Conversation with Kebba Tolbert and Latif Thomas (Part 1)

If you noticed the title of this article, I didn’t use the word “Interview”.

Rather, I used the term “conversation” as that’s exactly what it is.. a conversation between 2 coaches that was recorded by Skype, then transcribed.  Remember, this is a transcript, and it was never meant to be an article, so the grammar isn’t perfect.

The topic of this conversation was Neuromuscular Development, with a focus on the sprint events.

But relax everyone… these guys aren’t selling a product here, however, as a full disclosure, both of these coaches have their own DVDs for sale.  No one is forcing you to buy their products. (I personally own copies of their products, and as a full disclosure, I may earn a commission if you purchase them though my link)

kebba tolbert

Kebba Tolbert is the Associate Coach at Harvard University, specializing in Sprints, Hurdles, and Horizontal Jumps.  He has 2 DVDs produced by Coaches Choice

Moreover, I interviewed Kebba back in 2012 as part of the Freelap Friday Five series.

Latif Thomas

Latif Thomas is a former All East Sprinter while attending the University of Connecticut on a track and field scholarship. Latif is USA Track & Field Level II Certified in the Sprints, Hurdles and Relays.

He is the co-founder of CompleteTrackandField.com and produced the 11 DVD set on Complete Speed Training for sprinters.

NOTE: This was recorded January 2011.

Conversation with Kebba Tolbert & Latif Thomas

[Latif Thomas]: Kebba, can you describe your general approach to training sprinters particularly in regards to neuromuscular development?

[Kebba Tolbert]: Well one of the things that we try to do is really try to identify what’s important for success in the sprints. So we do tests and we do analysis and we do historical analysis looking at other sprinters that have been very good.

I’ve been fortunate to have been involved for a long time for about 16-17 years with USA Track and Field women’s sprint development with Tony Veney and Bert Lyles and Danny Williams and worked junior elite camp for Tony Wells and people like that.

Because of that that’s formed a significant part of my background. Part of that philosophy is that you have to have certain speed and power values in order to become an elite sprinter, whether it’s elite high school, elite college, elite national, elite international. Elite can be for any level. So that’s one thing that we look at.

So if you can’t hit certain 30 meter fly times or certain overhead back numbers or certain weight ratio numbers in your lifting it’s going to be challenging to be an elite female sprinter.

The other two mentors that I’ve had have been very big. Obviously Dan Pfaff and Boo Schexnayder and they have a similar type of philosophy with regarding neuromuscular speed and power development. So that’s where things come from. That’s where we start at.

So second from that is that it’s absolutely crucial in what we do is that we prioritize neuromuscular development. So one of the things that Boo has talked about over the years and he’s taught this for years is that nothing that you do should interfere with the development of speed and power. So there are other things that we do, but the primary emphasis, the primary concern is development of speed and power or the expression of speed and power at certain times of the year or certain times of the career with certain athletes.

So that’s something that we absolutely keep a focus on, keep a light on and when we feel like things are falling apart in that area it’s a concern and we do what we can to try to make sure that that either can be developed in certain times of year or that it can be expressed at other times of the year when one of those two things can happen that we know we’ve gotta take a look at some things.

[LT]: You talk about prioritizing neuromuscular development. So that leads me to a quote I remember reading from Dan Pfaff in the notes for the Track & Field Legends program. “Beware of the myth of building a base. The better question is a base of what?”

Is that one of those things that we focus on as we get later in the training phases or is prioritizing neuromuscular development something that starts the first day at practice as opposed to the traditional high volume, low intensity stuff?

[KT]: Dan’s absolutely correct and it’s something that he’s helped me with mentally over the years. In terms of prioritizing it means that it’s something that we’re concerned with, maybe even obsessed with that we really put it first and foremost in our plans. That’s something from the very first day of training that we do and it’s something that we’re concerned about from the very first day of training of developing those qualities.

So I do believe in a base for sprinters and jumpers and hurdlers and throwers. I believe in a very big base. I think it’s absolutely crucial. However, it’s a base of speed and power. It’s not an aerobic base.

There are aerobic components that we look at when we look at sprinting and hurdling and jumping and throwing in basically all of the speed power events, but those are almost an afterthought or a side effect of doing other things, but our main concern is to make sure that those qualities are being developed, that they’re being used in a correct fashion and that they can be expressed when we need them.

