While most coaches concentrate on acceleration techniques, deceleration training may be this missing component to explosive football movement.
It happens all the time; we hear about the latest training ‘secret’ that a coach or trainer claims can change the way that we train our athletes and will prove to be the key to enable training to transfer to on-field performance. However, in reality, I am here to tell you that the key may have actually been underneath our nose for a long time. This key that I am referring to is the principles and theories of eccentric training. The purpose of this article is to present a fresh look on a proven theory of training which suggests that the eccentric contraction that occurs during the force absorption of any rapid football movement, and the attainment of the optimal mechanical and neuromuscular qualities important during this phase, may very well provide this key in the search for improvements in on-field movement performance.
Objectives in Training
There are many schools of thought that exist when it comes to optimally training football players for increased movement efficiency. These schools of thought include but are not limited to; heavy resistance strength training, speed/agility/quickness training, interval/circuit training, bodybuilding-style training, Olympic-style weightlifting, and plyometrics. Traditionally, football-specific strength training has long been centered on some form of weight-training combined with either speed training or plyometrics (which can be termed Complex Training). And quite frankly, much success can been achieved through some combination of these philosophies of training.
That said, a more detailed look into on-field football performance raises important questions: 1). are we missing anything with these philosophies? 2). is there a more specific way to train for football performance? When we look at common movement tasks executed on the field, we know that an inherent objective for training must address a starting strength quality that we can refer to as rate of force development (RFD). Case in point; we know that most football tasks usually take place over a very short time and distance. For example, a player’s foot is rarely on the ground for more than a mere 100–200ms during movements involving fast acceleration, maximum velocity, or rapid change of direction. Thus, there is seldom enough time, to develop maximum force (which takes about 600-800ms). Therefore, there is a premium on generating the highest amount of force in the shortest amount of time. Thus, a fundamental objective will focus on training for concentric power production characteristics especially in regards to RFD. Thankfully, some of the programs I mentioned above can help our athletes achieve this all-important goal.
However, beyond that, another key concept (which I routinely argue to be more important than RFD attainment) to training for football-specific movement enhancement is the one of eccentric training. Now, we know that the levels of force being absorbed by muscle and tendons while lengthening (as during eccentric contractions) or when coming to a complete stop (as in isometric contractions or transitions between stopping and starting) is considerably greater than those forces produced while shortening (as during concentric contractions). For example, during the limited time spent on the ground, the individual will be routinely required to absorb well over 4 times one’s bodyweight depending on certain variables such as initial cutting position and movement speed prior to the putting on the brakes. So, if this is not addressed in training, it can lead to movement inefficiency and/or could be facilitated into a so-called non-contact injury. Therefore, along with the goal of improving concentric power production capabilities, we must also focus in on developing the eccentric strength needed to tolerate the power absorption that occurs while the body is explosively braking. Essentially, the more efficiently we can stop, the more powerfully we will be able to subsequently take-off. Put another way, greater force absorption will always equate to greater force exertion (and power!) in the opposite direction.
Thus, it is my suggestion that we, as trainers/coaches, may very well need to re-think our training approaches to more specifically include ways to train for eccentric/deceleration ability and in turn improve our athletes’ change of direction speed and overall movement proficiency. I feel as though this ability is not only overlooked in most football performance programs, but could also be the key trainable factor to having the greatest carryover to the actual sport movements found on the field. The remainder of this article will attempt to highlight numerous innovative ways to accomplish this goal by combing the need for establishing sound movement technique/skills along with methods of proven training targeting the physical qualities inherent to efficient deceleration (the latter will be discussed in Part 2 of this article).
The Stretch-Shortening Cycle
I want you to think about the most explosive athletes that you have ever witnessed on the gridiron. Specifically, think of a player at a skills position that is able to stop on a dime and routinely appear to leave defenders searching for their jockstrap. What separates him from the rest? What physical qualities does he exhibit? Does he have much greater maximum strength capabilities? Or is there something else there? Sometimes coaches will categorize that athlete as being “super shifty” or having “quick feet.” Now, these observations may be accurate but it is usually not a quality that is genetically innate rather these observations are typically the byproduct of the utilization of something programmed in the human animal called the stretch-shortening cycle (referred to from here on out as the SSC).
