The ability to start and accelerate consistently well should be developed with a process that, preferably, occurs throughout the various training phases. In track and field, ultimately, sprinters need to be proficient using starting blocks, however; the learning progression that I use includes attention to detail during standing starts, the 3 point start (as used for combine 40 yard dashes), and the 4 point start without blocks. Learning to accelerate from these stances not only has a lot of carryover value to the start with blocks, but to starting and accelerating in other sports as well, ie; football and basketball. The purpose of this writing is to identify common short comings of young and developing sprinters, and to help provide remedies. For those that are more tuned into football, my Football Conditioning for Speed blog may be more to the point for you, but it also refers back to this blog for those that want more detailed information.
Something that should not be overlooked is the value of including good core exercises in the training program and assessing the athlete for any postural abnormalities. Without going into too much detail, lifestyle activities, ie; a lot of sitting in front of a computer or television, overuse of certain muscle groups, etc..., can impact core function and affect posture, making some areas of the body short and tight and others long and loose (weak). This, obviously can negatively affect the ranges of motion, body positions, and performance as the athlete is trying to run fast.
Early in the season, to preserve the legs, I don't require the athletes to execute the starts to their warm up runs and training runs from a perfectly still position, but instead, I encourage the athletes to roll or move into their runs in various ways. To start the runs my first command may be "toward the line" meaning that the athletes don't have to step totally up to the line and assume a stationary stance, then my "to your marks", "set", and "go" will be in a predictable rhythm to make it easier for the athletes to time setting themselves, and I even allow the athletes to begin their starting motion a little before "go" in order to further lessen the stress on the legs.
Another important aspect of encouraging easy accelerations during warm up runs and for training runs early on, is that the athletes get to experience some measure of each phase of the sprint, albeit at a lower intensity, thus, building a foundation for the development of the race models that the athlete needs to learn. Athletes that do rather explosive starts followed by a drastic lessening of intensity during acceleration, miss out on that. We first do all runs from a standing start, and I pay attention to the athletes base and how they bend as they prepare to start, as well as their body position, hip height, and hip position as they accelerate from the standing start stance.
Hip height and hip position during running is a result of different factors. What I pointed out earlier about core function and posture are factors. It is important to understand, generally speaking, that the first strides play an important role in determining and influencing; the trajectory of the path that the hips and torso follow, length of strides, and that the strength and stability of the hips, knees, ankles, and feet play important roles in optimizing hip height and hip position. It is natural for the level of the hips to change from stride to stride, called vertical oscillation (body bounce), but I'm referring to being able to optimize the hip height at which this occurs, and of course, too much body bounce is not running efficiently. In this video Dwain chambers addresses hip height in simple language but it is important to understand that when he is addressing the action of the recovering leg, he is referring to upright running when the heel comes close to the hamstring. During the start and early portion of the race, especially from a 3 point or 4 point stance, the foot travels lower to the ground initially before raising toward the end of the stride. If the sprint mechanics are good, the hips should progressively get higher as the body becomes more upright.
Fast forward to the 3:10 mark of this video and note how each athlete bends during their standing start, as well as the forward angle and posture of the body as they start and begin to accelerate. Some young athletes start from a position that is too upright to be able to use the big muscles (glutes and hamstrings) appropriately during starting and accelerating. Recruiting the glutes is fundamental to effective starting and accelerating in all sports.
Teaching good squat mechanics (weights not necessary in my opinion) and tuck jumps can help abilities to bend properly, but keep in mind that you're trying to help the athletes to naturally incorporate good bending into their standing start technique. There is a certain "spring like" quality that should be present during starts, similar to how a jack in the box toy pops up after being pressed down. The stiffness (good quality) of the springiness varies from athlete to athlete but can be trained like anything else.
Improving the ability to bend and more effectively use the big muscles during a vigorous starting action may result in a lower trajectory angle (good thing) and may result in a little stumbling initially while the athlete becomes accustomed to this change. What also should be present is the quick footwork that is specific to a standing start as the athlete moves in the attempt to "get out" from the starting position. I include the standing start in my teaching progression because it is easier to achieve the necessary explosiveness, optimal stride length, and appropriate; body positions, glute recruitment, hip height, and hip position during acceleration and top speed (max velocity).
During this video (again 3:10 mark) you should be able to see the footwork since starts for an 800 meter run are not nearly as explosive than if they were sprinting. During the starting action from a standing start, there is a brief push off from the back foot, and the front foot tends to drift forward very slightly with the knee staying ahead of it as the body moves forward and the front leg prepares to push off.
It is important to note that when executing a start where the hand(s) are on the ground, 3 point and 4 point starts, that there is no drifting forward of the front foot and both feet seem to initiate their push off, pretty much at the same time (double leg drive). Some are able to also have this double legdrive during the standing start, but if it is not done in an explosive and quick manner that results in generating a high impulse (from glute muscles primarily), then it can negatively impact the ensuing steps in the race.
