You Can’t Teach Speed?

On Sunday I watched mass quantities of football courtesy of NFL RedZone while also eating mass quantities of food.  RedZone might be one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me.  Without it this post would not be possible.  Dear NFL ReadZone, I love you.  Love, Mike.  While watching the end of the 49ers and Seahawks game I saw Ted Ginn Jr. return both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown at which point I heard the commentator say, “You can’t teach speed” (3:26 in video).  Although that phrase has become cliché I thought about it for a minute, and I would have to disagree.  Sure you could argue that at the NFL level the commentator is right.  Ted Ginn Jr is an awesome weapon for any team to have because he is so fast and I’m sure Jim Harbaugh and his staff aren’t spending any time trying to teach Ted how to run faster, more likely just telling him to just let loose, but ‘ol Ted learned how to be fast somewhere.  Much like Jerry Rice likely wasn’t being taught how to catch a football as his career went on he still relentlessly practiced his skill on a regular basis.

If there is one thing that I have learned in the past few years when it comes to training it’s that strength is a skill.  Practice getting stronger, become stronger.  This goes for other endeavors as well.  Not good at public speaking?  Get some help and practice it to become a little better one step at a time.  Poor tennis serve?  Get out and practice, maybe some coaching and serve the ball better.  Want to get faster?  I am I to believe that it goes like this:  go out and practice running fast, maybe some coaching, get stronger and………….. run the same speed because you can’t teach speed?  I am slowly starting to learn more about how the brain and body adapts to training but to keep it simple, if you practice moving at high speeds and training with large forces relative to your strength level you will eventually move at a greater speed.  Certainly from an adaptation perspective, move and train slow (or not at all) and become slow.  Move and train fast and you will become fast(er).  Maybe not at a world-class level, but you just taught yourself speed.  I can teach a young athlete how to develop the qualities that make him more explosive in his given sport.  I am teaching speed.  Usain Bolt is the fastest man that has ever lived.  He is now 25 years old.  He is progressively getting faster times and setting new world records.  He has coaches, practices and trains his body/brain.  He is learning to get faster.

I think most of us can recall our childhood when there was a kid at school or in the neighborhood who was just plain faster than everyone else.  He was born that way it seems.  He didn’t have someone one teaching him his speed when he was 8 years old and certainly some people do have the genetics that predispose them to a greater potential for things.  Some are more fast twitch than others.  However, after reading the books Outliers, The Talent Code and Talent Is Overrated I have learned to look a little deeper.  When I watched the story about Herschel Walker last week, another guy with world-class speed, a seemingly super human natural athlete, he talked about hard he worked when he was very young.  He would race the train near his house, trained at home and asked the local football coach how he could get faster/increase his speed.  By the time he was 18 and at the University of Georgia he would run the ball and looked as if he was a grown man among small children, but he didn’t get there by not doing anything.  On a similar note, when I personally recall the fastest kids in my middle school, junior high, etc., one kid had to older brothers that were also very good athletes and fast.  I would be willing to wager that he taught himself to be faster when he was competing with his brothers and other times running from a beating.  The other guy I’m thinking of was kept back a grade early on so he was a year ahead in his development.  “Outliers” touches on this topic of birthdays and their potential effect on development in relation to youth sport teams.

Speed is a skill.  It can be learned.  Ted Ginn Jr. is really fast and a great football player but you can teach speed.  Whether he or another person essentially teaches himself or herself, or the track coach improves technique or the strength coach improves certain explosive and strength qualities, you can teach speed.

– Mike Baltren


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