On a basic level, these athletes (think Barry Sanders or Marshall Faulk) have an enhanced ability to absorb greater levels of force in a much faster fashion than their opponents or their peers that are simply categorized as good performers. So much so that they always appear to be a step or two ahead of their competition and leave guys only tackling air when they change direction. Again, this all comes back to their extraordinary ability to absorb forces more rapidly and it’s the very reason why I am imploring everyone involved in football conditioning to search for ways to optimize these underpinning strength qualities in their athletes’ development plans.
This argument is actually not necessarily a new one. In fact, in the late sixties, famed Soviet Jumps Coach and Sports Scientist, Yuri Verkhoshansky, realized that the greatest performances resulted from athletes who spent the least amount of time on the ground during their plant phase. From this analysis, he formed the hypothesis that in order for an athlete to be able to jump effectively, they must possess a high level of eccentric strength. This led him to develop the use of a number of exercises that he implemented to provide a ‘shock’ overload to the systems of the athlete. Originally termed “The Shock Method”, these exercises have now come to be known as plyometrics. Of course, plyometrics have become a popular discussion point regarding increasing performance among American conditioning and football coaches, alike. And maybe it’s for good reason because when we look at most football-oriented movements we realize that a vast majority could be coined as a very plyometric-oriented event. Plyometrics, for the sake of this article, can be defined as exercises aimed at improving the elastic/reactive qualities of strength and exercises characterized by SSC actions which enable muscles to reach maximum force in the shortest possible time. You may even look at it as a training method to help bridge the gap between strength and speed.
At this point, without attempting to turn this into a biomechanics or exercise physiology article, it is also important to get on the same page as to what the stretch-shortening cycle is. The SSC is impulsive eccentric-concentric coupling where rapid deceleration via eccentric action is immediately followed by a transition/coupling phase (termed amortization) and acceleration in the opposite direction via concentric action. If you think about that definition you will quickly see that it embodies numerous football movements ranging from rapidly stopping and starting again to change direction to a quarterback rearing back his arm quickly before he completes his throwing action.
In a basic sense, there are two main ways that exist to help explain the increased force exertion and power production seen during SSC movements. The first is the elastic energy utilization of both the muscle and the tendon. The other involves the potentiation (change in the force-velocity characteristics of the muscle’s contractile components) of the concentric muscle action by use of the body’s natural stretch reflex. Both then combine, through an impulsive three phase cycle (NOTE: this cycle occurs during all sporting tasks) to facilitate a maximal increase in force over a minimal amount of time. However, it should be noted that if the eccentric phase is over too long of range of motion, or requires too long of time to execute, then the stretch reflex potentiation will be negated and the increased elastic energy will not be reutilized (instead it will be dissipated as heat) during the isometric/transition phase and used to increase the concentric power production capabilities. Unfortunately, most athletes subconsciously do this (i.e. lose the immense potential of the SSC) based on the ways that they have been trained.
It may appear that this SSC involves many complex and interacting mechanical and neural processes. This is true! But what you must realize is that it is well-documented scientifically and anecdotally that the utilization of the SSC can contribute greatly to enhanced power production and increased movement efficiency on the field. So, how do we ensure that there is a shift in the training emphasis in our programs across the country to take advantage of this all-powerful SSC?
To start, the more athletes I train (many of which are at the professional level), the more I realize how poor the motor programming usually is as it pertains to deceleration technique. However, just like no two athletes may accelerate or run at high speeds in exactly the same fashion, the same holds true for optimal and efficient deceleration movement techniques. However, possessing optimal technique is at the base level of ensuring that we utilize the SSC in repeated on-field movements.
