Coaching Today

Developing the Total Athlete_MH 

By Steve Silvey

The statement “great athletes are born” is an all-encompassing statement, and there are many who disagree with that thinking. Certainly, it is possible for someone to be born with a better “gene pool.” And the likelihood for that person’s success is better if those genes are used. However, does that mean that to be a great athlete you have to start with a great gene pool? Absolutely not. Is potential and desire necessary? Absolutely yes.

Coaches should strive to develop a high level of athletic skill in each and every athlete. The greater the level of athletic skill the athlete possesses, the higher the level of sports skill will be in the athlete’s particular sporting event. To have the opportunity to experience greatness, athletes have to learn “sport-specific skills.” Then, they have to perfect and perform drills on a regular basis.

The objective when developing a great track and field athlete should focus on helping the athlete develop balance, rhythm, agility, power and flexibility through a variety of drills. Great body balance, strength and flexibility on both the right and left side of the body are imperative. Many athletes will naturally have these qualities on one side of the body, but not on the other side. As a result, they are more prone to athletic injuries on that side of the body because it tends to be weak, awkward or inflexible. Being weak on one side causes the athlete not to reach his/her full athletic potential.

Power is a quality that is often overlooked by coaches and athletes. For the athlete to increase power, he/she needs to improve in three main areas:

  1. Functional dynamic strength
  2. Basic flexibility
  3. Speed and quickness

Power is defined as:

 Developing the Total Athlete_Graphic 


Force = strength
Distance = a range of motion determined by flexibility
Time = speed or quickness

During the base training of any athlete, a considerable amount of time should be spent on power training. One possibility during fall training is pre-conditioning on grass hills, stadium stairs and ramps. This can be done in the sand pit with “hurdle-hops” and low-impact “plyometrics.” Working on grass or in sand naturally creates more power and general strength.

Barefoot running is a part of a complete conditioning program. It is useful to strengthen the athlete’s tendons, ligaments and small muscle groups of the feet. Training shoes act as a cast and do nothing to strengthen the foot.

Leg power is necessary for speed. For an athlete to achieve 100-percent leg power capabilities, he or she must run “HIPS TALL” over the hips at all times and keep all parts of the body near or under the “center of mass” at all times. Many athletes will shrink 3-6 inches while running because they are over-rotating at the hips. This causes a loss of 20 to 30 percent of leg power and a substantial loss in true speed performance.

The athlete must also have a tremendous amount of lower leg strength (below the waist) because each time the athlete strikes the ground, he or she is applying three  times the body weight to the ground. The coaching cues when working on proper running mechanics are:

1. Toe Up
2. Heel Up
3. Knee Up
4. Chest Up
5. Head Up
6. Eyes Up

Most importantly, athletes must remain in “Hips-Tall” position at all times

for the six coaching cues listed above to be effective. The athlete who does not stay in proper body position over his or her hips will give up 20 to 30 percent of their maximum leg power. This is a common fault of young athletes who have not been instructed properly.

Core strength is also highly important as it provides a strong foundation for the tremendous forces created by the arms and legs. The abdominal area of the body or the core is the control mechanism of the body. Without a strong core, the athlete will never become a champion.

Speed involves the numerous areas of the body – muscle groups, circulation (blood supply to these muscles), the mind and – most importantly – the central nervous system. As an athlete prepares the body for speed, he or she must develop motor skills so the necessary components for speed are stored as muscle memory.

For an athlete to become fast and stay fast, he or she must utilize fast-twitch muscles regularly. Have you heard the saying, “If you don’t use it you lose it?” Well, this statement accurately applies to fast-twitch muscle fibers.

When it comes to an athlete’s speed, it starts from the ground up. First, for any athlete to excel in speed development, he or she must learn to use “Dorsi Flexion” with the foot. Unfortunately, most young athletes use “Plantar Flexion” instead. “Plantar Flexion” is a bad habit. Because this downward pointing of the toe causes a breaking effect upon contact with the ground, it is similar to continually “riding” the brakes in a moving car.

“Plantar Flexion” keeps the athlete’s foot on the ground too long, maximizing ground time that translates into slower speed performance. In addition, the “braking effect” can put a lot of strain on the ankle, shin and hamstring muscles. It is likely that “Plantar Flexion” is the number one cause of “shin splints” and hamstring injuries.

Hamstring injuries are very common in sports that involve speed. The hamstring muscle is one of the weakest muscles in the body, and “plantar flexion” increases hamstring weakness. It is important to strengthen the hamstring muscles one leg at a time as well working on lower back flexibility. In addition to the problems caused by “Plantar Flexion,” many hamstring injuries are caused by poor lower back flexibility, and this is an area that is often neglected by the athlete.

