The Need For Speed: Tips With Coach Les Spellman

Coach Les Spellman (Photo N. Marchino) 

Coach Les Spellman (Photo N. Marchino) 

One thing that has been said in sports and it is true…speed kills! The faster the better! The faster teams, the faster players, etc always have a greater advantage. This is no different in rugby, and even more vital in rugby 7s. Some people have some natural ability with speed, but if you rely on just natural ability you will only reach half the potential. Even the best work to continually develop and improve their speed, whether that is Usain Bolt, or Carlin Isles, speed can be developed.

One of the things that has really assisted the USA Eagles 7s has been their overall speed. That speed of the Eagles has really improved their performance and standing in the past few years. 

Recently, This Is American Rugby did a great interview (audio is available) the USA Eagles’ speed coach Les Spellman.  Coach Spellman has worked with a number of players as well as our favorite member of the Colombia 7s side (Nathalie Marchino).

We reached out Coach Les Spellman to learn more about this highly sought after speed coach, who also is working with the Eagles (both 7s and 15s). Our interview with Coach Spellman gives us more insight into Coach Spellman and how he actually works to help players develop and improve their speed. He also shares some insights and tips for players (without giving away all his trade secrets).

Below is out interview with Coach Spellman.

The Rugby Republic (RR):  So Coach did you study kinesiology or exercise science at Temple University and was your goal to get into sport performance or coaching at the beginning?

Coach Les Spellman (CLS):  I studied film in college actually. I was really into the creative side of filmmaking and the process it took to find all the details necessary to produce a film. My mom is an artist, so I've always been inclined to do things artistically. Around my junior year at Temple, while running track, I became interested in Biomechanics. I began studying biomechanics as they applied to sprint mechanics. After college I learned how to coach speed specific to the 40 Yard Dash for the NFL combine. From there I read every article and book I could find on speed, mechanics, and periodization for strength training. My film background now gives me the ability to analyze film and design workouts creatively. So its a good mix!!

RR: How did you become a speed coach (what made you focus on that discipline).

CLS: Growing up I always thought I would be a professional athlete. I worked very hard at boxing and track specifically through college. Eventually, I found rugby and fell in love, before flirting with a shot at the NFL briefly. What I came to realize was that I was in love with the process of training and building athletic skills. I studied movement, I broke film down, I looked at all the minute details of each aspect of training I was doing. I realized my purpose was using these skills to help others reach their potential, not for my own glory.

I was always naturally fast, especially in High School. When I was 17 I broke my femur in half in a near death car accident. The accident left me with a metal pole through my femur and a possibility I would never run again. Angry and discouraged, I was determined to prove that diagnosis wrong. It took me nearly six months to walk again. It took 18 months to jog, 24 months to sprint. That was when I walked on to the Division 1 program at Temple University. The process of learning to walk, then jog, then sprint had me interested in learning HOW and WHY.

  Coach Les Spelman working with players 

  Coach Les Spelman working with players 

RR: Has your work with the Eagles been just with work with the 7s team or have you also done work with the 15s sides, U-20, etc.?

CLS: So far, I’ve been honored to work with the Eagle’s 7s team. I am in camp with the 15s team currently here in San Diego, and doing some private work with a few individuals. However, my work is not the focus of the camp. I know my work is secondary and the focus is on rugby development. It's an honor to be a part of the Eagles program. I would love to work with any and all programs that are willing. Currently, I am also working with ATAVUS and Athlete Factory, delivering speed programming.

RR: You are based out of San Diego. With PRO Rugby having a team in San Diego have you gotten involved in doing any work with PRO Rugby (either with the San Diego Breakers, individual players, or through the camps/combines)?

CLM: Having PRO Rugby in San Diego is a huge blessing! They're fortunate to have a great Strength and Conditioning (S&C) staff led by Roy Holmes. Roy has the boys doing some high quality acceleration work already. I even took a day to go learn from him (Roy Holmes). Individually, I've worked with a few of the boys in the past, which has been great.

RR: As a speed coach what are some of the basic keys to making someone faster without divulging all your secrets?

CLS: Speed is a skill, and can be taught. The first thing I tell youth is that you can develop speed the same way you can develop any other skill. The main teaching point is position. From there, we look at angles. Finally, we look at leg and arm actions.

Much of the base work is done through proper strength and power development. Plyometrics convert strength to power, however there must be periodized and progressed correctly. Sprinting is the best plyometric there is, so over-complicating this isn't necessary. I break sessions into two categories: Acceleration and Max velocity. Both categories have different positions, different angles, and different leg/arm actions.

