skill Drills
▪Landing Technique (Jumps)
- Drop Jumps/ Bounds/ Hops
- Depth Drops/ Altitude Landings
- Single Response Movements w/ Stick
▪Eccentric Phase (Strength Exercises)
- Slow to Moderate Tempo (Descending Phase)
Early on we focus on force absorption, we improve an athlete’s breaks before their engine. If sequenced properly, an athlete will be able to safely absorb and then efficiently re-produce force. This will lead to greater power output potential and decrease in non-contact related injuries.
Here’s a great look at the vertical jump and the different joint positions.
In the video, this athlete has great arm action with an explosive descent and ascent. But as you can see there’s a horizontal displacement with the take-off and landing. Ideally, we like a parallel relationship with the shin and trunk throughout the entire movement.
At the beginning of the take-off there’s a shift forward to the toes. This will place more stress on the quads and a disruption with that parallel relationship. The upper half is moving faster vertically than the lower half. This means that the jump will be initiated by the lower back. The lower body will be delayed and therefore causing a limited “push-off” or leg drive. This is an inefficient jumping technique that will negatively affect the athlete’s force production.