By Carmen Pata
A few years ago, an All-American 100 meter sprinter tried out for a wide receiver spot on our football team. Immediately, we thought we were going to have a new weapon in the playbook—until he went through a handful of workouts leading up to training camp. You would have been shocked. This highly accomplished sprinter couldn’t execute the simplest routes, except a “go” pattern where all a player has to do is run full speed straight down the field.
It’s not that he was slow or weak or had bad hands. It’s that he could only run in a straight line; when he had to make a break or change direction, he either slipped or the movement took way too long. For all of this athlete’s speed and strength, he couldn’t change direction because we never spent time developing his agility.
Agility is one of those attributes that’s deceivingly complexly simple. To boil down the concept, agility is about changing your direction. You start off going straight, but then you need to go left or right or maybe even backward. It’s how you physically perform this directional change that’s open to discussion. These discussions often cover techniques to be the fastest or the most efficient while moving, but the conversation should start a little differently. I talk to athletes about the relationship between action and reaction. Right? It’s a basic law of physics, and while it’s a concept that people might subconsciously understand, they don’t necessarily relate it to training.
How do I know this? Well, I ask my athletes.
If you’ve read any of my other pieces, you might know that I like to maximize every second in a workout. While sometimes we program recovery exercises, other times I like having a passive rest time so we can talk. During these times, I tend to ask simple questions to see if the athletes truly understand what we’re teaching. One session, I asked: If you want to move to the left, what direction do you need to put energy in the ground? For a moment, there was silence. Then…more silence.
This non-response led me to recognize that sometimes our athletes simply were going through the motions—they worked the skills we taught in a drill but didn’t transfer these skills to performance. Based on the lack of answers to my question, we started changing our cues. Instead of saying “Cut to your left at the cone,” we now say “At the cone, push the ground to your right.”The fastest athletes use one-foot contact to put a massive amount of energy and force into the ground to go the opposite direction, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
The idea seems very elementary, but this concept of action and reaction is the entire point of agility training. The fastest athletes have become masters at using one-foot contact to put a massive amount of energy and force into the ground and go the opposite direction. If you’re anything like me, you believe that the skill of changing direction is a teachable skill, and here’s how I go about teaching it.
Acceleration: The Plyo Step
First, I’m going to introduce the concept that many strength and sport coaches aren’t a fan of—the plyo step.
If you haven’t heard of a plyo step, you may be familiar with its incorrect namesake, the false step. To make sure we’re all on the same page, I define a plyo step as a short, fast step in the opposite direction of where you want to go. So, if you want to go forward, you step backward first. If you want to go right, then first you step left. These are all examples of plyo steps. If you’re uneasy right now, it’s OK because I was there with you for a long time. Then I took a good hard look at the way people move.
For years, I taught athletes how to take a fast step in the same direction they want to move. It makes sense, right? If I want to go forward, I should step forward first; just look at the people who make their living by accelerating—track sprinters. One-third of their event is acceleration, one third is holding their top speed, and one third is trying not to slow down.
If one-third of the event is based on their ability to accelerate, it will make sense to look closely at how they move off the starting pistol. Their chest is forward and low, they’re extended through the back leg and arm, and most importantly, there’s no plyo step. If track sprinters don’t take a plyo step to accelerate, then we should surely teach people to accelerate like track sprinters, right?
In all my years of coaching and trying to mirror track sprinters’ acceleration skills, I missed one key element. The blocks! It’s embarrassing that I missed the most important factor that allows sprinters to accelerate. Physics reminds us that to go forward, you have to push backward—which the blocks allow them to do. The sprinter’s foot pushes straight back into the block, which lets them propel themselves forward. On the field or court, we don’t have blocks to push off from to accelerate, so we have to make our own.The plyo step provides a means to push off so we can accelerate faster, says @CarmenPata. #plyostep #agilitytraining Click To Tweet
That’s the point of the plyo step. It provides something to push off from so we can accelerate faster. The good news is that we all know how to do this already. The better news is that, like many things in life, we can improve it.
How to Teach Plyo Step Progressions
To teach the plyo step, I start with a snap down. Once the athlete snaps down, they’ll be on the balls of their feet with their chest forward. The difference is that their back foot is behind them at almost full extension. Their arms are in a sprint stagger as well; one arm is short and forward while the other arm is long and behind them.
