Coaching the 40-Start

Leading up to the NFL draft, I spoke about how “There’s Money in the 40” for football players. I noted in the blog I wanted to take time to teach you how to coach the 40-yard dash start. Now that summer offseason training has begun, it is time.

I want to quickly clarify that I am calling the “start” the combination of getting into the proper starting position and the first couple steps out of that position into the sprint.

In my experience, everybody needs help with the start, from high school kids to even the aspiring pro prospect coming out of college. Many athletes have not been properly taught the starting position and the technique coming out of it.

Your athletes have the best chance to “steal time” at the start. The mechanics I will teach have made many players millions of dollars coming out of the NCAA and moving into the NFL. I’ll detail the strategy in a minute, but first, let's look at two case studies.

Case Study #1: Defensive Player

A defensive back out of the University of New Mexico was sent to me by his agent on Tuesday to prep for the NFL Combine. I was told he needed help with, of course, his 40. When I asked his agent how much time I had he told me three days.

What!? How about three weeks?

So, I went to work and taught him non-stop my procedure. He went to Indianapolis and ran his fastest 40-yard dash time ever--a 4.47. Previously he had always been in the 4.5 second range.

Case Study #2: Offensive Player

The other player, a wide receiver from the University of Florida, was projected to go about #15 overall in the draft. He had a terrible showing in Indy.

When he got back to Gainesville, he fired everybody, got a new agent and came to Dallas.

After a couple of weeks of speed training, he went back to his college campus for his pro day. He also ran his best 40-yard dash time on grass and on draft day jumped to the 10th overall pick. Going from #15 to #10 equates to how much more money in his contract?

Class? Anyone? It equates to millions.

For the high school player, the money comes in the form of a scholarship (and now maybe NIL deals).

Industry Secret: Faster 40-Yard Dash Times

Now, let me make a point here about "coach speak". If a guy runs a 4.51, a coach can say he runs a low 4.5. Not bad. If he runs a 4.49, that would be a high 4.4. Obviously there is only .02 difference between a 4.49 and 4.51, but how much faster does a high 4.4 sound as opposed to a low 4.5. Often coaches will hear the tenths of a second and decide.

I want to help you find small ways to steal time at the starting line. My goal is to make every coach and parent who reads this a performance coach in their own right learning how to make their athletes faster.

40-Yard Dash Observations

From much film study, I have aggregated a number of observations about sprinting and how it relates to the 40.

1. The 100 meter sprint is not entirely a good event to compare and model the starting protocol after. It is often used as a reference of how to start, sprint and finish but actually only the sprint and finish are useful. How many leads begin changing after the 60-meter mark? Several places change from 60-100 meters. If you are following me, the 40 is long over by then. Therefore what you have to do is take the top-end speed of the 100 meters and push it as close to the 40 start as possible.

2. The drive phase is poorly coached.

Here’s the deal: we have all seen a player start the 40 and stumble in the 3-5 yard range. The reason for that is:

  • •the player is staying down in the drive phase too long

  • •the hips are too low

  • •the legs want to get up and run and turn over

  • •but the foot and knee have poor lift resulting in a bad shin angle, catching the toe in the turf

  • •this causes a stumble

We need to polish those mechanics.

3. Size matters, or to be more specific, height matters. There have been tall athletes or top heavy (long torso, short legs) ones where staying down at the start causes too much forward lean and thus stumbling. The answer, then, is to think of a plane taking off, not a space shuttle lifting off. In some cases they have been taught to crowd the line and that too causes a problem. Fire out and rise up but don’t pop straight up.

4. It’s a myth you have to be born a track and field sprinter to have a good 40 time. I tell my athletes that no matter what position you play or what size you are, train the start, get reps at the steps (especially in the 0-10), and steal time where you can.

The Nitty Gritty of the 40-Yard Dash Starting Position

What you need to do is learn the procedure so well that you can verbally teach it to your athletes. You have learned something pretty well if you can teach it yourself. Let’s begin.

