This is at the forefront of my mind as I watch the World Cup matches. Game speed is different than pure track speed. Game speed requires the player to quickly (instantly) solve a myriad of movement problems. The track sprinter has one task- get to the finish line as fast as possible. The sprinter deals with three dimensions, the body, gravity and the ground. The games player has a fourth and some would say a fifth dimension- the opposition as well as an implement and/or the ball.
The sprinter is rewarded for time in the air- the time necessary to recovery the legs in the stride cycle. The games player is penalized for time in the air, the requirements of triple extension to start and accelerate and triple flexion to stop demand that the feet are close to the ground. Also there is a demand for highly variable stride length and frequencies. Therefore stride frequency is rewarded. Game speed is totally dynamic and unpredictable, in many ways random and chaotic.
Are sprint speed and game speed related? Yes, absolutely, they are cousins. The research of Warren Young from University of Ballarat in Australia shows that the more complex the cuts and changes of direction the less correlation with linear sprint speed. I prefer to have good sprint speed as a basis to teach and develop game speed. Obviously a combination of the two gives that player an edge, provided he can channel that sprint speed to the demands of the game.
Game speed entails the ability to recognize, react, start accelerate, decelerate, possibly reaccelerate, and change direction and stop quickly. Quickly is a time from tenths of a second to four to seven seconds depending on the game or situation in the game. To improve game speed you must know the speed demands of the game you are preparing for, the position the player plays and the player’s speed, strength and power qualities. I have found it most important to understand how each player plays their game and help them to improve that. Generic cone, ladder, ring and programmed change of direction drills have varying degree of transfer to improve game speed. Overall we probably spend too much time on these types of drills.
Training for game speed demands intensity and focused concentration applied to quality repetitions. There is a tendency to introduce fatigue too early in the process. Mindless repetition of drills has been proven to be ineffective. Remember just making them tired is not making them better. Teach first, refine the movements, then speed it up, only then should you add an element of fatigue.
Another axiom that I live by is that testing speed does not equal game speed. Testing speed typically involves programmed and rehearsed situations; the game is unrehearsed and random. Game speed is hard to measure unless you have sophisticated analysis systems to use. If you do, then the job becomes a bit easier and specific. If not you must closely observe practice and study video of practice and game situations and adjust and train accordingly.
It is important to always try to incorporate speed of thought, decision-making and awareness in game speed training. That is fundamental to insuring a degree of transfer of training to the game. Game speed training should consist of short sharp bouts of work with a specific goal for the movement that the player clearly understands. At various times it is valuable to slow it down in order to speed it up. The next step is chaining those bouts together in varying sequences and actions. Then add a reaction component and last but not least add an opponent or a ball.
Training game speed is a challenging process. It demands thorough preparation by the coach to constantly assess progress and challenge the athlete. Be creative, it is a FUNdamnetal challenge.