Understanding Speed

By Jon Hudak


Recently in a private Facebook group, another coach posted a video of an athlete doing a very standard speed & agility drill – with the intention of getting opinions and questions on how we might coach this athlete.

The drill was a version of “cone stacking”, with 3 cones placed in different places, each about 5 yards away from where the athlete started. The goal is to stack the 3 cones, one at a time, as fast as you can back at the starting spot.



In the performance training industry, you see posts almost daily from other coaches, therapists, movement specialists, etc. that watch a quick video and seem to make very thorough – and confident – assessments about what the problems are and what they would do to fix it.

They decide the athlete lacks hip IR, poor glute function, bad thoracic mobility (or stability – whichever fits the argument in the moment), no ankle or big toe dorsiflexion, poor reactive ability, incorrect breathing patterns and on and on.

There’s a big problem here

Coaches that take this approach muddy the waters by catering to the general public who doesn’t really understand the complexity, while at the same time doing a disservice to the athlete in front of them.

So, what’s the lens we should look through when assessing speed?

  • As simple as possible
  • Very different than the way we might look at strength training (programming and exercise selection, along with coaching and cueing).

A good starting point with speed work is to remember that no coach invented speed and agility movements.

When assessing, we’re looking at movements that are a part of our evolution. We had to be able to chase & evade quickly. All we’ve done is create competitive sports that tap into these natural movements in slightly different ways – but acceleration, deceleration, and change of direction are motor programs that existed before sports.


The Right Way To Assess Speed


The key to assessing these movements is they must be done at full speed to get an accurate look at any inefficiencies. Movements done at full speed in a fight-or-flight environment will give a look behind the curtain as to how an athlete self-organizes and responds to a rapidly changing environment.

If the athlete is thinking too much about the drill itself, or where to put their feet, or what their back looks like then we’re not getting an honest look at what they’re capable of.

You’ll also be surprised sometimes as to how a movement can be cleaned up just by making it competitive.

Of course, there are times where we have to step back and work on certain mechanical aspect but only after they’ve shown that they have consistent issues that are affecting how fast they can move.

It’s important to recognize the difference between a bad rep and a poor movement pattern 

If you’re going to make a change you’d better be sure it’s going to make you faster!

Change the question in your mind from “What’s not perfect about this rep” to “Is this the fastest, most efficient movement you could produce today based on your current ability”.

The answer to both questions doesn’t always line up – and perfect for one athlete might be slightly different from another.

The big picture answer for me is just that – focus on the big picture! If you can step back and observe an athlete move you might save yourself some time and effort and be able to focus on getting improved reactions, strength, and power.

If you try to break down speed into too many individual parts, you’ll most likely be ignoring a lot of factors that go into how beautifully the system works together when we simply remove the emergency brakes and get the athlete intent on being as fast as possible!

Bill has spent over a decade coaching athletes to improve on the field including athletes in the NFL, MLB and throughout the NCAA. Today, he owns Superior Athletics where he trains his athletes while being the editor of the Performance team for Lifestyle Sports.