This is something I’ve not heard talked about, at least not in much detail.
When an athlete is sprinting, they are in a cyclical pattern of L, R, L, R, L etc. This creates a rhythm and is optimal for speed, but not for adaptability. The most extreme position in the sprinting cycle is when an athlete is at the toe off position of a stride. One leg is in hip extension and the other in hip flexion. This means that the pelvis is also rotated and pointing towards either the left or the right. Toe off from right leg means the pelvis is slightly rotated and facing right. Essentially almost completely cutting off options to move left. If the athlete recognises the need to go left, the effectiveness of the left leg to plant more medially on the following stride and begin a cut is pretty un-inspiring. Unless it is a really shallow angle or a soft curve, the following right leg stride is probably the main plant step (why a crossover cut is pretty much a curve in my opinion).
Because this split leg position at toe off is unavoidable, we need to train players to be better getting out of it, and doing so at high speeds. They need to have the control to get into the sprint cycle and be effective at it, and the control to break its cyclical nature. More simply, can they control their legs and pelvis fast enough to keep their options open. These options come from the position of square femurs and pelvis, a moderated speed and feet both at a similar height. This is commonly known as the ‘option position’.
In the situation where an attacking player is sprinting towards a defender, we often see a little jump prior to a cut. The attacker breaks the sprinting cycle, squares up and lands pretty bilaterally before initiating a cutting direction (the jump simply provides more flight time to organise the BOS). Here are some key components of what is going on from the attacker’s perspective.
- Squaring of the hips and ‘symmetrical’ feet to increase the left to right adaptability and get into the ‘option position’
- Deceleration increasing the scope of angle which a player can cut to
- The deceleration provides more time to perceive and make decisions
These are all impactful changes but remember that one of the key roles of the attacker’s movements is to directly manipulate the defender’s actions. We act to perceive, and we perceive to act.
When an attacker is at speed and in their sprinting rhythm, the defender knows that the attacking player is limited in options, which makes their decision making easier. In contrast, an attacker switching things up and getting to the option position is much more of an issue and disadvantages the defender for a couple of reasons.
- The defender’s ability to anticipate what is about to happen weakens (less stride pattern information and more options to consider because of the attacker’s position and speed).
- Because of the increase in options, the defender also needs to be in an adaptable position. This means more square on and moving at a low velocity. This is typically when we see attackers ‘standing defenders up’.
If the defender is reacting to the attacking player, they are always one step behind. But the position of being square on at a low velocity makes things worse. As in a traditional invasion sport situation, the attacker is facing their desired direction, and the defender has their back to it. This means the attacker can more dominantly use the sagittal plane compared to the defender and therefore has a much greater advantage over the first couple of steps. If the attacker in in the sprinting cycle at high velocities and the defender is already in this low velocity, square position, it’s game over. But if they aren’t, the attacker getting into the option position will force the defender to do this which is more advantage for the attacker and more disadvantage for the defender.
The take home message is not that sprinting isn’t important, actually our good technical sprinting and the positive running concept from Frans Bosch help an athlete transition from the sprinting stride into a more effective option position. The message here is to challenge athletes to get into a good sprinting stride, but also to transition back out of it when needed.