The Stance

For starters, the three-point stance I’m teaching is not – I repeat, IS NOT - a football stance. It is a speed stance. Also, there is a foot-spacing template that is adjusted according to height. About 5’9 is usually where an adjustment needs to be made.

  • •Begin by putting the toe of what will be your back foot on the edge of the line

  • •Then put the toe of what will be your front foot directly behind on the heel of the back foot (on the same line like they would be on a slalom ski)

  • •Then the back foot moves to its back position at a toe-to-heel stagger, widening slightly to hip width, not shoulder width

Hip width is where your feet are when sprinting. Hip width is also the way track blocks are designed. Hip width is the position of your feet when doing an explosive vertical jump. Hip width is the proper stance for Olympic lifts. My point is that hip width is the fastest, most explosive position your feet can be in athletically, and I’m all about athleticism.

The whole point of this 1-2-3 step off is so that anywhere on the planet you need to run a 40, you will be in the right place because your feet are doing the measuring.

Should you need to adjust because of smaller feet or shorter height, only the second part of the sequence changes.

  • •Place the first foot (the back foot) as stated

  • •Now tuck the inside curve of the front foot (the ball of the foot curve) into the instep of the back foot

  • •Then put the back foot into the proper position as stated.

Works every time.

The Posture

The most important letter in the alphabet for a good start is the letter H. There are three essential cues: hips up, head down, hand back.

Hips Up

→Hips up means that the hips should be at least higher than your shoulders.
→Hips up is to allow you to lean forward and put pressure on the ground hand so that it is uncomfortable to “sit” in your stance and when the hand comes off the ground you either fall or run.
→Hips up is to create the angle in the knees that is powerful and explosive.

Head Down

→Head down is because your body follows your head and your head follows your eyes. Keep your head down and look to make sure that your shoes are tied.
→Head down because you don’t want to pop up. The raising of the shoulders eventually brings the head up.
→The head is for looking and breathing; it can’t make you faster. Done wrong, it can make you slower.

Hand Back

→Hand back has two meanings for two hands: for the ground hand and the back hand
→Hand back for the free hand is to raise it just above the hips, no higher. Too high and it will cause an excessive forward swing bringing the shoulders up too quickly.
→Hand back in regards to the ground hand means throw it back when you start. If you lift the hand, the clock starts, but you don’t. You don’t want to just lift because that causes a brief pause while the feet catch up with what is going on. I call this motion without movement. Throwing the ground hand unlocks the back foot for a faster start.
→Putting the ground hand down is done by putting the thumb and index finger on the inside edge of the line like a track start, not a football stance. Place the hand down just wider than the same leg.
Here it is! Throwing the ground hand back at the start may allow you to steal time, that is, if you are being hand timed. You would like the timers to “miss the start” and be late with the clock, giving you a couple of hundredths off your time. No shame in the game!

The First Step

There’s not much to this other than getting the length right. Get reps with the steps. Practice by coming out of the starting position and only sprinting the first 10 yards of the 40.

Your goal with step one is to not overreach by taking too long of a step and to not take a short step that doesn’t cover enough ground and potentially leads to a stumble. Your levers and athleticism will dictate this. One way you’ll know if step one is good is how it leads into steps two, three, and four. Feel it out. Remember, be like a plane taking off.

If possible, film yourself and make marks. It’s a game of inches.


This opinion was reached after watching who knows how many 40s over the decades. After placing the feet for the stance applying the 3 H’s for the posture, it is show time.

What I believe to be detrimental is when the athlete gets into a crouch too long or worse, puts a hand on the ground and begins to fidget and create a subtle fatigue in the legs from holding the crouched position too long. If you want to visualize and finish your final mental preparation, do it standing. Close your eyes if you want and see yourself executing the perfect start, sprint and finish. Otherwise, when you put your hand on the ground, you should think of two words:

“Just run.”

Put your hand on the ground, freeze for one second, and go! By the time the hand gets to the ground either you are ready and prepared or not.

Just run, baby.



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