S&C and athletic development coaches should focus on top speed, top acceleration, top COD-speed and max strength when it comes to the physical preparation and injury prevention of team sport athletes – no doubt there is a strong evidence to do so (e.g. Freitas et al., 2017; Malone et al., 2017; McGuigan et al., 2012).
The nature of team sports however, is unpredictable and requires the tolerance of high loads and the competency of diverse movement strategies. Those movements rarely look nice and aligned like in the gym especially, when it comes to transitioning from one movement strategy to another.
- A soccer striker jumps up for a header against her opponent (facing away from opposing goal) after a long and high pass of his defender
- Striker has an additional horizontal displacement of approx. 1m (3.3ft)
- Striker headed the ball to his teammate which instantaneously passes the ball towards the goal into the free space
- After both striker and opposing defender land they reorient themselves to accelerate towards the ball which is 7m (24ft) ahead of them
à This is where transition speed from one movement (jump and land) to the other (turn and accelerate) becomes the crucial part for success.
It doesn´t matter so much if you squat 100kg or 150kg (220lbs or 330lbs) neither run the 10m in 1.6s or 1.9s. In this particular situation maximum physiological performance measures become secondary neither, will you witness perfectly looking landing mechanics in the situation mentioned above. The player who first reorients its body to start moving towards the ball is able to get its body between ball and opponent. If there is too much of a lack from one movement to the other the situation is lost. Special consideration should therefore be given to teach Movement-Transition-Speed (MTS).
As always all we know is a conglomerate of things we learned from different people and started to make sense of it and create synergism. The lessons of good practitioners inspired the content of this article: Homayun Gharavi (GAASM), Bill Knowles (Philadelphia Union), James Baker (Proformance and Aspire) and James Marshall (Excelsior) as well as the sport of Mixed Martial Arts and Freerunning. The article includes some simple theoretical framework and practical application of the ideas presented.
What are the underlying mechanisms for greater MTS?
The world of Athletic Development requires to think outside of the box. Especially, sports success is multi-dimensional and depends upon an interdisciplinary approach. As a Sports Performance Coach your main goal is to prepare the athlete for the needs of its sport. MTS seems to be one of those multidimensional challenges. Here is a definition of MTS I came up with to create a focal point:
Definition: Movement-Transition-Speed (MTS) is the skill to switch from one locomotive movement type to the next relative to the constraints of the environment in the least amount of time.
MTS contains the fast pace of field sports to simply get quicker to the ball or into free space. Because of the open skill environment with opponents and a field there is the need for multidirectional as well as extreme movements like diving, rolling, spin jumping, pivoting etc. This has to occur relative to the constraints of the situation like staying close to the sideline or doing spin moves around an opponent. The fastest you can transition in and out of certain movements the more likely you dominate the situation.
Now that we set a goal the box below shows a little brainstorm about which abilities are needed in my opinion to have the best MTS possible:
Brainstorming – which features has the athlete to have to win the situation mentioned in the introduction (Great MTS)?
- High eccentric power to absorb the landing in minimal time
- Internalized multidirectional unilateral and bilateral landing mechanics
- High concentric rate of force development (RFD) for better acceleration
- Minimal switching time from landing to horizontal displacement – fast and flexible motor planning and execution
- High attentional capacities to quickly process the needs of the situation
- Great kinesthetic awareness and movement intelligence to arrange posture and extremities in a favorable way
As you see the problem cannot be solved by approaching it with one science. The situational performance requires blending Exercise Science, Perceptual-Cognitive Science and Motor Learning in a training regime. Basically, the athlete has to have powerful movements, good interpretation of the situational constraints and a high movement IQ.
The means and methods to create a powerful athlete are widely known (e.g. Komi, 2003; McGuigan et al., 2012; Young, 2006), so are they for the cognitive component of the sport (Mann et al., 2007; Sheppard & Young, 2006). The combination of powerful and quick athletic movements and high attentional demands is named “Agility” (Sheppard & Young, 2006). The authors state that neither the cognitive nor the physiological component on its own can predict the performance in change of direction tasks in which athletes have to react to a visual stimulus. However, the locomotive movement types frequently used in agility tasks are running, pivoting and shuffling. As we should strive for a complete athlete with a high movement IQ, advanced locomotive movements like jumping, spin moves, spin jumps, rolling on the floor, crawling, somersaults forward&backward, cartwheels etc. should also be considered (advanced movement literacy). Typically, situations that force athletes into extreme positions during the game are the biggest time consumers and often decisive. Another factor is that athletes with a too limited movement repertoire shy away from difficult situations – our brain is always there to protect us from pain and injuries. Some sorts of movements seem impossible for the brain which leads to hesitation and limitation, e.g. a player stumbles and is falling forward à best case scenario would be some sort of judo roll to get to the feet as quickly as possible instead of falling flat on his/her tummy.