Video 1. The first step to learning the plyo step is the snap down.
After the snap down into a sprint stance, the next step is a jump forward—not a sprint. It’s not a world record broad jump, but there has to be a jump going forward. The entire goal is to have athletes feel how their bodies use the plyo step. Many athletes I work with have long been taught that plyo steps are bad, and they should always step in the direction they want to go. Doing the snap down into a jump helps break that mindset easily by taking a movement pattern they already know and using it as an example of how natural it feels to take a plyo step to move.
Once the athletes have done a few reps using their plyo step to initiate a broad jump, it’s time to start running out of it. Everything stays the same: the same start with the snap down, the same body position, the same plyo step. The only difference is that the athletes are not jumping. Except, in some way they are. They still have to propel themselves forward, but they move their feet in a different pattern.
The final progression step is to start from an athletic stance. Get the athletes down in their playing stance, and on a visual cue, sprint. Why the visual cue? Tell me a team sport that doesn’t require players to see a target and react to it. Can’t come up with one? Neither can I. So, here we are.Push step is a good verbal reminder to push the ground backward for the ability to move forward, says @CarmenPata. #plyostep #agilitytraining Click To Tweet
The athletes place their toes on a line with a coach in front of them holding a ball, and when the coach drops the ball, the athletes react and sprint. The coach should see a plyo step that goes the opposite way they need to move, and their body position should look like their jump stance. Have them take two (or how many you want) push steps forward. I like the term push step as a verbal reminder to push the ground backward for the ability to move forward as part of the action and reaction relationship.
Video 2. Once an athlete learns the plyo step progressions, they’re ready to start moving through agility patterns.
After their two push steps, the athletes finish in a jump stop. Yep, a jump stop. The same thing basketball players do when they land with their feet square and their weight on the balls of both feet, ready to move in any direction. Now the athletes are ready to put all of these together and start moving through agility patterns.
You’ve probably noticed that I like moving people through progressions. Each plyo step progression teaches a specific skill and gives athletes confidence in their abilities. Teaching agility is the same. There are three distinct phases of this training, which ultimately get the athlete to the most complex and game-like situations.
When you break it down, agility drills simply force a change of direction. There is more to it of course, but to keep it simple, it’s just changing direction. If an athlete has progressed through the jump and plyo step work, they should have a basic understanding of how to do this.
Whether you drew attention to it or not doesn’t matter because they’ve already done countless reps. The athlete has changed their level, meaning they’ve changed their center of mass by changing their body position. When an athlete is long, their center of mass is high, and when they do a snap down, their center of mass is lower. The athlete also knows how to put force into the ground in the opposite direction of where they want to go. In a way, they were doing the basics of agility work.
If you’re like me, though, agility drills mean a little more, and we want to see athletes run.
Closed Agility Drills
Closed agility drills are the starting point for teaching because they’re the simplest. There are specific start and end points. The athlete knows exactly how to get there, and they know what to do at each stage. The classic drill is a 5-10-5 pro agility. The start and end line are marked clearly. The athlete knows they must go to their right, touch the line with their hand, sprint back ten yards and hit the other line with their hand, and finish through the finish line. As I said, the athlete knows where they’re going and how they’ll get there at all points of the drill.
The problem with closed drills is that, while an athlete is changing direction, there is no element of reaction, which is unrealistic for team sports. On the positive side, they provide fantastic teaching situations to reinforce the movement patterns you’ve been working on, which builds confidence in the athletes. Now, I don’t ever use the 5-10-5 pro agility except when we test, simply because I want to see if the athletes have improved physically rather than getting better at taking the test.
The video below shows a better pattern—see if you can recognize everything I’ve talked about so far.
Video 3. The cone agility run offers a great sprint pattern that uses visual reaction cues, plyo steps, and sprints.
Did you see it all? The pattern is really simple: sprint to the cone, shuffle right, sprint to the finish. The athlete starts with a visual reaction cue and takes a plyo step to start and at each of the cones signaling direction change. The sprint pattern looks just like we’ve been drilling. She feels confident as an athlete and so do I as her coach.
