Multi-Directional Speed for Performance◆ ☕️☕️ 8 min read
- The Ability to Change Levels
- The Ability to Rotate
- The Ability to Create Optimal Stiffness
- The Stretch Shortening Cycle
- Orientation of Force Application
Linear speed is a popular discussion in sport performance. Most coaches agree that sprinting is a quality that needs to be trained in its own right, yet when change of direction (COD) ability is mentioned, strength training is thought to be able to take care of that, as the characteristics of those qualities are similar. Whereas effective COD performance does require an adequate strength base, this is just a fraction of what is needed.
The strength and conditioning industry as a whole is focused on the weight room. We do Olympic lifts and squats, big bilateral exercises, and focus on bracing to resist motion and keep intra-abdominal pressure to remain stable under heavy loads. But COD is a triplanar rotation-dominant unilateral movement, which requires us to manage pressures, rotate, absorb forces and so on. We can’t just rely on basic strength development to tick all the boxes for COD performance.
On a fundamental level, we are structures filled up with air and fluid. If we look at our abdominal viscera and vital organs, this is largely a fluid mass with not many direct attachments to the skeleton. With every move of our body we are carrying this fluid mass in our guts that creates internal forces needed to be managed. We basically move by shape shifting. Fluid is incompressible. Where the fluid goes in our guts, we go.
This is a crucial concept to understand in relation to effective COD. To be able to load a cut effectively, we need to be able to direct the fluid volume where we want to go. Then, subsequently, we need to be able to create stiffness via concentric muscle action to bring the fluid volume up and out of the cut again. This is essentially the inherent process that occurs during effective COD.
To use this concept in practice, we first need to determine what the athlete actually needs for better COD. One of first considerations is position – is the athlete able to access the joint ranges of motion necessary for effective COD? The positional requirements need to be taken care of. As an add on to this is the question of motor skills. Even if they can access the positions, do they have the technique to do this effectively? Then, we can start considering force production capabilities and if they are able to produce enough force at the required velocities to effectively load and then unload the cut to change direction. There is a lot of inter-play between those 3 buckets and all 3 need to be considered, not just the force production question like is often the case in sport performance. When all of this has been taken care of, we can start looking at capacity. They might have the position down with the technical elements and are able to effectively produce force. But are they able to do that in a repetitive scenario? How well are they able to portray the previous 3 under fatigue conditions?
What feed into those 4 over-arching buckets of performance are our more specific COD requirements.
The Ability to Change Levels #
The ability to change levels is the foundational element of all COD performance.
The inability to lower the center of gravity demands compensatory motion elsewhere and decreases the ability to load the cut. To change levels effectively, we need to be able to control the position of the axial skeleton along with managing the internal forces created by the movement of our guts.
In terms of a visual representation, we want to be able to lower the center of mass with a vertical torso, resulting in vertical displacement of our pelvis. As such, we can use squat as an assessment and focus on knee flexion without much accompanying hip flexion. Once we start hinging from our hips, we are starting to translate our pelvis horizontally, instead of vertically as intended. If our weight room squat is built on the principles of powerlifting, where the squats are largely hip dominant, we might not get much carry-over out of it for COD performance beyond the general force production improvements.
We need to forget about the “knees over toes is bad” cue for squatting and start executing the exercise with knee-flexion focus.
The Ability to Rotate #
If we want to change the direction we are moving in, we need to rotate in the new intended direction of travel. Rotation needs to occur both on the level of thorax and the level of pelvis. Again, it comes down to being able to direct the air and fluid volumes in our torso to where we want.
Interventions focusing on moving in the transverse plane while maintaining axial skeleton alignment will help restore and improve our ability to rotate.
Heavily resistance trained individuals tend to lose the ability to effectively rotate in the transverse plane, as to be able to lift heavy you have to be stable and rigid under the load. That is another reason as to why having strength training take care of improving COD performance is an incomplete approach.
The Ability to Create Optimal Stiffness #
Another effect of a classic heavy resistance training protocol is that the continuous bracing strategy implemented to resist force and motion will teach us to maintain a stiff and rigid core at all times.
In COD, however, there needs to be a rhythm to creating the right amount of stiffness in our core at the right times. With too much bracing we are restricting triplanar movement necessary for COD. We cannot go into the cut with too much rigidity in the torso, as this would make us ineffective at loading the cut. What we do need to be able to do though, is to create stiffness in the torso at the right time as we change direction, as the concentric muscle action will help us propel out of the cut.
It all comes back to our internal physics. Going into the cut our guts will move into it with us, allowing us to load the cut. To be able to get out of the cut, we need to ramp up stiffness in our torso at the right time to catch the guts and move out in the intended direction.
Too much stiffness at all times will not allow us to load the cut, whereas not enough stiffness will make us sink into the cut and not allow us to get out.
Different medicine ball catch and throw variations along with fake medicine ball chop variations will provide the stimulus to ramp up stiffness at the right time in the right amounts and train that ability.
The Stretch Shortening Cycle #
Just like with traditional plyometric activities, the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) is also utilized in COD tasks. In case you want to read more about the mechanisms of the SSC and how to develop it, I’ve written about it before here.
It’s important to note that the SSC isn’t only occurring in the lower limbs, but the elasticity is occuring system-wide. Faster athletes tend to be more effective at using the elasticity of the entire body to supercharge the propulsive action out of the cut.
SSC utilization in a COD task links well with the optimal creation of stiffness in the core. The storage and release of elastic energy only works when the COD is quick. When the ground contact is too long and slow, the elastic energy stored in the tendons during the stretch simply dissipates as heat. Thus, optimal production of stiffness is a necessity to take full advantage of the SSC in a COD task.
The considerations of the SSC also show how conventional resistance training protocols might not be the best approach to improving one’s COD ability. Unless dynamic activities that utilize the SSC and incorporate ground contact times similar to that of the COD are used within the resistance training program, it will have limited carryover to COD performance.
Orientation of Force Application #
The final consideration in COD performance is the orientation of force application. During COD activities, we can’t just focus on how much force we can produce, but it is also important to distinguish in which direction are we able to direct those forces.
Conventional strength training will rely on using weight due to gravity as the resistance. As gravity works in the vertical plane, this is the direction in which we will orient our force application during common resistance exercises like squats. We are pushing against gravity.
COD, like sprinting, is relying more on horizontal force application and not vertical. Even though the total force applied might not be different between two athletes, the faster athlete will be able to apply more force in the horizontal direction as opposed to the vertical. This goes for both the ability to effectively decelerate going into the cut, as well as to propel the body out of the cut.
As such, our efforts to improve COD performance shouldn’t be so much focused on vertical force application but rather on how to direct the forces more in the horizontal direction. Some examples include bounding variations and broad jumps, to learn how to apply forces in the horizontal direction.
The above discussion should give you an idea of the relevance of actual change of direction training within a sporting context instead of just relying on strength training to take care of it as is often the approach.
Change of direction is something that many sports require. It's an unique skill with very specific demands that should be trained in its own right.