[LT]:It seems to me it’s a common belief, maybe more at the developmental level, but certainly at the collegiate level as well, that we’re supposed to start off high volume, low intensity and moving toward that higher intensity, lower volume work later in the season. Could you give me some examples of maybe the types of things you would do again going back from a neuromuscular standpoint earlier in the season versus…

[KT]:Yeah.

[LT]:No; go ahead.

[KT]:Yeah; I can. Let me maybe clear up something. The beginning of the year in comparison to the end of the year is higher volume and a little bit lower intensity. So it’s like our first day of training is a serious acceleration day. We do 10s and 20s and 30s real fast. We do jumping activities and we do lifting activities.

So that’s serious intense neuromuscular work. However, it’s not quite the same as it is in November. Sometimes because we start out in the fall we might even do the first day on the grass as an example. It’s almost always in flats in training shoes. So just that by itself brings down some of the intensity and makes it safe to do.

Later on wearing spikes on the track and then later on wearing spikes from the blocks and then later on wearing spikes from the blocks with two or three people going together. So we have three or four examples of how you can do the same workout with different intensities that are appropriate to that time of year.

[LT]: Now would there be any differences in that philosophy if you were developing say a 60 meter or 100 meter specialist versus a 400 meter runner or 400 meter hurdler?

[KT]:Not really because you’ve gotta be real fast if you’re gonna be a great 400 runner or a great 400 hurdler. You can be good with just average speeds and average power, but if you wanna be great, elite at whatever level, then you’ve gotta have good speed and power qualities. So even for those events that’s something that we’d be put a serious investment into.

[LT]:How much time do you spend on the track or the speed component compared to jumping and hopping types of movements versus strength training in the weight room activities or even maybe multi-throw or multi-jump work.

[KT]:We do all those things together in the same day I guess I would say. Not necessarily at the same time, but for example, our day one will include serious acceleration runs, 10s, 20s and 30s, maybe 3 to 5 sets, usually 4 sets. Then after that we’ll do some jumping activities, some long jump, some triple jump type stuff. Then we’ll go in the weight room and lift and do lifting movements and squat movements and bench press movements.

Then sometimes after that we’ll come out and we’ll do throwing activity. So that’s a big speed power day. Another day in the week we might do resisted runs where we’re doing hills or sleds or that type of stuff. Then we might do some different jumps, some different jumping activities or if we don’t do jumping activities that day we might do a different series of multi-throw activities. Then we’ll go in and lift.

So on our speed power days which we do in the fall and most of the year about three days a week, the whole theme of the day is centered around developing some component of speed and power.

Now there’s certain times of the year where we’re really heavy into maximum strength or we’re really heavy into elastic strength or we’re really heavy into speed development or really heavy into acceleration development or sometimes even speed endurance. All those different components of speed and power, but we’re always touching on some of those components several times a week throughout the year.

[LT]:You talk about developing elastic strength at a particular time of year. I’m assuming you’re talking how you break things down thematically based on which qualities you want to develop.

Do you have a specific protocol where you say we develop this first and this next and this in this order or is that something that’s a little bit more flexible based on the type of kids you have or their particular strengths or weaknesses? How do you determine what you want to focus on thematically, whether it’s thematically for a microcycle or a mesocycle or an entire training phase?

[KT]:Generally early in the year we’re going to develop – we’re not gonna do a real heavy absolute strength type work early in the year because they’re not ready for it yet. The athletes aren’t ready. Generally we’re going to do simpler stuff. So simpler jumps early in the year because the athlete can handle that from a loading perspective and from a coordination perspective. So we don’t do advanced stuff until they’re ready to do advanced work.

So certain plyometrics we’ll do early in the year ‘cause they have a more stimulatory effect and other times then we’ll get to more advanced stuff later, but I think a lot of times with those types of things people see in the videos and the DVDs and the lecture circuit, these more advanced things that people are doing, think I want to get to that, but there’s been some years that I’ve had some really, really good athletes that we never even got to the advanced stuff because it just didn’t happen. Ya’ know what I mean? The real advanced stuff.

