By Vern Gambetta
Vern Gambetta is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla. He is a frequent contributor to Coaching Management and can be reached through his Web site at: www.gambetta.com.
Coaching Management, 13.7, September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1307/highschoolmoves.htm
Defined as the ability to recognize, react, accelerate, change direction, and stop quickly, agility is a very important component of athleticism. In baseball, these actions need to occur in about four seconds, which puts a premium on quickness and precision of movement. Furthermore, the ability to start and stop quickly and change direction under control go a long way toward preventing many common injuries.
Agility can be significantly improved through a systematic development program, and given the adaptability of the high school age athlete, there is a great deal of potential for improvement. However, there are some unique challenges to training agility in this age group. The prime one is that agility can vary greatly from one player to the next.
So how do you train for agility in this age group? To start, see to it that athletes have a good base in other areas. Without a good foundation of basic strength, core strength, balance, and body awareness, athletes will soon reach the point of diminishing returns with agility training.
For high school athletes, it is important to think long term. Improvement can happen quickly, but there should be a well-planned progression—a freshman and a senior should not have the same training protocol.
Developing this plan requires discussion among sport coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, and athletic trainers about the priorities of an agility training program. If everyone is not on the same page, progress will be hampered.
The first area to look at is the age of the athletes, but chronological age and developmental age can be very divergent. There is a big difference between a 14-year-old boy who has gone through puberty and a 14-year-old boy who has not. The difference in physical maturity is dramatic. Emotional and cognitive development must also be considered. Without some degree of maturity and an ability to take instruction, a young athlete will find it difficult to progress.
A Master Plan
If you are starting with freshman athletes, begin by building a strong foundation. This means a strength-training program that requires athletes to handle their bodyweight before adding any significant external resistance. The strength-training foundation should also emphasize triple-extension of the ankle, knee, and hip for starting motions, and the ability to bend or break down at the ankle, knee, and hip for stopping motions.
Another aspect of the strength-training program should be core development in postures similar to those that occur on the field. Therefore, no more than 20 percent of core work should be done in a seated or lying position, but rather with the athlete standing or moving. This will carry over to the varied postures required in agility movements.
The third aspect to address early is balance, body control, and awareness. Make the exercises playful. Try games like “red light, green light,” with the rules modified so that the stop must be on one leg. I like to use balance activities as active rest activities and schedule them between strength-training exercises. I have also developed a simple circuit with three or four balance activities that the athletes need to negotiate at various times during the workout.
For the first three months of the athlete’s introduction to the high school training program, these components should be the focus. The only agility work that should be done during this time is very basic movements with the emphasis on teaching proper form. (See “Baby Steps” below.)
As the athlete progresses, agility should be developed parallel with strength gains (along with maturity). Near the end of the first year, the higher-speed, higher-force component of plyometrics should be introduced. Over subsequent years, as the athlete gains proficiency and mastery of the other components, the work on this explosive quality can be increased.
There are definite motor learning factors that must be considered. I believe that it is necessary to strive for perfect practice. Some people feel this is unrealistic, but I think it should be the goal. This approach raises the bar in terms of intensity and concentration, and the drive for perfect practice ensures that training sessions will approach game intensity, which carries over to sport-specific movements. I would rather have the athlete do a few drills he can handle with speed and efficiency than have a large number of drills poorly executed.
To achieve perfect practice, technique must be taught in a step-by-step progression. Begin with closed-skill drills, where the outcome is known, and progress to open-skill drills, which are unplanned and emphasize reaction. Once mastery has been achieved, add unusual and unexpected conditions. Add crowd noise, different surfaces—anything realistic that adds stress to the drill.
It is very important to add a reaction component. Reaction puts the finishing touches on the program, leading to significant improvements in speed, force, and muscle involvement.
It is also important to remember that agility work is not conditioning work. It is speed-development work, and should be practiced in a non-fatigued state, with high intensity, and plenty of recovery between repetitions.
The biggest challenges with high school athletes often come with discrepancies in their abilities to improve. How can you keep the naturally agile athlete motivated without neglecting the athlete who has poor motor skills?
The key is to individualize the workouts as much as possible. Divide the group into sub-groups based on specific needs and abilities. For example, an athlete can be placed in an advanced group for footwork drills and in a basic group for drills in changing direction.
Players with very poor agility may need a remedial program. First, try to figure out the cause. Consider perceptual motor ability, leg strength, and core strength as factors. If there are no underlying problems, then agility exercises should simply occupy a larger share of their training until that skill is brought up to an acceptable level.
For the athlete more agile than his peers, measure and time him more frequently, or create a handicap to keep him in synch with his teammates. The idea is to to create a competitive challenge.