When the athlete demonstrates the ability to attempt to effectively bend during standing starts, then I believe it makes sense to mix in some standing starts where you enforce basic rules of starting, and not allow cheating, ie; rolling into the start. The objective is for the athlete to master getting into the launch position (bent and ready to go) with the right mental focus (movement oriented) between the "set" command and the "go" signal. Once in the ball park of successfully mastering this, and when the athlete is in reasonably decent shape, I believe it is appropriate to progress to the 3 point or 4 point start (1 or 2 hands on the ground). Although the 3 point start is not used in track, it is a start that is commonly used in the teaching progression. It makes it easier for the athlete to learn to utilize the arms effectively during the first step, and allows the athlete a more natural feel coming out of that stance.
A very common mistake is for the young athlete to want to get too close to the starting line with the front foot when setting up for the 3 or 4 point start. When the feet are at reasonable distances from the starting line it makes it a lot easier to get the legs and torso in the correct angles when assuming the "set" position. Angles that allow the appropriate forces to be applied in the appropriate directions, and for the body to be aligned correctly when accelerating. Some athletes that get too close to the line when starting are able to quickly jump out with what seems to be a successful first step, but in actuality the step often lacks; appropriate power, range of motion, often results in an acceleration angle that is more upright than it should be, and a less than optimal hip height, hip position, and recruitment from the glutes. This obviously negatively impacts the ensuing steps and rest of the race.
For the 3 point start I suggest approximately one shoe length between the starting line and the front foot, and a comfortable distance between the front and the back foot. Michael Johnson does a great job of explaining the 3 point starting stance in this video. Note how both feet are in their positions before the athlete bends and places hands on the ground, and note the angles of the legs during the "set" position. When not using blocks some athletes will have their back leg at a bit more of a closed angle than shown in that video, but a common mistake when too close to the line is for both legs to be at about 90 degrees when in the "set" position, which is too cramped a position. The front leg should be at about 90 degrees and the back leg should be at a greater angle than the front leg.
Michael Johnson emphasizes having a good shin angle for the front leg. When not using starting blocks it is very common for young athletes to seek stability while assuming the "set" position by resting on a flattened front foot, with the shin angle toward perpendicular to the ground, which leads to; standing up on the first step, or adjustments to keep from standing up which also robs from the performance. Watch the shin angles of these football players at the NFL combine and the degree to which they are on the balls of their feet while they are in the "set" position. In addition, often both hands are on the ground at some point while assuming the "set" position, and then they will cock the one arm back when ready to go. Note how Kevin White sets up for his 40. When in a good "set" position you won't be able to hold that position too long, and there will be a lot of pressure on the fingers of the hand on the ground, so the athlete should time things so that he/she isn't frozen in the "set" position too long. The forward angle of the body when starting and accelerating from a 3 point start should be lower than when starting from a standing start, but I don't believe this needs to be over-coached. The athlete needs to become accustomed to the dynamics of the 3 point stance, and when repetitively competing from it, and being given good coaching cues and feedback, the athlete should eventually produce an appropriate forward angle. It is important to note that the power of the athlete will play a big factor in determining that angle. Everyone won't look like Christian Coleman when he ran 4.12.
I subscribe to Ralph Mann's definition of the "start", as to including the starting step and the next two steps, so doing starts where the finish line is 3 meters from the starting line has a lot of value, as long as the athlete runs through the finish line with the normal body position for that point in the race rather than leaning and stretching for the finish line, and as with all sprint efforts, it is important to decelerate properly and under control for injury prevention purposes even when doing 3 meter sprints. (Mann's book is great!!!) It is also critical to acknowledge what Mann points out that there is a transition between the starting three steps and the rest of the race. Please don't confuse this transition with the transition that occurs at about the 20 meter mark of the race where the athlete's head comes up. During the first 3 steps there is a powerful horizontally directed drive which results from a combination of horizontal and vertical forces (thoroughly described in Mann's book). Appropriate strength, stability, and stiffness of the athlete's lower extremities is critical to maximize performance (can be trained). This is followed by transition to a more vertically directed drive. The athlete is still in the typical forward driving position, however; it should be what I call a "tall driving position" that features an appropriate hip height, and body position and angles that allow the athlete to access the power in the glutes.
When watching videos of very good sprinters you will note how they gradually rise to their upright top speed position, with the last visible detail being a subtle lifting of the head. A common mistake is for athletes to jerk their head and body up quickly into an upright position and rob themselves of a lot of acceleration potential. Another mistake is giving excessive attention to trying to stay in a low position, and this can negatively impact acceleration and again, hip height, and hip position. Sometimes this can result from over-coaching and/or having the athletes focus excessively on doing starts alone. Competing during practice can give athletes and coaches very useful feedback, and help athletes develop a more natural and productive acceleration angle and pattern.
Although 40 yard dashes are typically timed by allowing the athlete to start when he is ready, there is value in having athletes practice competing from their 3 point stance in sprints where someone gives the commands of "to your marks", "set", and "go". This can promote a more balanced stance with the optimal amount of bend, as well as helping the athlete have the right movement oriented mental focus between the "set" and "go" commands.