The athlete must learn how to properly position their bodies in order to stop efficiently to not only improve re-acceleration but also to reduce the likelihood of injury. Without efficient control of their bodies when moving at the highest of velocities before a rapid change of direction takes place, the joints of each limb will be subjected to forces that it cannot sufficiently handle no matter how much heavy resistance strength training he has done. When this occurs, the athlete quickly becomes unstable and unbalanced resulting in a huge loss of potential energy and a more concentrically-dominated re-acceleration. This type of stopping and starting action is also more expensive when it comes to energy expenditure. Thus, the athlete becomes fatigued more quickly and even more unable to perform explosive movement when it matters most (i.e. as the game progresses).
How well you stop, is going to dictate how well you take-off again. To properly change direction in the most explosive way, we must have full control of our body’s center of mass coming into the braking phase of the cut. In order to regain control of one’s body, many times an athlete is forced to stutter step in order to prepare them to change direction. This is disadvantageous for many reasons as it allows the elastic energy to dissipate, the body gets in a suboptimal position for re-acceleration, and the often times give ‘tells’ to their opponent as to what they are planning before the movement even begins. There are essentially two ways to decelerate most efficiently on the field: 1). facing forward and square with a parallel stance (which allows us to be able to shift our weight evenly in the direction we desire to go). 2). with feet turning sideways while driving the decelerating foot perpendicular to the direction that you have been traveling or want to go next. We should always look at the stopping action as being a set-up move for re-acceleration. Thus, we attempt to lower the center of mass by flexing at both the knee and hip joints to further load for subsequent movement. In most cases, the athlete should use the outside foot (the foot opposite the direction of where the athlete wishes to go) to take the blunt of the planting and deceleration absorption. Again, the eccentric action that occurs on the main planting foot must be rapid to avoid leaking of potential energy. When coming to a stop, it’s important to think about getting one’s feet slightly wider than normal as this will help enable the athlete to possess greater balance and stabilization. When the athlete ends up re-accelerating, this wider stance will help set-up better lines of force for faster redirection steps to occur.
Commonly-executed agility drills can help us achieve repeatable movement patterns. Unfortunately, many coaches are simply allowing their athletes to go through the motions without any focused attempt to change the pattern being displayed. The old cliché perfect practice makes perfect is key here. We, as coaches, owe it to our athletes to help enable them to improve this motor imprint that occurs when they are required to stop and change direction. However, so many of the coaches out there are just expecting their athletes to self-optimize their deceleration and re-acceleration mechanics during change of direction speed drills that they haphazardly perform a multitude of drills without ever taking the time to reinforce the right technique. This just doesn’t happen! We must take the time to analyze our athlete’s movement patterns and then devise multi-directional training drills that will help them to develop the proper mechanics common to change of direction tasks such as acceleration, deceleration, shuffling, backpedaling, and re-acceleration at various angles in both side-stepping and crossover fashions.
It should be noted that we must also look at reactive agility as a separate concept because movement patterns can quickly change when the stimulus that the athlete must react to becomes uncontrollable. Subsequent movement then becomes much more perceptual and cognitive in nature (i.e. the athlete must process information from an opponent and react). Research shows that movement patterns displayed when an athlete knows ahead of time where he is going (i.e. preplanned agility drill with a predetermined beginning and end) is much different than the patterns displayed during ‘open’ reactive agility drills where the athlete needs to read and then react to a stimulus. Being that this type of condition is much more sport-specific, our training must also reflect this all-important need or we will always be dancing with danger when the player is on the field.
This article attempted to offer an introduction into what could be looked at as a key to optimum movement on a football field. Part 2 of this article will give specific exercises that can be utilized to increase the strength qualities necessary for rapid deceleration and force absorption.
Dietz, C, and Peterson, B. Triphasic Training. 2012.
Kielbaso, J. Ultimate Speed & Agility. Crew Press, 2011.
Radcliffe, J, and Farentinos, R. High Powered Plyometrics. Human Kinetics, 1999.
Siff & Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2009.
Check out Ultimate Speed Mechanics for more information on how to teach and correct football-related movements.