SI Vault
 
SPEED
Tim Layden
September 24, 2012
In its many forms, it is the most critical component in every sport and what separates the historically great from the merely good. JUST DON'T BLINK
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 24, 2012

Speed

In its many forms, it is the most critical component in every sport and what separates the historically great from the merely good. JUST DON'T BLINK

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2

There are as many types of speed as there are games and players. At times it can seem obvious. In football a wide receiver uses raw speed to blow past a defensive back and into open grass in the same way that an edge pass rusher motors around a backpedaling offensive lineman and hurries the quarterback. A baseball player steals second base and then third, or a point guard covers the distance between foul lines in four dribbles before delivering a lob at the rim to a teammate rushing up the wing. A race car screams around a huge, paved oval, and a skier does likewise down the face of an icy mountainside.

Speed like Bolt's—or like that of his fellow Olympic megastar, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps—would seem most apparent. Line up and take off; first to the finish wins. Simple. Yet when Bolt was beaten by younger countryman Yohan Blake in both the 100- and the 200-meter races at the Jamaican Olympic Trials in Kingston, thus calling into question Bolt's ability to win both events at the London Games, a flurry of analysis suggested that Bolt was not only injured but also sloppy in his execution. That he had become, in the backstage parlance of the sport, like a man running after a bus. The Bolt who indeed won gold medals in London was tight and efficient, underscoring the reality that his speed, though formed in large part by his DNA, needed a healthy assist from technical excellence and training. And Bolt's type of speed is largely nontransferable. Put a ball in his hands or at his feet, and he will suddenly look normal, possibly even awkward. It is axiomatic among football coaches that nothing turns a 4.4 sprinter into a 4.7 sprinter faster than a helmet and a playbook.

Across the spectrum of sports, speed is seldom as obvious as Bolt's. Often it hides, disguised as something less apparent to the naked eye. Golf balls are launched with the highest possible clubhead speed. There is the lateral quickness a defender needs to beat his man to the baseline; a base stealer's jump, blending risk, timing and instant acceleration. The modern football game of no-huddle offenses is in truth a mind battle that will be won by the players who can more quickly make correct decisions. Offensive linemen must decide which defender to block and receivers must decide when to break off pass routes, all within seconds. Call this brain speed, the ability to think faster and more efficiently than an opponent, and thus to act more decisively at the proper time.

The goal of an athlete's training and preparation is to find speed. At this moment, on a field somewhere, a coach is trying to make a young soccer player one tick faster on his through ball. In a meeting room a coach and quarterback are dissecting video of an opponent, to better understand what will happen before it happens. On some asphalt court, a kid dribbles ever faster, pushing his own envelope. A mechanic is tinkering in his garage, trying to get more speed. A golfer is trying to find the perfect zone to swing just a little harder. Because through all the complexities of sport, faster is better.

1 2