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January 20, 2015 • Strength & Conditioning

Powerline: Addressing agility and skill specificity year-round

Change of direction (COD) is not only inherent in just about every athletic endeavor; it is viewed by many as one of the most important movement constituents in physical development. As vital as straight-line speed may be, very few sports — with track and field being one of the rare exceptions — rely exclusively on this singular component.

COD is also very high on the priority list of college recruiters and pro scouts. This is why shuttle runs are heavily relied upon in their evaluations. And while experts have been unable to pinpoint all of the crucial variables that define an athlete’s agility potential, the scientific literature does allude to numerous sensory, cognitive, neuromuscular and morphological (i.e., body type) factors. As with straight-line speed, COD can be improved, though the rate and level of this improvement varies from athlete to athlete.

In layman’s terms, certain athletes possess a more powerful engine (i.e., the aforementioned morphological attributes) or the higher-end “wire hook-ups” (i.e., efficient neuromuscular pathway for movement information) for significant and more immediate COD enhancements. The difficulty for coaches and some athletes is the realization and acceptance of the fact that specific aspects of these characteristics may be only slightly alterable through training. But for the most part, on-point teaching, relentless hard work and attention to detail will manifest as improvements in COD.

COD action plan

Coaches can and should run a variety of agility drills throughout the year, including the in-season period. All categories of drills have some merit within the parameters of their design. The type of drills selected depends on the chosen emphasis.

Our recommendation is to incorporate as many position/sports-specific agility drills as possible, especially during the offseason periods. This helps sharpen skills in addition to serving as a great physical conditioner.

An important take-home point is to always introduce agility drills at a pace that affords your athletes the needed time to learn and execute them with precision. You do not want to be guilty of mistaking activity for accomplishment.

There are myriad agility drills, and they are compartmentalized into very distinct, specialized categories. As a coach, you must evaluate and determine which category best fits your needs and has the most beneficial carryover to your athletes’ movement requirements.

• Closed-based agility drills. Any drill in this category is at the low end of the movement continuum in terms of cognitive requirements, though they may be very difficult in terms of physical execution. Basically, any agility drill that has a predetermined start, middle and finish with no needed response to variability once the drill is in motion (e.g., a verbal or visual response cue) is in the closed category.

There are a bevy of cone, line and hoop drills that are considered closed-based in design and execution. While they are great for learning body posture, planting, cutting and the force vector angles required for correct COD, the predictable responses are not specific to real-world requirements. Once a closed-based skill is rehearsed, learned and repeated, it is eventually and easily mastered due to its simplicity.

The previously mentioned shuttle tests that are used in NFL and collegiate assessments are definitive examples of closed-based agility drills. From the standpoint of actual competition, a free throw in basketball, a shot-put/discuss/javelin attempt, non-relay sprints in track, long/high jumping, golf, bowling and archery are all examples of closed-based skills.

• Open-based agility drills. Skills and drills in this category involve continual variance, unpredictable stimuli and an unstable, ever-changing environment including crowd noise, weather conditions, etc. Most of the responses are forced-paced in nature, requiring split-second cognitive decision making, and are based upon visual, auditory or pressure cues (i.e., physical contact with an opponent as in basketball screens and double-team blocks in football).

Since most team sports are heavy-handed on open-based skill requirements, it is crucial that coaches of these sports gravitate to drills that are infused with the needed specific cue requirements. In other words, devise agility drills that are as closely related as possible in body posture, footwork, cues and responses to the actual practice and game conditions. Even if it’s during a time of year when it is impermissible to use game balls or other types of sport-specific equipment, try to hone as many of the aforementioned skill requirements that are within the rules as possible. Doing so pays dividends when everything else can be put into the mix.

Skill pattern training

An extremely constructive approach to incorporating open-based agility drills and taking them to a higher level is to design specific skill patterns, arrange them in the proper teaching sequence and perform them in an interval fashion for conditioning purposes.

The attractive feature of skill pattern training is specificity or exactness. As previously mentioned, even though you may not be able to use all of the equipment that is normally part and parcel to your sport, footwork and a host of response cues can be drilled for some cognitive carryover.

Here are some examples for a few different sports.

• Football. A defensive back and wide receiver go against each other in press coverage. Since COD is the emphasis of the drill, it can be performed with or without a football.

The receiver should run a random selection from his route tree of short, intermediate and long routes. The goal for the receiver is to get separation, and the goal for the defensive back is to maintain tight hip-to-hip position throughout the route.

Offensive linemen can run through their lead, zone, trap, sweep and pass-set steps over the appropriate designated distances. Similar drills for defensive linemen, linebackers, running backs and quarterbacks can be devised based upon the coach’s philosophy, scheme and concurrent techniques.

We recommend starting with three to four sets of eight to 12 reps for varying distances and at a gradually increasing tempo over time so as to improve the conditioning effect and simulate game conditions. After each rep, the players can either hustle back to a designated starting point on the field or setup where the previously executed rep finished with a timed respite.

These are actually drive simulation sets, and the closer you can get to the real thing in terms of footwork, speed and tempo, the better. For gradual overload to attain a training effect, an additional set can be added every week or so.

• Basketball. Five-on-five, man-to-man defense with the offensive team running sets and designed plays can be devised for execution, technique and conditioning purposes. No ball is necessary within the drill itself, but one can be thrown up to the rim by a coach or uninvolved player, which cues everyone to box out for rebounding positon.

If a ball is not used, which is fine for the goals of the drill, a whistle can be blown to indicate a shot has been taken, with the same rebounding positions being established. The teams then switch offensive and defensive responsibilities. This drill can be done at varying timed intervals, with the time of the work bouts gradually increasing for conditioning purposes.

• Wrestling. Two wrestlers setup in a predetermined hold (either from the referee’s positon on the mat or on their feet) then work the counter moves on a whistle command for a designated time. The partners then switch responsibilities. Most coaches do this for entire periods to get the desired conditioning effect.

In observing wrestling coaches over the years, I believe that they perform some of the most innovative and productive skill-pattern training in all of athletics.

Coach feedback

Coaching feedback is a paramount variable in all agility and skill learning, and this certainly includes the incorporation of the protocols mentioned here.

The following is a representation of why properly administered coaching feedback is so important and can enhance the learning process.

• Provides positive reinforcement. A statement like, “Great job with your footwork and body positioning — keep it up,” gives the athlete a feeling of satisfaction about the performance. More importantly, it instills a desire to repeat the movement in the same manner the next time around.

• Informs the learner. Specific information on the execution of a drill or skill is crucial to both the current performance and future repetitions.

An example is, “You have too much waist bend and not enough bend at the ankles, knees and hips to be able to redirect efficiently.” This is followed with the correct demonstration of the indicated body posture.

• Motivates the learner. When initiated in a constructive manner, feedback provides the incentive to achieve better performance levels. One example is, “You’ve made tremendous improvement in your ball handling, and I can see you becoming one of the best point guards in the conference.”

Note that the teaching process includes both general and specific feedback. General feedback alone, while motivating, can quickly lose its spark. It must be used in conjunction with specific feedback; that is, feedback aimed directly at the mechanics, strategies and related components of the activity.


Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 


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