In Motor Learning we start to drift away from hard facts and to methodological problems in research regarding the influence of technical training on performance measures. Nevertheless, Motor Learning inherently gives the coach and athlete the certainty of doing something valuable for the athlete. A lot of anecdotal evidence and field proven methods allow us to somewhat neglect the holy grail of scientific evidence and effect sizes when it comes to performance training. Showing an athlete how to exactly move and apply force in a certain situation can be crucial. In addition, those skills should be teached in a transitional pattern between two movements. The motor quality in Movement Transitions seems to be therefore the most uninvestigated and from my perspective most neglected subarea/ability of MTS in athletic field sports.
The skill we want to develop with our athletes is the ability to smoothly transition from one movement to the next without having a lag between them.
A great display of the skill is seen in the tournaments of “World Chase Tag”. Those guys show an insane movement fluency while switching directions and movement types under pressure.
The video below is a great compilation of the sport
Using research of Motor Learning to teach faster movement transitions
The time to inhibit one ongoing movement pattern/strategy and switch to the next requires high movement intelligence. The journey of creating smooth transitions starts by learning a wide variety of movements from early years on. Teaching coordinative abilities forms the foundation with which adult athletes can display sensational body control in competition. East german sports scientists classified those abilities which can be found in any open skill sport, e.g. Boxing, Tennis, Soccer and Basketball (Blume, 1978; Hirtz, 1988):
- Rhythm ability: Understand the rhythm of movement to execute the movement with required rhythm by properly synchronating body parts – refers to exact rhytmical firing patterns for a movement
- Balance ability: Maintain equilibrium both in static & dynamic condition
- Adaptation ability: Effectively change movement according to anticipated or ongoing situational modifications (e.g. defender tackle, turn over)
- Reaction ability: Respond quickly to a given stimulus and execute a well- directed action following a signal (e.g. goalkeeper yells at his defender not to defend a high pass near the goal because the goalkeeper wants to catch it)
- Orientation ability: Analyze & change the position of the body in time & space relative to the field of action and moving object – you have to know where your leg is in time and space and where it´s going when you change from forward to backwards sprinting with a spin move.
- Differentiation ability: Ability to achieve high degree of perfection & economy of separate body movements & movement phases in a motor actions – how much force has to be provided by different body parts to execute a movement task (e.g. target shooting, fixed length jumps)
- Coupling ability: systematically & meaningfully combine the movements of different body parts for successful performance – appropriately coupling arm action, core and legs for high running speeds
Note that you can´t train one ability in isolation. At best there is the possibility to emphasize. Movements are always a conglomerate of the abilities mentioned above.
Learning a variety of challenging and changing movements is widely considered to have the greatest transferability to every sport. But that is not only true for developmental athletes as everybody assumes. There are sensitive phases in childhood to set foundation for coordinative abilities. But there is no magic switch that turns off completely the ability to learn new movement skills and become more capable to transfer them to different environments. That is not how our brain is wired – neuro science tells us that brains are the masters of learning and building lasting connections to be used for new settings. That is called “neuroplasticity”… (For further understanding of this term watch this TED Talk of Michael Merzenich).
When we look at the coordinative demands in movement transitions the ability to adapt and “effectively change movement according to anticipated or ongoing situational modifications” (see number 3 – Adaptation ability) is exactly what we´re looking for to shorten the lag between two movement strategies. This lag can be called the “switch costs” in movement transitions.
Here is a great example of Theo Walcott against Newcastle having minimal switch costs from controlling an extreme movement on the ground and transferring to a quick shuffle to position himself to score a magnificent goal.
Research shows us another potential method to refine the athlete´s movement intelligence. Inducing a progressive increase of randomness in the session is more likely to trigger higher retention and transferability of skills (Landin & Hebert, 1997) (see Contextual Interference Effect). Train skills first in isolation, then in a serial and lastly in a random manner. In addition, the authors Guadagnoli & Lee (2004) define the need of a so called “challenge point” which refers to the need of individualizing the complexity of tasks. A task which is easy to learn can benefit from a higher randomness of modifications. Whereas complex movement skills can be teached with lower contextual interference (lower randomness).
