Training programs should aim to solve a problem—which, for most athletes, is a need for more speed and explosiveness on the field of play. Game speed is not the ability to express force; it is the ability to express force accurately! Every exercise that we choose—whether it’s in the form of strength training, plyometrics, or speed training—should aim to improve the physical limitations of game speed and continue improvements in the aspects of game speed in which the athlete already excels.
The term “corrective exercise” is thrown around a lot, and for the most part it is associated with a rehab or prehab type of exercise. Most coaches instinctively think of glute activation drills or some sort of scapular drills. These types of drills are often used in the weight room as a means to correct an asymmetry or create more mobility and stability around a joint. Do these types of drills ultimately lead to someone getting faster and more explosive? They might, but I think the time spent doing these types of exercises can be better spent doing corrective exercise through the lens of rehearsed speed drills, jump training, and plyometric training.
Corrective drills or exercises are used to make athletes move better. It may be difficult to give an exact definition of good movement in terms of change of direction training, but as coaches, you know a good athlete when you see one and can identify what a good rep and a poor rep look like. For an athlete to be fast, they must produce a high amount of force over a short period of time. This seems simple enough. As you read this article, you will learn some general concepts and principles to help your athletes.
I touched on the topic of why I like to do rehearsed drills as well as reactive drills in a previous article. In that article, I talked about wanting the athletes to move well—that is still the goal, but let’s figure out how to make that happen.
Limit Verbal Cueing
A point that needs to be addressed is the role of skill acquisition. This is a very interesting topic, with research continuing all the time. For the purposes of actually learning a movement skill, drills should be delivered in a way that there are minimal to no verbal cues needed.For the purposes of actually learning a movement skill, drills should be delivered in a way that there are minimal to no verbal cues needed. Click To Tweet
The drills need to put athletes in a position to subconsciously correct a movement pattern or create a better movement strategy. Cues that are intrinsic and cause athletes to think internally about joint angles, body position, and engaging specific muscles are not as helpful to the learning process because in a game, the athlete shouldn’t be thinking about any of these things. They should be processing the position of the defense, the strategy of the game, the score, and the environment.
In terms of how we look at drills, think about the starting point of a drill and the end point. Over the course of an athlete moving from the beginning of the drill to the end of the drill there are a few different areas that should draw your attention. Arizona State Professor Rob Gray says:
“Even though, in theory, there are an endless number of movement solutions we could use, we all have certain coordination tendencies. We are attracted to certain solutions that are highly stable and struggle to execute others that are very unstable.” (Gray, 81)
Athletes will choose a movement solution they are comfortable with. If an athlete does not have the physical ability to execute a movement, continuing to practice open agility drills may not be enough to improve their actual physical capacity. Dr. Gray also mentions “Our perception is well calibrated to our action capacity.” (Gray, 68) As you, the coach, improve specific components that address the ability to accelerate and decelerate in a variety of movement solutions, you simultaneously change the athlete’s perception.If an athlete does not have the physical ability to execute a movement, continuing to practice open agility drills may not be enough to improve their actual physical capacity. Click To Tweet
Perform the Drills at 100% Intensity, But Manipulate the Drill for the Desired Outcome
A seemingly logical progression for speed training may be to perform a drill at:
- 50% intensity
- Then 75% intensity
- And finally, 100% intensity
An example of this may be a jog forward to a cut at an angle forward, followed by a run and the same cut, and then a sprint and a cut. The problem with this way of progressing is these are all different drills, even though they may look similar.
When you go through a drill slowly, it is much easier to manipulate the body to move the way you want it to. However, an athlete performing a drill flawlessly at a slow speed does not guarantee they can perform it at a faster speed. At higher speeds and intensities, the athlete will actually have fewer movement options.
An easy way to illustrate this is to have an athlete jog forward 10 yards and try to cut at a 90-degree angle to the side. A good athlete can do this without breaking down before the cut. Now try this with a run, and you’ll see the athlete break down a step or two before the cut. If you attempt this with a max effort sprint, you may initiate braking 3–4 steps prior to making the cut. In essence, the way this drill is executed is completely different.
In sport, if you attempt to create space or get past an opposing player, you will move with high effort and intensity. This is why performing drills at a slow speed is a waste of time. An example of how you can progress a speed cut like the one mentioned in the previous paragraph is to limit the speed of the athlete going into a cut by decreasing the distance before the cut. You can have an athlete start with 3 yards, then progress to 5 yards, and 8 yards, and so on. A drill can only be a teaching tool or a learned skill when it’s performed at high intensities.
What’s Going on at the Foot?
I always like to first look at what’s happening when the foot strikes the ground. From that point, you can work your way up the chain toward the hip and then also take a look at what’s going on at the trunk.