I’ve had girls jump really far; 43, 44 and 45 feet where we never really did real advanced bounding, the stuff you see on the DVDs. We did simple bounding and things like that and they were fine. They got better and they improved, but they just weren’t there yet and there was no need.

So, I think that, in talking about sprinting obviously, but I think that the idea that you’ve gotta do this real advanced stuff to run real fast or hurdle real fast or throw real far and sometimes it’s just not the case if the athlete’s not ready for that at that time in their career or that time of the year.

[LT]:You talk about athletes being ready. Now, I work at the developmental levels, the high school level. That’s my bias in asking these questions to you, but I know how poorly things are done at the developmental level, especially in terms of developing speed and power qualities.

Do you find, even with the caliber of athletes that you have coming into your program, that, when they come in, they don’t have the neuromuscular training age, for lack of a better term, or the coordinative skills or kinesthetic awareness it to handle that type of training and how do you address that from your philosophy, just in terms of prioritizing neuromuscular development, but also the individualization that’s required for each athlete?

[KT]:Yeah; I think some of the individualizing takes care of itself. Like the people who aren’t as big and strong and powerful necessarily. They go into the weight room and they use less weight. So that individualizes how much volume we’ll use. A lot of times I’ll write things in ranges. So I might say 4 to 6 sets or I might say 8 to 10 sets or I might say we’re gonna go do acceleration from 15 to 40 meters. So the kids who are not maybe as developed might only go to 30 meters and the kids who are older and more mature and more skilled might go out to 40 meters on that day. So that’s one of the things that you can do is you write things in ranges.

You don’t get locked into having everyone do the exact same things. Or you can write acceleration development A and acceleration development B. Maybe one is 10s, 20s and 30s. Maybe one is 20s, 30s and 40s or something like that.

If you get real big gaps in the talent level of your group. You could do something like that or one could go on the blocks and one could go on the grass. It really just depends on your situation, but I think that the principles apply to whether they’re developmental or elite.

[LT]:I like that. That makes a lot of sense. I think that’s good particularly those that do have that wide range of ability in their group.

We talk about this neuromuscular work and many people still have this belief that it takes a long period of time to recover from this work. How often – let’s say you’re working in a seven day micro-cycle type of schedule. How often can you do neuromuscular work, the acceleration work or the jump work in the course of that particular microcycle depending on the time of year, et cetera?

[KT]:Most of the year, even during competition, we can do some type of speed and power work at least twice a week. That’s almost any situation. People are a little bit beat up. People leave a little bit injured. People that are real tired from the competitions. We can always do some type of speed and power work at least twice a week, but generally speaking we do some type of speed and power work three days a week.

So, I would say three days a week is doable for a big segment of the population. In special situations, special cycles maybe you can get four days a week, but that’s starting to push it, but it can be done. Just like if you want to train really hard, then you’ve got recover really hard. So it can be done.

Two days is no doubt that 97.5 percent of the population can do speed and power training twice a week. No doubt. Most people can probably do it three days a week, which is what we do and we’ve been doing it that way for years.

When you get into competition season you might not be able to do it two days a week because of meets and things like that, but that’s different. Then you get down to two days a week and if you have several competitions in a week, then your competition ends up becoming your speed and power training in a sense because of the high neuromuscular demands of competition.

[LT]:You talk about doing those types of things two, three, maybe even four times a week depending on the theme that you’re working in and how many kids you have, et cetera. Talk about things that you consider important besides neuromuscular training?

Do you do that general training, that classical tempo repeat model? In my mind I can see, particularly high school coaches and even, I think, a lot of college coaches, recoiling at the idea of focusing on this neuromuscular work or not running enough or feel this need to squeeze that high volume, the repeat 200 program in there.

[KT]:Yeah; some of it is just – it’s comfortable to do lots of running and lots of aerobic type work, but the aerobic stuff isn’t going to make you be faster, stronger more powerful. There’s a place for it and we have training that is very aerobic.

There’s some interesting research out there about short, very intense work for doing 50 meter sprints or doing 10 seconds on the bicycle with short breaks, looking at lactate levels. I know some people think I gotta get the lactate up, I gotta the tolerant lactate up. There’s a fair amount of research about doing short, high intensity stuff, high intensity work that develops aerobic capacity and it develops lactate capacity, which they’re related a little bit.

