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Improving the 40 Yard Dash

With the high school football season coming to an end and the college season coming to its climax it is time for combine prep programs to begin. This is the time for football athletes to showcase their speed. (The speed they don’t really ever use on the football field.) For many football athletes this can be an uncomfortable and even frightening drill. Over the past 4 months of their season many of these athletes never experienced getting down into a three point position, were asked to create a maximum acceleration, or experienced an upright sprint for 40 yards. Many of these athletes have also heard the horror stories of their friends and teammates who have tried to compete in the test only to suffer a hamstring injury. So how do we, as coaches, mentally and physically prepare our athletes for success in this drill?

First, let’s talk about the mental side. If an athlete is ever uncomfortable with a new drill, it should be an immediate red flag. This does not mean we should hold them out from the drill, however we need to progress with caution. The mental side of training is just as critical as the physical side. We have all seen the athletes that can completely sike themselves out of something and even put themselves in harms way due to a negative connotation toward an experience. Before putting your athletes in these situations you need to be sure that their bodies are ready to handle the stimulus that they are going to experience.

Begin this process by evaluating your recent lifting strategies. Have your athletes been doing posterior chain work? What has been the basis of your training schemes? Hypertrophy, strength, possibly power based? Have your athletes had time to recover since the completion of their season. These are all things that need to be evaluated before ever speaking to an athlete. If you know that their “body armor” is not strong, then don’t test it. Prepare it. If you feel like they are in a good place physically then ask them how they feel about the drill to assess their mental preparedness. If they are excited and confident about training then by all means jump into the program. However, if there is any hesitation at all by the athlete it needs to be addressed. What is the source of their hesitation? Internal or external factors? Either way this is a cue for you to be patient and gentle in the teaching process until you can tell that their confidence is improving.

When talking about improving your 40 yard dash time you must take the different phases of the test into account. The two major phases of this test are the Acceleration Phase and the Absolute Speed Phase. I break these two phases into the first and second half, both containing 20 yards of the test. These two phases are made up of three segments. The first segment is the Acceleration Segment which makes up the first 10 yards, which is approximately the first 6 steps. The second segment of the test is the transition segment of which half is within the Acceleration Phase and the other half in the Absolute Speed Phase. The Transition Segment typically contains yards 15-25 and approximately the 7th step through the 14th step. The final segment is the upright segment which covers yards 25 through 40 and steps 15 through approximately 20 (Give or take a few steps based on height and stride length).

Of the three segments, I believe the most important is the acceleration segment. This is the area that will set you up for the rest of the test. If you take a misstep, trip, or just have poor acceleration mechanics, you can count on a bad time. There is no recovering during the test. I recently went through my acceleration progression drills on my website, Brattainsportsperformance.com/blog/. These are some of the same drills that I will use with my combine athletes. When I am using these drills I will typically keep most of our accelerations at 10-20 yards. After all, not many of these athletes are able to accelerate much further than this point.

Once you have assessed that your athletes are strong and durable enough for combine training then the goals is to create power from that strength and provide direction from that power. The biggest issue I see with young athletes is an over exertion of energy causing them to accelerate in a chaotic fashion. This can look like lateral steps out of the start, popping straight up out of the acceleration phase, or even lack luster arm swing. For this reason I start all of my athletes on a Wall Sprint. By placing them on the wall I can instruct them on stride and foot placement during while in one spot so that I am not chasing them down the track.

Once I have taught my athletes the acceleration progression to the point that I have them in a three point stance for their accelerations it is all about repetitions, feedback, and small adjustments. When you are working with athletes from this position it is incredibly important to understand their learning style. Do they learn visually, auditorially, or kinesthetically? If it is visually, then film every rep they do and find time to sit down and break down each acceleration. If it is kinesthetically then create drills that help them feel the position you want them in. More than half of the drills I use were created on the fly because athletes were not comprehending my cues. This is not their fault, it is my fault. I am not explaining it clearly enough or this is not their learning style. Find a way to access their learning.

Just like teaching an acceleration is a progression, the 40 yard dash is a progression. Take it one step at a time, literally. Help your athletes understand the first step, then the second, then the third, and so on. In fact, the whole process is a progression. Make sure they are prepared to learn mentally, then physically, then go out and put the steps together.