A common limitation among athletes is they spend too much time on the ground when changing direction. When athletes react to opposing players on the field in a reactive manner, you most often see a change of direction off a single leg. Reacting to someone on the field does not afford you the time to get both feet on the ground to handle forces more easily. Athletes must learn the feeling of being quick off the ground. A great place to start when you see this is with straddle jumps. (I was first introduced to these by Lee Taft.)
Video 1. Straddle jumps challenge an athlete’s ability to get off the ground quickly while not forcing them to absorb the force of their entire body on a single leg. As an athlete progresses, you can add a band laterally to change the stimulus and progress toward being explosive off a single leg.
When performing straddle jumps, look for the athlete to get their feet as wide as they can, as long as they can still be quick off the ground. The more powerful the athlete, the wider they will be able to get their feet. This wider angle is what we aim for because it creates a better angle of projection when moving out of any change of direction.
Once an athlete can get their feet wide and be quick off the ground, you can continue to progress power development by having the athlete elevated on a small box or a stack of rubber mats. You can also add the lateral resistance of a band to create a new and appropriate stimulus. All of these methods are progressions toward the end goal of being explosive off a single foot.
As I mentioned earlier, all speed drills need to be performed at 100% effort. So, how do we move past the straddle jump progressions to drills with higher speeds? Start with quick, explosive movements that do not cover much distance before changing directions. The snap shuffle into a sprint is one of my favorites. Look for a punch into the ground off the plant leg, which will allow swing leg retraction and acceleration of the lead leg.
Video 2. A snap shuffle into a sprint is a nice progression for unilateral power and speed development because the athlete will not have a lot of speed built up before changing direction.
Continuing the progression means increasing speeds going into a direction change. You can do this with a shuffle or lateral run into a direction change.
Video 3. A shuffle or lateral run is an effective progression that can tell you a lot about the athlete’s unilateral strength, speed, and power.
If you notice a point at which your athlete cannot be quick off the ground, then go back to a previous progression within your speed training. There are several factors that can affect progress, but make any changes needed to your program to continue to improve your athlete’s performance.
Train the Trunk
As we continue to look further up the chain, look at what is happening at the trunk. The quicker the trunk rotates to the new direction of movement when changing direction, the more efficient the athlete will be getting out of that cut. By efficient, I mean you will not see excessive upper body rotation or tilt.The quicker the trunk rotates to the new direction of movement when changing direction, the more efficient the athlete will be getting out of that cut. Click To Tweet
Any time there is a direction change, specifically with any sort of lateral movement, the athlete should look to limit any sort of trunk sway or tilt. This movement indicates a weakness of the upper body in relation to the speed going into a change of direction. The band drill shown below, with the band in hand, is great for addressing this issue.
Video 4. Make sure the arm stays straight during this drill, so the trunk handles the load of the band and not the arm.
Improve the Ability to Handle Force
If you notice your athlete is quick off the ground, but as soon as you start to increase speed going into a cut, they look much slower, then try to improve how well the athlete handles the force of changing direction—this may indicate a lack of strength by the athlete.
The weight room is great for addressing these limitations, but I also like to incorporate variations of speed drills as a type of specific strength. The lateral run progression in video 5 shows a progression of teaching athletes to handle a change of direction.
Video 5. This video shows a progression of three different drills. The first is without a band. The second drill adds a band to accelerate the athlete into a direction change. The last drill still utilizes the band, but now the athlete needs to go into and out of the cut.
Tight Turns and Curvilinear Running
When an athlete sprints forward and then intends to make a hard 90-degree cut, you will actually notice more of a curvilinear cut. This occurs because of the forward momentum prior to the cut. If an athlete breaks down before the turn, you won’t see this, but in terms of trying to evade a defender or create separation from an opponent, you want to be able to make this cut with as little breakdown as possible.
Video 6. This is a slow-motion 90° cut. Notice the forward momentum that happens after the initial plant to change direction.
A great way to progress handling high forces at tough angles is through curvilinear running. You can make the drill tougher by changing the angle of the arc as well as the speed going into the arc. Tighter arcs and increasing speed are great progressions to strengthen the foot and ankle in these positions and challenge the strength of the body.Tighter arcs and increasing speed are great progressions to strengthen the foot and ankle in these positions and challenge the strength of the body. Click To Tweet
Video 7. Here are progressions of curvilinear running from easier to more difficult.
For coaches, it’s valuable to understand that in order to continue improving athletic development, it is imperative to also incorporate agility drills into your program. Athletes can make a lot of progress using change of direction drills, but the purpose of doing those drills is to create more strength, stability, and power in the reactive nature of sporting movement.
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Gray, R. How We Learn to Move: A Revolution in the Way We Coach & Practice Sports Skills. Perception and Action Consulting and Education LLC. 2021.