When using the 4 point start (both hands on the ground), when not using starting blocks, I suggest the front foot being more than 1 shoe length from the line, and once again, placing the back foot in it's position before bending to place hands on the track. I like having athletes place the hands beyond the starting line and walk them back to the starting line as was shown in Johnson's video. When in the "on your marks position" the thumbs should be under the shoulders with the arms perpendicular to the track with the weight distributed between the hands, the knee on the ground, and the feet. For the "set" position the hips should move vertically to a position that is at least a bit higher than the shoulders. When the athlete is in the "set" position and poised to "get out", there will be a lot of pressure on the fingers, and it is common for the athlete to feel their body want to drift forward. (How this affects the pressure felt in the fingers is described in the video two paragraphs below this) The forward angle experienced during starting and accelerating likely will be even lower than when using the 3 point start, but once again, be patient with that. Common mistakes include seeking stability and a more comfortable "set" position by; not raising the hips high enough in the "set" position, and once again, resting on a flattened front foot and/or having hips too high with the legs too straight. The objective is for the athlete to become accustomed with the 4 point start to be able to, once again, get into the launch (set) position with the right focus between the "set" command and the gun.
It is a coach's decision as to how best to communicate information in a useful fashion to each athlete. The coach, obviously should endeavor to be extremely knowledgeable, however, the athlete needs to be given the information at the right times and in the right way (not all athletes the same). Drills have their place, as do demonstrations, lectures, and film study. The coach must understand that the athlete's focus is different from the coach's. When the athlete's focus is on competing, the coach must understand that the details of the start and drive phase techniques occur at lightening speed, and many things happen simultaneously. When just working on the start, as I stated earlier, having the athletes to compete for distances of 3 meters can be useful, and to work on the first transition as well, having the athletes compete at distances of 5-10 meters can be effective. What a coach doesn't want is for instruction to result in athletes trying to control things to the extent where their movements are slower.
Finally, when adding starting blocks, it is important for the athlete to realize that the presence of the foot pedals will keep the soles of the feet from relaxing back toward the track when getting in the blocks, having the effect of pushing the athlete forward, so the distances for how far each pedal is from the line needs to be positioned accordingly. It is suggested for there to be 2 shoe lengths from the line for the front block and 3 shoe lengths from the line for the back block. Many young athletes will feel that these distances are too far from the line and they will opt to set their blocks closer to the line and end up assuming an overly cramped position, although they may not realize it. Being in too cramped a position when using starting blocks can complicate things and be more detrimental than a cramped position without blocks because of the increased level of forces available. This can lead the athlete to do any number of counter productive things as a result. When getting in the blocks I don't recommend having the feet up on the blocks and not touching the track. (often this is not allowed anyway) I recommend the feet being in contact with the track, and when getting into the blocks and assuming the "on your marks position", the balls of the feet are in contact with the block pedals. This video and this writing are informative in regards to using the blocks.
There should be a feeling of being accustomed to; the blocks, the "on your marks" position, being ready to go up into a good "set" position, and as before, in a launch position (a lot of pressure on the fingers) with a good focus. One famous coach described the "set" position as "Butt-hamstrings-hips rev the engine, hands and shoulders hold self in".
The starting blocks provide a platform to push off hard from if that is what the athlete desires, however; there are two basic starting styles in regards to that. In his book The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling, Ralph Mann defines the "jump start" as emphasizing power and an explosive jump out of the blocks, and that, of course, affects the steps after that, and the "shuffle start" as emphasizing shorter strides and a fast turn over (fast strides). Both can work and both are used at the elite level. The shuffle start is easier to control and to be productive from, however; practice is required to learn an optimal amount of push from the blocks as well as turn over coming out of the blocks. An athlete can over-emphasize turnover and it can take from the efficiency of the acceleration and the rest of the race, and realize that, using blocks may produce more of a forward (lower) acceleration angle than experienced with starts without blocks, and may take some getting used to.
This video shows the University of Houston sprinters during an indoor season doing a good job utilizing what many would classify as the "jump start", while this video (forward to 1:30) shows Christian Coleman using more of a shuffle start, great turnover (although he does also exhibit power). Ironically during the 2017 outdoor season, Coleman lined up right next to Houston's best sprinter, Cameron Burrell in the NCAA 100 meter final, and you can pretty easily compare Coleman's and Burrell's start and acceleration. Coleman was far superior to Burrell in that instance, but that is not to say that the jump start should not be used, and that Burrell is not a great sprinter. During the 2018 NCAA 100 meter final Burrell was victorious, albeit, with no Coleman in the race. A Houston teammate was second, and a third teammate was in the final with them, validating their approach.
In conclusion, I hope this helped your understanding of the task at hand when trying to get the most out of your young sprinters. I am a former track athlete that is a certified trainer and a high school track coach. You may contact me with questions about this writing, and/or to enlist my services.