A common problem found in sports performance today is a lack of deceleration and force absorption training. In this article I discuss some of the foundational deceleration drills that provide safe landing mechanics for athletes to maximize performance, preserve health and prevent future injuries.
As a sports performance coach, I naturally want to create FAST athletes. After all, speed is the name of the game; the quicker the athlete can get to the puck or the ball, the greater chance they have to create scoring opportunities. This is the prevailing mindset among strength coaches and sport skill coaches alike. But, all to often, there seems to be a missing component in the speed equation: deceleration. Just as it is important to pour our efforts into creating fast athletes, we must also balance that out with preserving the health of our athletes. And by a healthy athlete I mean an uninjured athlete, an athlete that can actually play in the game to their full potential without being held back by nagging injuries, or worse yet, having to sit out on the sidelines and miss games completely. We have learned through the research that up to 80% of ACL tears are from non-contact injuries, i.e., from landing incorrectly on a jump or from quickly changing direction (1). It does no good to develop phenomenal speed if we don't precede that by teaching the athlete how to use their brakes and absorb impact properly.
Athletes tend to get injured in the pre-season when they start doing more explosive change of direction with rapid stopping and starting. If we work on certain movements in our training that help to develop proper ways to decelerate the body and absorb forces correctly, we can decrease the chance of injury. “The nature of multiple sprint sports such as soccer, hockey, and rugby is such that deceleration plays an important part in the movement patterns of players during a game and training (2).” To properly teach deceleration and landing mechanics, we first must understand the biomechanics of how our body works during these movements. Proper deceleration involves coordinating movements, such as flexing the hips, knees, and ankles while maintaining our centre of gravity. This is commonly known as the athletic position. Getting athletes to understand this basic athletic position is imperative so that it can be performed soundly in more challenging progressions and at higher speeds in the future. Since the majority of sports have a unilateral aspect to them, athletes should become comfortable in both the primary athletic position (bilateral) and the single-leg variant. “Oftentimes, jumping, running, and changing direction occur on one leg at a time. Thus, it becomes paramount to master the single leg stability, balance, and control of the body (3).”
Once the athlete has a solid understanding of the basic athletic positions, it is time to progress it by increasing the speed at which they will get into these positions. Deceleration drills demand the generation of large forces that stimulate adaptations in the athlete’s muscles and joints. “For this type of adaptation to be transferable to a specific task, care must be taken to incorporate high-force activities that fully exploit the muscles and motor units, the range of motion, and the contraction velocity typical of the task…Deceleration training should be introduced into general fitness training for multiple sprint sports because of the apparent adaptations that muscles make and the detrimental effect that deceleration has on the rate of fatigue (2).”
One of the best foundational movements that gets athletes moving into the athletic position quickly is known as the “snap down.” This exercise starts to introduce some of the high-force activity that the athlete will feel while playing their sport without over-taxing the body. Starting from a tall standing position with arms overhead, as quickly as you can, drop down into the athletic position and come to a full stop. Your hips should be sitting back; lower back should not be rounded; knees should be lined up over your toes; and your ankles should be flexed. You should be balanced over your feet with your heels down. Make sure the arms finish behind the body, this is crucial so that the athlete is in the ready position for a subsequent jump or sprint. Hold the athletic position for 3 seconds and then return to the starting position. From there the athlete would progress onto the single-leg snap down.
Common mistakes to watch for on the snap down are:
The back rounding; keep the shoulders packed and the chest up
Knees caving in (valgus); force the knees out with the knees in line with the toes
Landing on flat feet; we want the athletes landing on the balls of their feet
A natural progression on the standard snap down is to add a vertical jump coming out of the athletic position and then stick the landing. This variation adds in a power component, taking advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle. The power generated from the jump increases the amount of force that the athlete must absorb upon landing. The snap down to jump can be progressed by adding in some rotations in mid-air. Start with a quarter turn and then progress to a 180 and 360 degree turn.
From there, we can add some locomotion and have the athlete perform a sprint to stop. Begin by taking just a few steps and then come to a controlled stop with a lower centre of gravity and a stable base. This can then be progressed to longer distances and higher sprinting speeds. A final progression is to have the stops be called out at random by the coach, replicating a game setting by adding in a reactive component to the drill.
This article has only scratched the surface on deceleration mechanics when we consider that the majority of sports are multi-directional. There are other considerations that must be made for lateral movement, cutting and back-pedalling that will be explored in future articles. For now, the take home message is that it is just as important to empower athletes with the ability to decelerate properly and absorb impact as it is to generate faster accelerations and top-end speeds. These two things must go hand in hand, otherwise we are simply asking our athletes to get injured. “Modern training design should elicit performance improvements and reduce training and competition time loss caused by illness and injury. Musculoskeletal injuries are a serious issue in elite sports. For instance, in team sports, overuse injuries lead to significant competition and training time loss (4).” The foundational athletic positions and deceleration drills that are provided in this article are a great place to start. These are the cornerstone for injury prevention and their application will ensure that the athlete is equipped with what he/she needs to stay healthy and play to their greatest potential.
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Feit, A., Smith, B. Coaches Guide to Jump Training. 2016
Lakomy, J., and D.T. Haydon. The effects of enforced, rapid deceleration on performance in a multiple sprint test. J. Strength Cond. Res. 18(3):579–583. 2004
Feit, A., et al. Complete Sports Training. p 92 - 93. 2018
Kraus, Kornelius1; Schütz, Elisabeth2; Doyscher, Ralf3. Construct Validation of the FMS: Relationship between a Jump- Landing Task and FMS Items. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: August 29, 2017