Great speed performance starts with “Dorsi-Flexion,” which is keeping the toe and heel up while running. The runner is literally stretching the calf muscle while running. When running, the athlete pulls the heel tight “through to the buttocks” and then places it on the ground under the knee. When the athlete’s foot lands on the track surface or the ground, the foot is then cycled backwards or pulled up to the buttocks. At this point, the foot is then brought back down to the ground with the toe up as it makes contact with the ground underneath the knee. A common mistake made by coaches is to telling their athletes to take “longer strides,” which causes a “braking effect” as the athlete often lands on the heel and loses power.

How does the use of “Dorsi-Flexion” make an athlete faster and why is it better than “Plantar Flexion”? Dorsi-Flexion makes an athlete much more active upon contact with the ground or track and also allows the individual to “get-off” the ground or track surface quicker. “Rome was not built in a day” and don’t expect your athletes to pick up this new technique overnight. The bad habits took years to develop, and it will take weeks to correct them, but once the athlete learns “Dorsi-Flexion,” he or she will be much more efficient in landing. Efficient landing minimizes both ground time and air time, which translates into faster speed performances.

To run fast, an athlete must run on the balls of the feet at all times. This means landing on the “widest part” of the front of the foot each and every time. Athletes must also learn how to strengthen the tendons, ligaments and small muscle groups in the foot, ankle and below the knee if they are to be able to run on their toes. An athlete’s body cannot be supported unless these areas are strong. Good exercises to strengthen the feet are:

  1. Barefoot Running
  2. Sand-Pit Plyometrics
  3. Weight Training exercises focusing below the knee

If an athlete attempts to land and push off from the heel, he or she can never master speed. Remember, unless you plan on running a marathon, nothing good ever happens on your heel. 

Proper arm action is important for speed as well. The athlete must move the arms in a quick and efficient manner, stopping the hand near the chin on the upward motion and at the hips on the downward motion. Remember, a short lever is a quick lever; a long lever is a slow lever. To run fast, the athlete must have a “piston-type” arm motion to maximize speed. Two key points are:

  1. The arms never cross the midpoint of the body. Find the “midpoint” by drawing a line down the middle of your body to separate it into two equal parts. Crossing the midpoint with either the arms or the legs will cause slowing down of SPEED performance because of inefficiency of movement. 
  1. The elbows must be kept within 2- 4 inches of the body at all times. If the arms are too far away from the body, this “Chicken Wing” movement will cause the athlete to lose maximum speed performance. 

Last, but certainly not least, is the posture for the upper body:

  1. The shoulders should be kept low and relaxed at all times.
  2. The face and the jaw should remain relaxed.
  3. The athlete’s head should remain in its normal position – the “Neutral Head Position” – as if he or she was merely standing in place.

If the athlete drops the head or eyes slightly when running, it hinders the ability for a nice high knee lift. By dropping the head, the athlete lowers the center of mass, which causes a domino effect on the rest of the body and, in turn, causes his or her performance level to decline.

To help the athlete keep the head up, have the individual raise his or her eyes and look forward 30-50 yards. The athlete should focus on an object 6-8 feet above the ground that is located past the finish line. Examples of this would be a tree, building or a set of windows. This will ensure that the athlete’s head and hips remain tall throughout the entire distance run or the race.

A good diet is vital to achievement as well. Thankfully, athletes are becoming more and more interested in how their diet affects their performance. It is now recognized that the right diet, combined with the latest “legal” nutritional supplements and combined with proper training, adequate sleep, proper hydration and coaching, can significantly improve the overall performance.

Great Training + Poor Eating Habits = Mediocre Performance 

The talented athlete with a poor diet is going to be at the same level as the athlete who trains only half as hard, yet employs a well-rounded nutritional program.

Good nutrition is about more than just food. Athletes must also drink water and hydrate properly and sufficiently. To be properly hydrated, an athlete should be drinking a minimum of 8-10 large glasses (100-plus ounces) of water and/or sports drink daily. If an athlete is sufficiently hydrated, he or she will be going to the bathroom every 45 minutes during the day and once during the night, and the urine will be a pale yellow color.

Sleep is another factor. Athletes should discipline themselves to get eight to nine hours of sleep each night.

Sleep facts 

  1. Every hour you go to bed before midnight counts as two hours of good sleep after midnight.
  2. R.E.M. sleep – the deepest of all sleep patterns – can only be achieved when you go to sleep before midnight.
  3. Going to sleep before midnight allows your body to have the proper regeneration before the next day’s workout.

About the Author: Steve Silvey is a proven coach with more than 25 years of experience at the high school, junior college and university levels, and is considered an expert in speed development. He has coached 28 collegiate national champion squads, 14 Olympic medalists and 17 World Championships medalists. Silvey has coached at Texas Tech University, the University of Oregon, the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University. At the international level, Silvey was the Zambia Olympic track and field coach at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. He can be contacted at, and his Web site is



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