The qualities of agility and sport specific speed are difficult to evaluate and challenging to address in training. Because the act of changing direction in sport risks joint trauma, team performance coaches often avoid agility-specific training and hope strength built in the weight room will keep their athletes healthy while developing their skills.
Confusion is caused by the lack of good research and the huge amounts of misinformation available online and presented at conferences. In this article, we’ll explore the components of agility, share options on testing agility, and show how to improve agility training.
Myths and Misinformation About Agility
The chaos of bodies in motion, as well as sporting rules, can transport a simple foot plant into a mystical realm of pseudoscience. During a change in direction, much of the body’s action within space is reactive. This makes it easy to focus on the success of very artistic and expressive athletes. Countless athletes have conjured movement patterns without the use of a movement coach and have experienced great success with both performance and body health. So what gives?The chaos of bodies in motion can push a simple foot plant into a mystical realm of pseudoscience. Click To Tweet
The core issue is not what comprises agility. It’s the qualities that feed agility and how those qualities are prepared and presented to athletes. Sport practices and informal games are breeding grounds for development as are global athletic development qualities that go beyond narrow sport skills.
Our goal as performance coaches is to develop agility, not necessarily to train it specifically. The most common mistake coaches make is trying to mimic sport actions. A judicious use of pattern overload must be managed, or these drills will become a syndrome rather an incubator.
So what is the definition of agility? Mine is not perfect, but it does serve as a bridge to a better definition than what we have now. With careful thought, I’ve devised this change:
Agility: the athletic ability to either create an elusive motion or a defensive reaction with an emphasis on speed and creativity.
I’ve chosen words to convey that agility is always about the predator and prey in concert; it’s about at least two athletes, directly or indirectly, engaging in a movement dual. This includes, for example, an outfielder tracking a ball after it’s hit.
The takeaway is simple. Agility has many interrelated athletic qualities we can develop. A holistic approach combines both exposure to sport play and maximal training with the least amount of specific work required to transition abilities.
Current Motor Learning: The Natural Way to Train Agility
Some progressive experts have concluded that motor learning is not about drills or coaching, but something more holistic (Mladen Jovanovic). My motto is that it’s far more important to prepare for the demands of agility than to force-feed creative motion.It’s far more important to prepare for the demands of agility than to force-feed creative motion. Click To Tweet
We know that the system of human movement is extremely clever and adaptable, so we should create task-driven (problem solving) sessions instead of talk-driven (coaching cues) approaches.
Basic footwork instruction is part of the equation. But real teaching revolves around the athlete who is learning, not the coach who is speaking. Social media discussion of external cues and interpersonal connection has promoted the coach-driven model when we should be more concerned with the environment of self-discovery and creativity.
The current discussion about Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) has spawned debate about the amount of prodding needed to cultivate talent. I believe the logical answer is to do just enough to stimulate growth. Athletes have to play to evolve but don’t need to compete all the time. Derek Hansen recently addressed this in a very thought provoking article. Many superstar athletes agree there is a need to allow for creativity in sport.
Key Components of Sport Agility
The brain ultimately drives agility, and I let team coaches play their roles priming athletes to become better players. I draw a line for team coaches when it’s someone else’s job to teach or train. This usually occurs earlier in strength and conditioning; I’ve seen more problems with overuse in sport rather than overprepared athletes.
I prefer to distil key areas of focus that will deliver the best bang for the buck rather than create an exhaustive list of tasks that might not be realistic in short training situations (professional soccer and the NBA are examples).
Here are my top five qualities that performance coaches need to consider.
- Global Speed Capacity. Linear speed, both acceleration and maximal velocity, raises the potential of an athlete’s neurological ability to perform submaximal performances. The more skilled the athlete is in their sport, the smaller the gap between what they can do globally and what they can do specifically.
- Eccentric Strength. Lower body eccentric strength can help decrease injuries. It also improves the ability to change direction by using the momentum from elastic energy. Having both rapid stiffness and a great Eccentric Utilization Ratio can reduce soft tissue and joint injuries as well as decrease motor task time.
- Rate of Force Development (RFD) and System Power. The ability to rapidly create force to overcome inertia or create body speed matters in many sports. The slowest part of the game is usually the more trainable. Simple but safe maximal strength levels can help great athletes improve from first step speed.
