Scrambled Advantages

Within all sports that contain stop-start, quick direction changes and zero-to-max demands is the skill of being able to scramble. While the origins of the word scramble relate to jumbles and stumbles, the use of the word has also come to mean being able move with immediate action and avoiding trouble (as with jets and quarterbacks). Most sport scrambles are non-formal in that they move from a situation regardless of body pose. The most obvious formal scramble is the sprint start in athletics where an official regulates the postures.

The skill or art of being able to scramble effectively is a learned skill with distinct advantages. The athlete who is able to dart past opponents, reach a ball or anticipate a counter-move always stands out as the better athlete.

Training for scramble abilities is not the same as practicing them. The differences between training and practicing are best seen with our imbalances and deficiencies (which we all have). An ineffective scramble will contain stumbles, lurching, body sway, paused reactions, crossover strides and wild arms (to name a few issues). If we simply practice our scrambles we reinforce those ineffective actions. Ultimately performance does not improve and the notion that the athlete simply doesn’t have the ‘talent’ for starts and scrambles becomes a thought and then a label that sticks to the centre of the forehead.

Training for scramble ability involves challenging our existing movement patterns so that we are more effective, more efficient and have the inner confidence to let the body react in less than a finger snap of time. Bear in mind as well that a scramble also involves a number of strides out from the start point, and these too need to be trained so that a 0.05-second reaction advantage becomes a 0.50-second strategic advantage within a few strides. This difference in time also multiplies momentum, so contact sports have additional reasons to learn scrambles… with the same body mass it takes more force to stop or deflect the athlete that is able to generate more momentum in a shorter time.

From a TAKEOFF COACHING perspective there are three domains of training that are blended into how exercises are selected and used. These domains appear to be linear stages or steps in nature but are actually like three areas that are loosely connected at first and become overlapped with time.

FAMILIARISE: this is more than knowing a few exercises or scanning the web for examples. This area is about body awareness that starts in the head and then becomes automatic. One of the biggest coaching errors I see in programme design is end-game imitation. If the athlete only practices the moves used in a game situation they limit how the body can respond…anything outside of the practiced move will feel different and introduce a pause in timing. Here is where variety needs to be inserted. All manner of body poses and tasks are implanted so that the athlete acquires a global skill and simply scrambles out regardless of the situation. This domain is also where a great deal of FUN is experienced…fun being our genetic reward (Aha! feeling) for sensing and learning new things.

PRECISION: foot placement relative to the hips and centre of mass needs to be trained for precision. As with other mechanical aspects (arms, head, body) any imbalances and off-centre moves will slow the movement of the centre of mass out from the zero mark. When learning scramble skills (formal or non-formal) we always start with a wide range of variability and no two scrambles will appear the same. A team of 20 doing the same scramble will show 20 different styles. Reducing variability happens with improved conditioning and the use of sensation cues. Depending on the athlete, work on the hips, body, shoulders, feet, lower legs head and breathing will translate to precision. The feet will hit the ground in a manner that moves the athlete outwards with power. Over time, the foot placement area will reduce from over 15cm variability to less than 5cm. We are human, so expecting precision to get to zero is unrealistic.

REFINEMENT: here is where the MOVERS dynamic used by TAKEOFF COACHING comes into play. Overload and Velocity are the core elements here. A scramble has a very high neuromuscular component to it that uses tendon energy to move at high speeds. The athlete learns to apply high amounts of force in a shorter time frame so that the whole action becomes more and more reactive. Adapting scrambles and starts in order to play with overload and variety is a bit of a coaching art. Not so much for creating new variations, but for the application of them. If there is too little stimulus for change then there is no adaptation… too much stimulus alters the mechanics and escalates injury risks. Most athletes come to training with a moderate ability to apply force in a short time. Learning to scramble with power takes time and attention.

Somewhere in our evolutionary past, the ability to scramble outwards to chase or evade and then accelerate with powerful strides was a learned survival skill. Now it is part of our sporting movement repertoire. Our bodies adapt well to scramble variations with remarkable ease; perhaps a nod to our ancient pasts. Training is still required, now as then, to define and refine the skill. Training for scrambles also seems to feed a great many other movement skills that use power and elastic strength at their core. Leaving scrambles and stop-start moves as an add-on or afterthought is, quite simply, a training error. The best guideline I might share is to take the lead from childhood ‘tag’ and pursuit games: not every scramble has to be a 100% effort, but hundreds of variations and repetitions will serve us well, from toe-to-tip, and from mind-to-body.

j. Erik Little



Scramble skills are part of TAKEOFF COACHING workshops for schools, teams and individual programming. Contact for more information