With a master plan in place and ideas for individualizing programs, the next step is devising drills that will work in your setting. Most importantly, each drill must have a specific purpose and lead to the next step in the progression. The basic progression should go like this:
1. Basic skill.
2. Basic skill with variation.
3. Basic skill with reaction.
4. Basic skill with opposition.
5. Basic skill incorporated with advanced sport-specific skill.
For example, a good change of direction progression is to start with gentle curves to emphasize shifts in body weight. Then progress to vectors off a straight line, run at about 70-percent intensity. After that is mastered, progress to sharper angles and harder cuts at higher intensities.
The drills should, of course, address the different components of agility (see “Breaking It Down” below), but remember that each drill will usually address multiple components. Therefore, it’s not necessary to have a drill for each component, as long as you make sure all the areas are being covered through the drills you choose.
Equipment can help but is not necessary to effectively train agility. The only piece of equipment that I use on a regular basis is the ABC ladder for footwork development. Tag and chase games improve agility skills in a competitive environment. Whatever game motivates a particular group of athletes and works on agility at the same time is a good one to use.
What drills are not good? The common tendency in agility training is to get caught in the activity trap, where athletes do a large menu of drills, many of which are redundant. In that scenario the athlete gets tired, but does not get better. Avoid the activity trap by knowing why you are choosing each drill: What it will accomplish? Where does it fit in the master progression?
How often should agility be trained? In the off-season, some aspect of agility work should be accomplished in every training session. It should receive a major emphasis on two training days each week, although those days should not be consecutive. A non-emphasis day should incorporate two drills and an emphasis day should have four to five drills. The range should be three to five sets of each exercise.
In-season, agility work should be incorporated into two of the training days. Obviously, the volume is significantly reduced in-season, as agility work is included in most practices.
Ideally, agility work should be scheduled for when the athlete is fresh, immediately following warm-up. This will ensure the quality necessary to have the drills transfer to performance. I have also found that one or two low-volume agility drills at the start of a training session help tune up the nervous system.
Is It Working?
To assess whether your agility workouts are accomplishing your goals, establish baseline performance levels early on. Game video is an excellent assessment tool. You can use it to provide objective feedback of the agility components addressed during training.
The other aspect of your program to assess is whether your athletes continue to be motivated. If your athletes are not motivated by their agility drills, they will not improve. Providing a variety of exercises and challenges to your athletes are keys to motivation. However, variety must have a purpose—it should progress the athlete toward the next step.
Results also motivate. When athletes see the results of the training transfer to a game, motivation is increased. Have them watch the game video footage and talk to them about how the agility training relates to their abilities on the field.
Most athletes enjoy agility training because it easily translates to improvement in their sport. Just remember to start with a sturdy foundation and have a detailed master plan. The dividends—improved performance and injury prevention—will show up quickly.
Sidebar: Baby Steps
When a high school athlete is introduced to agility training, the work should consist of only very basic movements with the emphasis on learning.
• Start with "step and stick" in all three planes. Have your athletes step forward onto one leg and stick the landing. Repeat to the side. Also include a step back at an angle to stress the transverse plane.
• Progress to a quarter eagle, which consists of a 90-degree jump to the right and a jump immediately back to the starting position. Repeat to the left. When athletes can do that, have them run out at the conclusion of the drill. Then add a stop.
• Next, have them run forward, then turn 360 degrees, and keep running forward. Repeat this three to four times in 40-yard increments.
• Have your athletes run forward, bend, and touch the ground with their right hand. Repeat with the left hand.
Sidebar: Breaking It Down
The following list outlines the components of agility that determine the training content. Most of the components do not occur in isolation, so look for logical combinations when devising drills.
Recognition: This is game and situation awareness. It follows a pattern.
Reaction: Athletes should spend the majority of time practicing with the primary stimulus that occurs in the game, which in baseball is visual or auditory.
Start: The goal is to overcome inertia and get the body moving in the correct direction.
First Step: A positive shin angle imparts force against the ground and achieves triple extension. A relatively short first step will ensure a proper shin angle.
Acceleration: In straight-ahead sprinting, acceleration is to top speed. In agility, it is to optimum speed, which has an element of control, because it is necessary when changing direction or stopping.
Deceleration and Reacceleration: These are key components to controlling speed and the ability to get the body in proper position to make a play.
Footwork: The relationship of the hips to the feet is critical.
Change of Direction: The key here is getting the center of gravity outside the base of support in order to change the position of the body.
Stopping: This is the moment of truth where the athlete must be able to make a play. It requires tremendous eccentric strength and body control.
Another version of this article has appeared in Training & Conditioning, a sister publication to Coaching Management.