- General Movement Coordination. Training to acquire, master, and retain movement skills is popular, especially among proponents of verbal instruction and “mediums” who claim their visual acuity can decipher dysfunctions. Coordination can be assessed visually and with research-grade instrumentation. Simple field testing and video should suffice for the majority of assessments.
- Vision and Mental Focus. Currently, scientific information is growing about the connection between vision and the brain and its influence on decision-making skills and reactive agility. While we’re far from knowing everything, the abilities to be comfortable in chaos (randomness) and to be sharp (focus) are trainable qualities if they’re integrated.
Most creative, successful athletes don’t have coaches who are responsible for their artistic athleticism. Who made Allen Iverson? What cues made him special? Maybe it wasn’t practice, but I bet it wasn’t a private agility coach who helped him in high school.
Although workouts and drills aren’t the subjects of this article, eventually sets and reps do have to be prescribed because exercise is the ultimate prescription in training. The role of the five key components is to complement or sneak in specific qualities to increase the chance of transfer.
No guarantees exist with sports training. If the profession were perfect, all athletes would be stars, and none would get hurt. All we can do is slightly increase the probability of success.
The General and Specific Training Dilemma
There are no true solutions about whether general exercises and concepts are more appropriate than specific options. Much confusion exists about what constitutes specific training compared to what occurs in practice and competition.
Specific work is defined as training that occurs between the game and general exercise options. One litmus test for evaluating the effects of specific training is a combination of old school eyeballing and modern sports science. It’s likely, however, that the goal of specific work might only be to help transition, not transfer, general capacity to sport form.
So does agility training work? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, we have to understand that some activities are hard on the body.
Most specific exercises are weighted choreographed movements that pile a pattern load with additional gravity load. The cost to joints and tendons might not jive with an athlete’s general recovery during the offseason. With decreased preparation time and increased competition length, the use of specific training might be less valuable and more likely to cause overuse injuries.
We need to use some of our wisdom here. Research only covers 8 to 12-week interventions, not long-term agility development.
Testing Agility: A Difficult Task
Because most field tests don’t simulate real world situations, practice and scrimmage videos are better indicators of athletic potential compared to general field tests.
Agility tests should not be dismissed completely, however, because they do have some value. Testing core abilities to change direction demonstrates capacity even if it doesn’t show a valid ability to transfer. A sensible approach is to test logical, simple core motions and collect data on redirecting momentum.
The NFL combine has limitations. But arguments against the tests are pointless because 5.1 wide receivers don’t exist, and no offensive lineman are benching 3-4 reps on the 225lb test.
Raw performance data has value because it removes issues with familiarization that make testing difficult. An athlete can improve test performance by taking the test over and over. Or they can artificially score higher by gaming the test.
On the other hand, eliminating all testing and simply looking at film will only highlight talented athletes who have been groomed for their sport. Diamond in the rough athletes may be overlooked because they are less skilled. Athletic tests that are not overly sport-specific have value.
If properly administered, testing also provides diagnostics for injury risk. Athletes unable to perform tests because of dysfunction are often rushed through rehabilitation. They are prime candidates to sustain additional injury from movement compensations, fatigue, or weakness.
For example, a lateral change of direction test, like the classic 5-10-5, is a good test to determine if athletes are training well. Although it won’t show transfer to the field, poor scores or trends hint to problems with the athlete or with the program.
Practice Solutions and Training Concepts
I’ve followed the simple team sports guidelines from StrengthPowerSpeed for the last ten years. I’ve had success for two reasons. First I’ve applied the concept that eventually everyone needs to train generally so they can raise their total maximal output in the offseason.
Secondly, I’ve heeded the warning to take care to avoid overuse syndromes by managing specific loads during practices.
Games and matches are necessary evils, and we must prepare for them in smarter and more aggressive ways.
Three primary levels exist with sport: youth, scholastic, and professional. Agility training starts with exposure to games and movement tasks and, as young athletes work toward the professional level, leads to precise screening and load management.
Here are a few cardinal observations about grooming agility.