This method can induce higher cognitive loads and train the mental flexibility of your athletes. Constant changes in situational demands are highly specific for open skill sports like soccer, basketball or MMA. It is a skill by itself processing constant changes and the adequate motor reaction to them. Sports which require it can benefit of higher contextual interference with fast changes (Rogers & Monsell, 1995).
Creating smooth movement transitions by minimizing switch costs – practical application
2 main methods to increase MTS:
- Individually challenge the athletes with a greater set of different movement types in a single practice with a progressive increase in randomness – Contextual Interference Effect (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004; Landin & Hebert, 1997)
- Force athletes to directly switch from one movement to the next without having buffer zones in between
A simple method are obstacle course style workouts. You can combine different movement qualities in a small space like running, skipping, hopping, jumping, CODs. They are fun and require high attentional levels of the athlete and teach coordination as well as athletic abilities. The problem which I often see with obstacle courses is that coaches leave buffer zones between movement tasks: skipping over mini-hurdles before shuffling but with a 2m (6.5ft) jog between the two tasks. The tasks are done in isolation and the preceding task has nothing to do with the next one. The attentional load is too low for the athlete and MTS is not challenged.
Therefore, consider the following points when you create an obstacle course:
- Each movement task should be long enough allowing for adaptation of a rhythm and short enough not to be exhaustive by itself (max. 3s)
- The transition from one movement task to the other has to be immediate and emphasised
- Incorporate level changes and easy gymnastic movements in which the athlete has to transition in and out of it. Note that you have to train complex movements first in isolation and then integrate them in an obstacle course (progressive contextual interference)
The video below is a great example how to implement it in practice. Note the randomness of exercise selection. The goal is to be as fast as possible. The interesting part is that the limiting factor are not the stages but the transitions. They have to be as smooth and free of hesitation as possible to be really fast. Athletes will display distinct strategies for greatest MTS.
The second video shows a more conservative approach as this athlete had returned to sport after an achilles tendon injury. This is after 8 weeks collegiate soccer prep program consisting of Speed/Agility/Power/Strength and special fitness work. As you will see she is still not going full throttle. In less complex change of directions she was a lot more confident. It is interesting to see that the sensory system still needs more complex input to be able to let it go in high demanding situations.
Adding a visual reaction stimulus
In recent time there is a gaining popularity for the cognitive component in preparing athletes for fast paced team sports (Grooms, Appelbaum, & Onate, 2015; Romeas, Guldner, & Faubert, 2016; Sheppard & Young, 2006). Game situations are multi-tasks. The athlete has to control his body while scanning his visual field for cues to move corresponding to it.
Exercise for reactive MTS-Training: When adding a visual stimulus (or reaction task) I like to concentrate on only a few possible transitions, e.g. jump over a hurdle with either a shuffling task two the right or a jump back over the same hurdle. The task variations are infinite and have to be adjusted for the athlete´s level. Try to use cues using biological movements – e.g. if I do a step to the left the athlete has to pass me by doing the shuffling task to the right. If I go forward he has to jump back over the hurdle. In that way the athlete has to interpret movement of the opponent and trains his viewing-strategies of picking up relevant cues from hips, legs and shoulders.
The biggest difference is an extremely short window for the motor planning and decision making which puts the athlete under higher pressure and forces it to display smooth transitions instantly. It´s simply a more complex form of agility and again with a higher emphasis on transitions.
A more advanced and fun example is having a teammate with a gymnastics ball tackling the trainee. It has to be hard enough to force the athlete to fall. He then has to react either by doing a cartwheel or a more realistic use of the judo role. By finishing the role and coming back to its feet a pass has to be performed. The athlete is forced not to be overwhelmed by the extreme position/movement and reorient himself quickly. Let your athletes fail and get a bit frustrated to boost adaption.
Special considerations for implementation
MTS training can be done daily. It should be done after the warm-up because of its high attentional load. Complexity of movements and increase in load have to be managed for the day. As the emphasis is on minimizing switching costs for motor planning and execution be careful using high force elements as they can expose the athlete to injury. As the athletes raise their capacities in the weight room and with Speed and Power work high impact elements can be added to MTS-training (higher depth jumps, stopping from high speed sprinting and transition to a cartwheel etc.).
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