To recap; to develop speed, you must develop strength and power, then convert that to sprinting ability through proper positioning, angles, and arm/leg action.

RR: You talked to TIAR about your work with rugby players to improve their speed and mechanics. How do you do that? Is it through drills, running, strength training, or film work?

CLS: Yes, all of the above. I break sessions into different categories. I think the learning process should be fluid and in an environment where it is okay to fail and try things out. So, before we run, we walk, literally. I take them through drills done at a low intensity and low speeds to correct mechanics and body positioning. Much of an athlete’s strength and weaknesses can be highlighted through drills.

    Coach Spellman Running Drills 

    Coach Spellman Running Drills 

It’s difficult to expect someone to understand something at a high speed without teaching them at a low speed. These drills are all done vertically, meaning standing/walking with a foot strike landing under the hips. The next phase, I look at creating an environment for that athlete that blends the teaching points from the vertical series, to the more dynamic horizontal movements. These are skills done with the help of assistance to create the desired body positioning, angles, and arm/leg actions. A lot of times, trying to verbally cue someone will not work, so it's better to put the athlete in the environment where they are forced to execute the task. An example could be doing a resisted march on an acceleration day or a wicket run on a max velocity day.

 The Next phase, we run, in a controlled setting. For acceleration, we do nothing more than 30m and not more than 300 total meters. For Max Velocity, it's a lot of fly runs, and maybe a few 60m sprints or buildups, depending on the proficiency of the athletes. For rugby, acceleration is the most important thing, so the majority of the time is spent there.

To finish up a session, plyos are done or MB work to develop rate of force development (simply put, ability to produce force quickly). Lastly, the cool-down is crucial for preparation for the next session! At the center, we are blessed to have Jon Hood who is an incredible S&C coach who has put the guys through some pretty cool mobility stuff.

RR: How important is mobility work for players to develop speed/do speed work?

CLS: You must've read my mind. Mobility is huge!  Reaching the proper positions fluidly is key. The goal is to reach those positions without too much muscular effort or antagonistic resistance. Relaxation can play a huge role here too. Sometimes, athletes who are extremely mobile will run really tight due to their inability to relax. Net force is what counts. Therefore, contracting any muscle unnecessarily will take away from power output. Before a sprint session we put them through a mobility circuit. Sometimes, we will hit the gym, do some work with bands to loosen up joints, and then head to the track for more mobility work. Rugby players especially have tight quads, and psoas. When these are tight, it inhibits proper firing patterns of the muscles and can cause injury.

RR: Now you’ve primarily work with 7s players (and now the 15s), but do you think that your type of speed training is only good for 7s players and/or backs (in 15s) or can any size or position rugby player benefit from structured speed work like you've develop?

CLS: From GPS data, in 7s there is a higher number of high-speed accelerations during the game. Some players will reach close to their max velocity during the game. In 15s, the most important thing is accelerations and the ability to do so powerfully. The obvious is that backs need speed work, however, the forwards need work as well. Their acceleration range might be 3-4 steps, but can make the difference going into contact or offloading.

The speed work is also a great primer for the central nervous system and can get guys mentally tuned into training at the beginning of the week. Speed work will provide the nervous system a stimulus that will excite the body and prepare it for anaerobic and contact work later in the week. On the high intensity days it’s a great way to get muscle contractions similar to what a max strength day would look like in the gym. So in that way everyone can partake in some speed work.

RR: What is the hardest part to developing/improving speed of a player? What is the big challenge/barrier you see?

CLS: The hardest part about developing speed is making sure the athlete understands that it's not an immediate fix. It is the repetition of the most basic fundamentals over and over again. There is not one formula, so it's kind of a problem-solving thing more so. Once the athlete gets the prescription it's about the mental fortitude to do mundane activities over and over again. Speed cannot be developed in a state of tension, so therefore the right mind-state and physical state is key.

RR: Do you approach speed development differently for younger rugby players than older ones/adults? Is so why/what is different?

CLS: Yes. Definitely. The youth development differs in that it is more fundamentals, but also the use of games to get the desired result. Once the fundamentals have been practiced, I like using small games to get them to test these new skills out.

Youth training usually requires more focus on details and controlling the attention span of the athletes. With older athletes, then we get very technical; use more resisted running, and high quality meters. Older athletes can also do more plyometrics. However, an important key is that the more proficient an athlete is at sprinting, the less volume at high speeds we use. I strongly believe in quality over volume. 

