Agility is a term we hear around when speaking of sport's performance training. It is often affiliated with true athleticism outside of just brute strength in the weight room. Perhaps you've seen the video of an athlete moving through the agility ladder with his feet barley visible because they are moving so fast. This remains the common mainstream perceptions of agility training. Does this however, actually make athletes more agile on the field?
Let’s first define agility. One definition from the NSCA is “the ability to explosively break, change direction, and accelerate. Now we can see how it applies.
The common criticism from strength and conditioning coaches of the ladder/cone drills is that they don’t simulate field play. An athlete must change direction in reaction to something else. The ladder and cone drills are preconceived where the athlete knows exactly where they are going from start to finish. In contrast, in actual gameplay, an athlete must react to an external stimulus, and change direction on a spur of the moment decision. What some coaches will then do, is come up with drills that do incorporate directional change based on reaction. I tend to go a step further and say agility is NOT something that can be trained in a weight room or conditioning setting. Here’s why.
To understand how agility training plays into a program, lets make sure we understand the difference between General Physical Preparedness(GPP) and specific physical preparedness(SPP). In most sports, GPP can be considered all the work done in the weight room and conditioning. Becoming generally faster, stronger, more explosive, more mobile, etc. can all be transferable to any sport and therefore fall under the GPP category. SPP should be considered everything done in practice, drills, or even games. SPP develops very specific, situational, physical feats. For example, in the weight room, I, as the strength and conditioning coach can train a quarterback to achieve better lower body strength to push off the back foot, and to develop rotational core power; Both of which attribute to throwing strength. However, I would not attempt to coach the specific throwing mechanics. This remains the job of the quarterbacks coach.
Now we can view agility and how it applies to gameplay. As opposed to jumping in a rack and squatting, agility in sport is very situational. A running back avoiding a tackler, a basketball player dodging defenders towards the basket, or a defender mirroring an offensive player in any sport can be considered agility. I consider all of these situations to be in the SPP category and can only truly be developed in practice or during a game.
Let’s take a look at this in detail. During gameplay many factors come into play that shape how athletes must move, speed up, slow down, change direction, cut/shift/juke, and so on. We will use a football play as an example as I think it best illustrates my point that no two moments in sports are exactly the same. Say that the running back is getting a carry between the guard and tackle. The number of situations that can occur are endless, but here are just a few
The List could clearly go on forever but the idea is that so many things can happen in a matter of seconds during game actions. The separation of the agile vs non agile players, in these situations comes down to instincts as much as it does athleticism. I don’t think throwing med balls or swiss balls at players as they run, forcing them to reactively dodge them, has any carryover to situational gameplay. Opposing players decelerate/accelerate at you. They move laterally in front of you, diagonally, or back pedal. Players my reach out with arms/legs/sticks(lacrosse/hockey). A simple ball rolling in a straight line and at a static speed does nothing to mimic this.
Going back to the job of the strength coach, we can even look at “training economy,” or simply, what value are you getting out of your training? Unless you are a professional athlete, chances are you are an athlete in school with many other things going on in life. Therefore, you need to make the most out of your time in the gym. For example, for athletics, I usually have 3 hours/week with an athlete, broken up into 3 days. Therefore time in the gym is valuable. The most important focus points for offseason GPP training will always be good warmups, mobility, maximal strength, power, and general speed work. I feel the athletes are much better served not using time on agility drills with little to no carryover.
So how do players become more agile? To me it simply comes down to just doing your sport. We can go back to the beginning where we talked about SPP and how it involves everything in practices and games. It really is a simple as that. Agility, as it relates to your sport is something that you just have to do repetitively, with high levels of specificity.
Michael Mercer, B.S.E