While the closed drill tells athletes everything they need to know—where to start, where to finish, and how to move—semi-open drills take away some of the instructions, which forces them to figure out a solution. We’ve seen it before—players who can run closed agility patterns like an all-star but, when it comes to thinking on their feet, they stall out. Sure, they know what to do, but they can’t figure out how to do it. For these athletes, semi-open drills can help them take the next step to improve their performance.
In the video below, all the athlete has to do is get to a finish line only eight yards away from the start line. Her job is to avoid the coach and cross the line as fast as she can.
Video 4. In the semi-open agility drill, the athlete has to run to the finish line while avoiding her coach.
Maybe you’ve noticed that the things in life that give the best rewards will often cost a lot. That cost is not always financial; it could be emotional, spiritual, or paid in sweat and effort. Open drills give athletes the best reward of any agility drill, forcing them to play with their eyes and react. Open drills force them to be creative and allow them to have fun.
For coaches, these drills have costs. They cost us time to prepare and teach the athletes how to move and react. They cost us absolute control over our drills. There can also be a cost to our reputation if sport coaches see us as “hands off.” Here is what a head sports coach once told me: “Don’t you care about getting my team better? The other day I watched the entire session, and all you did with them was play games.” See what I mean about a cost to my reputation?
We were using a series of open drills to fine tune the athletes’ skills. It was late in the week, and this team was set to kick off their competition season on the upcoming Monday. They were fast, strong, lean, smooth, and in as good of condition as they could be without playing games. As a coach, I was really happy with where everyone was at.
The focus of this training session was to help them react to visual cues to move correctly without thinking about it. To accomplish this goal, I chose to focus on open-ended agility drills, which can mean playing games. That day, we played all sorts of games of tag. Yep, tag. The game we played on the playground or in gym class when we were kids. The game that forces us to move and react to the person who is “it,” know where the boundary lines are, and be able to develop some sort of game plan to win.
Of course, I tried to explain all of this to the sports coach. But in their mind, great coaching meant micromanaging. They wanted the athletes to get feedback every single rep all the time. To me, the ultimate form of coaching is to give athletes the least amount of feedback they need to do what you want them to do. See the conflict between our two styles?
Open drills like tag give almost all the power to the athletes. The athletes have to make choices and adjust their tactics, so they can best use their talents. All I did was set the rules, run the stopwatch, and watch to make sure they used all the skills we spent six weeks developing. The athletes took great plyo steps, changed their body positions, and stopped and started on a dime. Tag is a great example of an open-ended agility drill, and with some creativity, coaches can surely figure out others as well.
Putting It All Together
Coaching is a great reflection of life as we spend so much time preparing for what happens next. Think back to your childhood. You spent an entire year in first grade to get ready for second grade. Second grade took an entire year to get ready for third grade. No one spends one year in first grade and then moves to sixth grade the next year. Life—and coaching—don’t work that way. You have to learn the basics and how to apply them to go to the next step.When athletes improve their open-ended agility drills, they improve the physical aspect of their game, says @CarmenPata. #agilitytraining Click To Tweet
That’s what this article is. It’s a blueprint for how to use a simple tool like a jump to prepare athletes to compete in open-ended agility drills. When you help athletes get better with their open-ended agility drills, you improve the physical aspect of their game. This, after all, is still the most important result of training.
Which brings me back to the All-American track athlete trying out for football mentioned in the opening paragraph. What do you think happened? Well, after the first few practices, he was so frustrated he thought about quitting right then and there. He was one of the fastest athletes in the conference, but if something didn’t change, the odds were that he’d be watching a lot of football from the sideline rather than playing in the games. Going from being one of the best in the nation to someone who may not make the travel roster was a hard blow to his ego.
The head coach asked if I could start working with him for about 15 minutes a day during practice. That’s not a lot of time, so we focused on what would give him the greatest return. The choice was easy for me—we worked exclusively on closed agility patterns. Rep after rep, we only worked on exactly how many steps he needed to take, how to make a plyo step to change direction, and where the ball was going to be so he could get there first.
Sure, this helped him run better routes, but there was something else. All of a sudden, he had a way to contribute to the team other than being pigeonholed as the team’s deep threat. His confidence grew. Were these the best routes the coaches had ever seen? Of course not. But, by working hard on agility, his routes became good enough for him to get open on the field and ultimately earn a spot on the travel team.