So a lot of the stuff that we do is developing those areas. Just not in the classical sense.

Secondly is people do the running and things like that. We run intervals with our sprinters and our hurdlers and our jumpers and our multi’s. Just the volume of running that we do is probably half as much as probably some other programs do or some of the classical stuff you see in the training literature just because I don’t think it’s necessary.

Now about the general training, we do lots of general training. We probably do general training every other day. So for us we have neuromuscular training and then we have general training. General training for us is our circuits. We do lots of med ball circuits, lots of general strength circuits, ab circuit, callisthenic type stuff. We do weight room circuits. So all that stuff is medium intensity I would say or lower. It’s much lower intensity than the speed power that we do. Then the breaks are fairly short.

So I timed it the other day. We did a general strength circuit. We did two general strength circuits. We did a hurdler mobility circuit and it took about 40 minutes. Well, that beats going out for a 40-minute run or a 30-minute run, but the heart rate was up over 120 almost the whole time.

So if you have your sprinters and your hurdlers and your jumpers do activities that are lower intensity, but still the challenging coordination and the challenging balance and the challenging proprioception and all those things, then it’s a much bigger benefit than going out and doing a 2-mile run or going and sprinting for 30 minutes necessarily.

So our general workout or our aerobic type of workout, stuff that people would say oh, that’s the aerobic stuff, it also has the coordination factor and it also has a proprioception factor and it has a strength factor in it. So we try to make it multifaceted.

[LT]:Interesting.

[KT]:It challenges posture and stabilization and those things.

[end of Part 1]

Comments

  1. Rich says

    Enjoyed the conversation. I understand the importance of the 30 meter fly times for the elite sprinter but I was surprised to read the comments about strength to weight ratios and overhead back numbers. Aren’t those numbers mainly confirmation of elite genetics?

  2. LydrdKnwsBst says

    Jimson,

    That was an excellent conversation. Thank you for sharing insights from these two gentlemen. I thought the questions Latif asked did a nice job of bringing out how Kebba’s philosophy gets translated into the day-to-day routines and workouts. I especially found the focus on developmental aspects useful and how that applies at all levels. Always good to see many of the things I do with my athletes are being done else where but at the same time hear about differences to challenge the way I think about issues.

  3. Rich says

    The notion that it’s going to be challenging to become elite unless you hit certain numbers in the weightroom or in overhead back throw. I’m all for the process of improving relative strength or working hard with the multi-throws, but does anyone know how far Houston McTear or William Reed threw a medicine ball?

  4. Mario says

    If you follow Latif, this conversation has been around for a while, I think it came out about 2-3 years ago when Keeba was still working at UTEP. I find it super interesting that Keeba and Marc Mangiacotti are now both working at Harvard and both have very similar philosophies and I’m sure that will lead to a lot of success. Glad I read the article to reemphasize my belief that the typical aerobic base is grossly exaggerated, but sadly I still see it used so often at the high school level.

    • Jimson Lee says

      @Mario, yes, it was recorded Jan 2011. My hard drive is full of videos, podcasts, PDFs, articles, ebooks, etc. Most are commercial of nature, so I can’t share them, at least not publicly. I’ve been posting 5 times a week for almost 6 years now, and this blog is a bit of a brain dump or diary of what I go through as a coach. You’ll see more interviews and one/one’s in future articles, because that’s how we learn.. by interacting with other coaches and challenging our thoughts constructively.

  5. chad says

    @rich
    if houston mctear or william reed or jesse owens threw med balls for measurement or had lifting programs that tested from maxes as compared to body weight, they would have fallen into elite categories.

    as coaches, we can sit back and wait for the genetic lottery winners to arrive in our training group, OR we can choose to find the best known training methods for those in our group (most of whom are similar genetically)

    While we all know you won’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred, i’d like my donkeys to beat all the other donkeys, and i’d like my thoroughbreds to beat all the other thoroughbreds. improving power parameters through throwing med balls and lifting loads fast is a way to do that. and if you do that training consistently, and measure it, you will see trends. these trends, over what are now decades of training and record keeping by coaches all over the country, show that there are elite “norms” for these measures.

    it is a logical fallacy to say that because we don’t know how far houston mctear would throw a med ball, that med ball throws are not valid training or testing means for speed/power

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