RELAXATION AND SPRINTING IN TEAM SPORTS
Coaches and athletes are well aware that the absence of efficient, tension- free muscular movement produces more rapid fatigue, poor performance, and increases the incidence of injuries. Executing short sprints in team sports also requires very efficient muscular coordination and relaxed movement patterns. During relaxed movement, less pliant tense muscles restrict range of motion and keep athletes from reaching their maximum mph speed. In addition, muscle involvement may occur that does not efficiently contribute to forward movement.
Although the degree of “slowing” that occurs in all athletes at the end of a longsprint, or after repeated short sprints, is mainly determined by anaerobic fitness (speed endurance) and exhausted energy sources, it is also affected by muscular tension and an inhibiting processes that occurs in the central nervous system. According to Kehakultuur (1988), these inhibiting factors are not only caused by the reduced strength of nerve impulses but also by the frequency (sprinting) and duration (speed endurance) of the impulses. Successful sprinting that allows athletes to excel at the maximum potential will not occur without a relaxed running style free from tension.
To produce a relaxed style of sprinting in team sport athletes, some attention is needed on the developing the nervous process. The object is to sprint fast, but sprint effortlessly (relaxed) with a loose jaw, loose hands, and relaxed arm, shoulder and neck muscles. Team sport coaches and athletes need to incorporate sprinting relaxation techniques into their regular workout schedule until tension-free sprinting is automatic in all phases of their sport. The key is for athletes to avoid becoming too aware of the actual movement details of sprinting. As sprinting mechanics become automatic, emphasis is placed on relaxed movement patterns. Athletes are taught to relax their hands and eliminate tension from the shoulders to the finger tips. Since team sport athletes tend to make a tight fist as they accelerate and try to sprint faster, the thumb should make contact with the index finger as the remaining fingers stay relaxed.
Mike Smith, one of Britain’s most successful sprint coaches, offers some key advice to improve relaxation during the start, acceleration, and maximum speed phases of the sprinting action. He points out that tension most often occurs when athletes “try too hard” and tighten the muscles of the hands, arms, shoulders, neck and jaw. The object is to avoid overdoing things and concentrate on remaining relaxed.”
Coach White recommends the use of sprinting relaxation drills when athletes are fresh, in the early part of the workout. His basic relaxation drill designed to improve key arm movement patterns, remove tension, and balance the leg action can be done without moving forward:
Athletes square up in front with the feet slightly apart.
Proper arm movement is used to drive the arms in a sprinting action: elbows back beyond the hips, forward, and up level with the chin.
Hands remain open with no clenching of the fist permitted since this moves tensions through the arms to the shoulders and into the neck.
Athletes are told not to lift their shoulders.
The head and neck are kept naturally aligned and not pulled back.
The jaw is relaxed by avoiding tightening the lips or gritting the teeth.
Additional drills used by track and team sports coaches to develop tension-free sprinting in their sport follow.
Treadmill Sprinting–In our Virginia commonwealth University Laboratory, athletes engaged in 3/4 to full speed treadmill sprinting with intermittent acceleration changes while the coach stood on a chair directly in front, behind, and to the side of sprinters to observe, correct form and encourage relaxation. This is one of the few settings in sports that permit an exchange between the coach and athlete with time to make and observe corrections during the sprinting action.
Transition Sprints (10-40 yards)–Acceleration/deceleration sprints are performed with minimum changes in speed. A smooth, relaxed transition from a jog to fast sprinting and deceleration back to a jog are emphasized using correct form.
Segment Sprints–The total distance to be covered is divided into thirds. For team sport athletes, a 40-45-yard distance uses three equal segments of 15 yards. The second and third segments are completed as relaxed as possible with little effort; and with no loss of mph speed. Coaches should time both segments with and without the emphasize to compare results and show the benefits of relaxed sprinting.
Switch-Off Starts—A smooth transition from a 3-point or 4-point football stance to near maximum speed is stressed making certain forward lean occurs with little or no bending at the waist, in a straight line from the ankle through the head. After a 30-40-yard sprint, 5-6 relaxed strides are taken before accelerating to maximum speed.
Falling Starts–Athletes use a falling start, followed by a 20-yard sprint and 5- 6 relaxed strides to complete one of 5-6 repetitions. Four to five repetitions are completed around the track. A 10-15 yard recovery walk is used between each repetition.
Change the Leader–This common sprinting drill is performed in a group of 6 or more athletes who jog in single file around a track or field at a slow, pre- determined pace. The drill begins with the last runner accelerating and sprinting to the front of the line emphasizing a smooth, relaxed transition from a jog to rapid acceleration to the front of the line. The new individual who is now last in line immediately accelerates and sprints to the front to become the leader.
Drills do require the careful observation of a coach with a trained eye for relaxed sprinting. The track coach at the middle school, high school, and college levels can be a tremendous help to team sport coaches in this critical area for team sports.
Source: Kehakultuur Vol. 49, No. 18, 1988, pub. by. Periodika, Tallinn, Estonian SSR