RR: Are there things that players shouldn't do or avoid so they don't cause injury in trying to do speed work?

CLS: When doing speed work, the best time to do it is early in the week, and before any of the conditioning happens. Speed development is not about aerobic conditioning, so therefore, should be done with full rest periods. Sometimes athletes feel like they're not getting enough of a "workout" and need to jog back, or speed up rest, however this is a major drawback. Take full rest, and hit it as hard as you can while staying relaxed. Secondly, doing a high volume of speed work back to back is not good for the nervous system or muscular system. The nervous system takes 48-72 hours to recover from high intensity work and the muscular system may only take 24-48 hours. An athlete might feel ready to roll, but their body ecosystem hasn't recovered fully yet and an injury could happen.

It's best to do a High Low approach or even Medium High or High Medium. A high day is a day with high intensity speed work, and weights. A low day could be tempo runs, a light practice, or a recovery day. A medium day is anaerobic runs, depending on volume, plus a decently difficult practice. Conditioning could even be a low intensity day depending on volume, since it doesn't have much effect on the central nervous system due to the relatively low speeds. Therefore, planning and volume is the most important aspect when looking at speed work. 

RR: Then should 7s players be doing speed work daily, a few times a week, or just in the off-season?

CLS: So to be clear, speed work should be separated by 48-72 hours between sessions, generally after a recovery or lighter day. Best days to do speed for us have been Monday and Thursday. During the offseason we did Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, due to the fact that they could handle a little more volume. However, the volumes in each session were relatively low, and used more as a teaching model than anything else. Each session was followed by a low intensity "tempo" day with hand eye coordination, and 70-75% runs with no more than 1-2k of running.

During the season, it switched to Monday and Thursday. This was used more as a sprint stimulus for the nervous system. I believe that speed work and maximal efforts should be in the program all year. An athlete should never be too far away from their speed potential or strength potential. It is the same school of thought that has athletes doing maximal strength work in the gym between test matches. Keeping the speed present all year gives the athlete to call upon this potential when necessary in games.

RR: How important is it in their workouts for players to target and/or work on their hamstrings? Do you see that being an area that is often neglected?

CLS: Hamstrings/posterior chain is a crucial thing, especially for rugby players. Rugby players tend to be quad dominant due to the anterior loading from all the decelerations they do during games. Balancing this out with hamstring work is huge.

I like training the hamstrings from the hip hinge in RDLs (Romanian Dead Lifts), knee extension in Glute Ham Raises (GHR) or medicine ball/stability ball leg curls, and isometrically in various positions. The hamstrings have to be strong especially eccentrically and isometrically, because they are called on to do so during the recovery phase of the sprint cycle.

RR: What are two things young rugby players can do on their own to help with their speed? Again without giving away all your secrets.

CLS: Two things: Sprint twice per week and develop strength and power through the weight room and plyometrics. A lot of people throw their hands up and say "I'll never be fast" so they never work on it. Not all of us will be Carlin Isles fast, but we all have a potential in us that we have yet to realize. That is why Carlin works DAILY on speed mechanics, body preparation, and mobility to reach this potential that seems so elusive at times. 

RR: Last question. When we first connected you were in South America working with the Colombian Women's 7s team, what is that experience like (to travel, so work with a new group, etc.)?

CLS: It is such an honor to work with the Colombian team. They've been a huge blessing to watch develop and grow. The coolest thing is that I had to become a better coach just to communicate effectively, because they didn’t speak English.

It helped me pick 1-2 cues to focus on for each drill, and simplify to teach. Experiences like these teach me how much I have to learn about speed, different cultures, and different learning styles. I hope to go to more training centers in the future to work with new athletes!

As you all learned Coach Les Spellman is extremely busy and in demand, so we are grateful for his time and his insights to speed work. Hopefully you can take some of the information and training tips that Coach Spellman shared and apply it to your own training and teams, especially right now with club 7s going on, and for the rest using this offseason to really help build your speed for the coming season.

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Improve Joint, Skin and Gut Health with Bone Broth

Ideally, you’d like to connect with Coach Spellman (check him out via the Athletic Factory in San Diego), but in the meantime he’s provided you with some great tips on things you can do. Remember speed can be learned and developed and it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Coach’s work has been on display this past 7's season helping the Eagles get into position for a medal run in Rio later this summer. You will also see some of it with the Eagles 15s (who have up coming games right here in the Golden State).