Speed & Agility.
These days, they are the ultimate buzzwords in athletics and performance training. Every coach wants faster athletes, every athlete wants a better 40 time, and every trainer claims he has the drills that will drastically improve your speed and agility on the field of competition.
Look, don’t get us wrong, top-end speed and the ability the change direction quickly is important in athletics. That being said, the perception of training these abilities has become drastically skewed. Everywhere you turn, you see elaborate cone drills, agility ladder progressions, and “speed” drills. Here’s the problem, training the Pro-Agility drill every week will only make your athletes better at the Pro-Agility drill. The relevant aspects of speed and agility to competitive athletics, in regards to training, are much more compartmentalized. Athletes benefit from the ability to accelerate or decelerate quickly & efficiently, change direction with ease & precision, and maintain peak power & force production over the course of whatever time domain their play lasts.
So, how should you go about improving these elements?
First, we must develop the athlete’s maximal power output. Moving faster is a result of generating force into the ground by lower body musculature via the foot. Power is, by definition, a combination of strength and speed as it relates to muscle contraction. So, we first work to build basic strength through compound movements like the back squat and some simple linear periodization. We simultaneously train high velocity movements such as various plyometrics and lighter weight olympic lifts to cultivate explosiveness. The resulting combination is a greater ability to generate force at high velocities. This enables an athlete to accelerate and decelerate faster, as well as improve top-end speed.
Next we must spend a good deal of time working on athlete’s proprioception, or body control. To start, we work this by introducing complex compound “strength” movements in the gym (think overhead squatting, pistol squats, or toes to bar, etc) to promote strength and control through full ranges of motion. Then we incorporate more coordination-based exercises (think jump rope progressions and agility ladder work) to cement the neural connections between brain and limbs for fast, repeated movement. In total we have a stronger, more precise sense of body control. Such enhanced coordination allows athletes the chance at better economy of movement. Any athletic coach knows mechanics are everything. Wasted, rushed, and sloppy movement are a bigger determinant of “speed and agility” than anything else with young athletes. (*Though we do not go into it here, proper running mechanics obviously also play a large role for the same reason. In this instance, speed coaches can be very beneficial for athletes with poor mechanics.)
Lastly, we mustn’t neglect conditioning. Many people wrongly separate speed from conditioning. Top-end speed is great, but if you cannot replicate your maximal force production or maintain body control beyond a single effort – your “speed” is effectively useless. You’re only as fast as you can run repeatedly, especially when fatigued. To make sure our performance lasts, we develop all 3 metabolic energy pathways through numerous different approaches. We do it all: from finishers promoting muscular endurance and strength at high heart rate, to shuttle runs of varying distance to develop anaerobic conditioning and change of direction, to classical aerobic conditioning to increase lasting power.
The true goal, is to develop an athlete that can see results on the field, not just in a 40 time or Pro-Agility drill. We only have so much time with our athletes, make the most of it by training speed & agility in the gym!