Be agile, not just nimble!
Agility is the ability to move and change direction and position of the body quickly and effectively while under control.
It is the ability to decelerate, accelerate, and change direction while maintaining good body control and without losing time in the transition.
It has been said that outside of sport-specific skills, agility is the primary determining factor for success in sport. In the game of tennis, no player is going to run longer than 40 feet without having to either stop, change direction, or change speed. The player that can do this in the most efficient manner will be the player that has the overall athletic advantage in the match. It is important to train agility in the same manner that any other skill would be trained.
Using the proper progression is a necessity to improve upon ones agility:
1. The first steps would be training the specific movement patterns and improving the quality of the movement. In order to be able to stop or turn properly, core control and hip mobility are a must.
When the legs stop, the core must be able to turn on and be strong enough to stop the rest of the body. You do not want the chest to drop, the shoulders to round, or the upper body to continue moving in any direction. Core strength can be accomplished by using neuromuscular activation, planks (front and side), bridging, and various abdominal exercises.
Also, when stopping or turning, it is important that the hips have the ability to drop down and load up. This will protect the other joints in the legs, as well as make the athlete more efficient in his change of direction. If the athlete does not have the ability to drop his hips and stick them out, he will be putting a lot of force on his more vulnerable joints, such as knees and ankles. Dropping his hips in the proper manner will also allow the athlete to push back in another direction using his gluts (hip muscles) as the primary mover, and making his push a more powerful one. Hip mobility can be worked on by using overhead squats, dead lifts, and lateral lunges.
2. Once a baseline of core strength and hip mobility are gained, the athlete can start practicing his stops. Stopping is a precursor to turning, and it teaches the athlete the proper way to lower his hips and control his core.
The three main stopping techniques that should be practiced are jump stops (stopping in athletic position), forward lunge stop, and lateral lunge stop. The jump stop allows him to efficiently get into athletic position, setting his feet and body up to react in any direction. This is best used when it is unknown what direction the athlete is going to turn.
The forward lunge stop comes in handy when a cut in the forward direction, of any angle, is going to be needed. This requires the athlete to run forward and stop in a lunge stance, with his hips lowered to about 45 degrees.
The lateral lunge stop is best when the athlete has to go back in the direction in which he came. This stop requires him to stop in almost a lateral lunge position, with the front leg loaded up, ready to push back in the direction he came.
3. After learning to stop, the athlete is ready to start cutting/turning and changing direction. This is progressed in intensity just like the stops. Make sure the athlete’s body is under control and he is pushing himself in the direction he needs to go, not pulling himself with his front leg. Start off rehearsed; meaning the athlete knows where and in what direction he will be making the cut. Then the athlete can be progressed to reactive turns, where he does not know when or in what direction he will be turning. Pointing, throwing a ball, or simply yelling to him can do this. It is important that there is proper rest while practicing agility skills. While still learning the skill, it is important that the muscles are allowed to recover prior to performing the drills. Quality is more important than quantity.
4. The last step would be to incorporate metabolic conditioning. In a real game, the athlete has to be able to make these cuts while their muscles are fatigued. Once their form looks good from a low intensity to high intensity, rehearsed and reactive, then they can start working on cutting and changing direction while fatigued.
Incorporating agility training into a well-designed strength and conditioning program offers a number of benefits, such as improvement in quickness, reaction time, balance and coordination, all of which transfer to successful performance.
Agility training has also been shown to be extremely effective in reducing the risk of injury, especially contact injuries such as those obtained during cutting and change of direction movements.
The author is a Sports Performance Enhancement Specialist
Image: Flickr creativecommons Jorg Weingrill