By Matt Gifford, NX Level
The acceleration ladder or tape drill dates back to the Cold War era. In debunking this exercise, formerly termed “East German Stick Drill,” one may take a look and think it was created to elicit disharmony in the speed and power athlete of the United States. The application is often butchered greatly by coaches and athletes alike. Hearsay has it that the Soviet Block countries were using this drill some time ago.
Remi Korchemny, the author of Innovations in Speed Development, popularized the use of the stick drill to teach the bleed out and transitional component of the acceleration pattern from a static starting position. Korchemny prescribed a five to seven stride model for beginners and an initial 3-foot first stick placement. His progressions start with a lengthening of 15 cm (6 inches) per rung.
Korchemny and the East Germans left an imprint on early sprint speed coaches such as Tom Shaw and Gary Winckler who used it to develop field and sprint sport athletes. These highly acclaimed coaches helped create a strong mid-1990’s buzz. Naturally, the drill became extremely watered down via high school and collegiate level coaches and athletes. Mechanical sprint dysfunction and technical model disturbance are commonly created by allowing athletes to: maintain poor posture, cast/overreach, and focus too heavily on limb speed of movement.
Personally, I was a part of its incorrect implementation as a high school athlete in my football and track and field days. Many young athletes will develop an end goal thought, “This is where my foot needs to hit” rather than use the appropriate question, “what positions and feeling state will best get me there?” Furthermore, the drill isn’t a one size fits all model and is often used incorrectly in large group settings.
Charlie Francis expressed its flaws best when he asked these questions, “How can everybody be the same? Are you 5’6” or 6’6”? Sprinting is a hindbrain activity where simple functions can be performed at great speed. Adding complexity to a simple activity slows function down and encourages tightness, which is death to a sprinter.” We must remember the how always trumps the what!Sprinting is a hindbrain activity where simple functions can be performed at great speed. - Charlie Francis Click To Tweet
Over the last few years, the drill has made its way back into popular sprint culture. Vince Anderson, sprint coach at Texas A&M, has used the acceleration ladder with great success. Andersen worked previously with two of the greatest “starters” of all time in Leonard Scott (6.46 60m) and Justin Gatlin (6.45 60m and 9.74 100m) at the University of Tennessee. He now produces great sprinters at A&M under his unique philosophy which incorporates the stick drill nearly every day. Renowned Altis World sprint coaches Andreas Behm and Stuart McMillan prescribe this drill early in their training year to help establish rhythm and a sound technical model.
Marking the Athlete’s Pattern
The athletes stride length pattern will be dictated in regards to anthropometrics, power levels, surface of use, time of year, and technical comprehension. Less powerful athletes or athletes with short levers will likely have a zero mark to first cone mark of 2’6 to 3’0 feet. Likewise, an athlete with a greater power reserve or longer levers will likely start from 3’0 to 3’6 feet. In general, the median may be caught in prescribing somewhere near a “1.1” formula. Stride length from zero to the first stride x 1.1 for shorter stride length and 1.15 or slightly above for greater stride lengths. Coaches should not get lost in finding a perfect formula. (Note: Coach Anderson sells his own charts for youth to elite athletes)
- 0-1st Stride = 3 feet
- 1st-2nd Stride = 3.3 feet (3 x 1.1)
- 2nd-3rd stride = 3.6 feet (3.3 x 1.1)
- 3rd-4th = 4 feet (3.6 x 1.1)
What are you looking for?
Intent is everything! Aggressive push, punch, and extension should be coached from ground through the head. Promote a gradual rise of the athletes torso angles, hip height, and heel recovery in respect to the previously mentioned principals. Coaches should progress distances and number of sticks/cones according to desired intensity, athletes abilities, and technical mastery. One may start with only 3 to 5 markers and when appropriate progress to fifteen or more. Use slow-motion video to identify the athletes biomechanics and ground contact positions. Don’t get lost in a few inches here or there in which the athlete strikes behind or in front of markers. Look for the contact of the athletes foot to be underneath the center of mass and traveling backward. From here the athlete will focus on violently driving through a post that projects one up and forward while pushing the ground away. Free your athletes from thinking about “how fast I’m moving” and steer them towards a philosophy centered towards “what I’m feeling.”
Video 1. Sprinter demonstrates the acceleration ladder.
Video 2. Demonstration of acceleration ladder on inclined slope.
Important Points to Consider
- Use the stick drill early in the training year for rhythm and mechanics. It is best to increase intensity with respect to technical mastery and power (rate of force development) levels. Patient progressions produce powerful performers!
- Teach proper acceleration mechanics first. This drill doesn’t teach optimal acceleration position, rather the skill of accelerating to maximum velocity. Perfect forty or forty-five-degree position usually lasts but one stride. It is imperative to know that during one sprint bout rarely is two acceleration strides identical. Acceleration should always flow towards the end goal: maximal velocity position.
- Cues: “Push, Project, Post, Length = Power = Fast” (I will review external cues in another article)
- Teach gradual rise of torso angle, hip height, heel recovery, shin angle and arm position in relation to gender, skill, and power levels.
- The stick drill or acceleration ladder is time tested for the elite sprint athlete.
- Choose the population wisely for this drill. It may be best to shy away from implementing this with novice athletes, those with a low training age or level of kinesthetic awareness and in a large non-uniform group setting. Most often field sport athletes won’t utilize anything more than a three to six stride acceleration pattern and have to account for the chaos and randomness of their specific field sport environment and rules.
- Progress effectively and patiently. Repetition is the mother of skill.
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