There is no team sport where being fast to the ball or puck is not critical to your success as an athlete. Sporting events are made up of hundreds of small moments throughout the game where players must react quicker than their opponent to win the one-on-one battles that ultimately separate wins from losses.
And improving 1st step quickness is suprisingly one of the most trainable speed skills there are, meaning those who put in the time will give themselves a giant advantage over their not-so-hard working competitors. Building up one or more of these skills can make you quicker almost overnight, making you more effective in your sport and more confident in your abilities.
MASTER YOUR ATHLETIC STANCE
Also known as a ‘ready’ position, knowing how to play in an athletic stance will almost immediately improve your quickness. Sitting in a slight hips back, shoulders forward position with an arched back will pre-stretch literally dozens of muscles in your legs and hips. This increased tension can be thought of just like stretching a rubber band – it stores energy in a lengthened state and better prepares you to explode out further in your first step.
The depth of your athletic position will depend slighty on your sport. Basketball players often sit in a lower athletic position in comparison to a sport like soccer, but the concept remains true across a wide range of sports.
IMPROVE YOUR SINGLE LEG STRENGTH
With all else being equal, the stronger your leg and hip muscles the faster you will play. There are other factors involved, like maintaining a proper bodyweight for your frame, but generally speaking those with more leg stregnth play faster.
Ideally this is built mostly using single leg exercises like lunging, step ups and 1 leg squatting. Sprinting or skating to a play always includes a 1 leg push off, which engages stabilizer muscles that don’t always get worked in common leg strength drills like squatting and deadlifting. Single leg exercises can be more taxing on the body, but for those who want to separate themselves from the pack your reward over time will far outweigh the short-term sacrifice.
USE YOUR ARMS
Arm drive generates roughly 50% of your power during 1st step movements. Proper coordination of your arms and legs from the get-go will vastly improve how quickly you can go from stationary to top speed.
Exercises like skipping, which forces arm drive and coordination of your entire body, will help any young athlete tap into this often untouched power source.
STABILIZE YOUR CORE
Your midsection is designed to be stable, and when the rest of your body is in motion it acts as the link between your arm and leg power. A strong and stable midsection will pass down all of the power generated from your arms into your leg action, giving you a more explosive stride.
It is important that core training includes stability work in all 3 planes of motion. Exercises like planks, side planks, and swimmers planks are good starting points for three-dimensinoal core stability.
IMPROVE YOUR STOPPING SKILLS
Often times there are multiple changes in game situations that occur within seconds of each other. It is in these moments where athletes who constantly get themselves back in a ‘ready’ state will get to a second or third chance play better than those who do not.
This is a rarely practiced skill that can not only make an athlete quicker, but drastically reduce their injury potential.
There are literally hundreds of drills that you can add a stopping component at the end for skill repetition. Ideally, stops are practiced when running straight forward, backpedaling, and moving laterally.
STAY FOCUSED & ANTICIPATE
When developing 1st step quickness, we need to understand that it is more than just a physical skill. Seeing and anticipating sudden changes during a game will allow you to react faster and make you appear quicker than you actually may be.
Focus in sports is a habit, and with any habit it can be improved through repetition. Practicing with focus leads to playing with focus. As such, the dedicated athlete should always look for small ways to pick up more from a drill in practice, really dialing in mentally to what is going on around them. The same thing should happen in games, where younger players who are engaged in the details of what’s going on will pick up tendencies. Over time, they will be able to anticipate what is about to happen and play with more perceived quickness. The faster the pace of your sport (basketball and ice hockey come to mind), the more important focus and anticipation will be to your success.
The belief that you can’t develop speed is most easily disproven when it comes to first-step quickness. Adhering to and developing the skills laid out above will make a noticeable difference in just a couple months. But over many years it can entirely transform a kid who used to be thought of as slow into someone who just always seems to get to a play one step quicker than their opponent does.