- The degree of chaos (randomness) is highly related to the amount of variables that are unplanned or reactive. Agility prepares athletes to handle chaos instantly in a productive manner for both offensive and defensive needs.
- Agility training moves an athlete from choreographed exposure to more creative options or technically limited practices. Rehearsal of skills may create efficient changes to the nervous system, but chaos adds robustness and a means to evaluate an athlete’s abilities to tap into those qualities.
- Higher level athletes need general training more than ever. During the training week, it’s tempting to let athletes just play or focus on tactics to keep them fit and prepared. Because of long seasons, however, athletes need more time away from practice. They need simple general training to avoid an increase in injuries and decrease in conditioning.
- At least two training days a week are needed for maintaining the strength required to support change of direction sports. Fully rested athletes will slowly detrain and will be unprepared no matter how fresh they are.
- Sometimes changes in technique are needed. This is difficult with highly trained athletes because it’s hard to change the many motor patterns that are cemented in place. It’s best to make sure efficient (natural) patterns are instilled at the youth level.
- The future coach is going to be a fluent team coach who creates a microcycle during the training period that sequences physiological loading and tactical needs for competition. So far, not many teams have the ability to juggle individual needs with the chemistry needs of practice. Coaches who can manage workloads and progressions while preparing a weekly and seasonal strategy and tactics will win more often provided their athletes have the talent.
- It’s better to have healthy players with excellent athletic skills than to pursue the unicorn of perfect sport skill. Instead of compromising, I suggest team coaches make adjustments and creative workarounds to allocate time and energy into performance training instead of “strategic rest.”
Paint by number plans don’t exist for practices and off-field/court training. As teams evolve, it’s up to the strength coach and high-performance advisors, using sports science, to negotiate the need for training and smarter ways to rest. This should involve performing lighter work instead of taking a day off.
New Innovations from the 1080 Lab
Several European coaches and some early adopters in the U.S. have asked how the 1080 Sprint and 1080 Quantum Syncro can be used for overload or overspeed. The answer is simple. Do only enough to create a meaningful, worthwhile change. There are no Holy Grail exercises, just the same exercises that can be fine-tuned when appropriate. Here are a few general and slightly more specific exercises and workout solutions.
Vector Loaded Hops and Jumps
Jump patterns can be amplified with horizontal resistance using small loads. Most jump patterns are vertical or horizontal, but the loading occurs in the external vertical planes or with higher vertical stressors. Adding constant horizontal tension can tax muscle groups and distribute the load without risking volume errors.
Video 1: This clip shows how even a small resistance can overload the stabilizers and over-recruit muscle groups if the threshold is too high. Always use a lighter setting on the 1080 Sprint to ensure the vector jumps are challenged and not overdosed.
Running Ins and Outs (Zigzags)
Common lateral zigzags are great low-intensity patterns to develop familiarity and progression and for adding different resistance vectors, loads, and contraction velocities.
Overspeed Eccentric Development
Eccentric overload and rapid rates of motion force pretension firing routines so athletes load earlier by raising stiffness for foot strike. Not much research is available, but rapid eccentrics from plyometric studies do indicate improvements in agility testing.
Lateral Squatting Patterns
Single lateral lunges and squats are good precursor exercises because they overload without necessarily replicating agility movements. One limitation with single leg exercises and exercises demanding more balance is that overload is difficult without adding risk. Double supported exercises can overload from a stable position and be a perfect adjustment for coaches wanting support movements.
Using creativity while understanding the primary purpose of an exercise helps boost conventional methods. The goal of any additional overload method is not to lose the soul of the exercise but to find a clever way to develop a stronger “target dose.”
A Call for Experimentation
I’ve always felt the proportion of agility to linear speed should be 30/70, meaning it’s better to concentrate on weight room general work and sprinting. Some change of direction work is also valuable.
A simple approach which seems to work is to avoid adding agility work until an athlete is generally prepared. This seems to be a lost part of training now, especially with shorter training periods. When we do train agility, we should make every effort to create effective sessions since time is the most precious of commodities.
These thoughts are based on my experience. Every few years, my ideas change slightly. Sometimes I come back full circle to more subtle methods after hearing coaches share their results and by looking at the records over time. I believe coaches should decide what matters and then test and train it in a way that produces clear results.
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