Agility Training For Athletic Performance
By John F. Graham, MS, CSCS*D, FNSCA
Generally, agility can be defined by the ability to explosively start, decelerate, change direction, and accelerate again quickly while maintaining body control and minimizing a reduction in speed (1,5,6,7,18). Universally, agility can often be described as an athlete’s collective coordinative abilities (9,13,18,19). These are the basic elements of technical skills used to perform motor tasks spanning the power spectrum from dynamic gross activities to fine motor control tasks and include adaptive ability, balance, combinatory ability, differentiation, orientation, reactiveness, and rhythm (18). Coordinative abilities are often recognized to be most easily developed in preadolescence, which is considered to be an important time period for skill development (2,3,8,9,13,16,18,19,20). This period often changes focus during adolescence when the shift from general to special preparation should begin.
Most athletic activities that utilize agility occur in less than 10 seconds and involve the ability to coordinate a few or several sport specific tasks simultaneously (like catching a football and then making a series of evasive moves and cuts to avoid being tackled in order to advance the ball further down the field (6). With the exception of skills specific to the sport, agility can be the primary determining factor to predict success in a sport (11). Sports inherently require changes of direction in which lateral movements are used in the several planes of movement simultaneously. Sports regularly are played in short bursts of 30 feet (10 yards) or less before a change of direction, acceleration and/or deceleration is required. Because movements can be initiated from various body alignments, athletes need to be able to react with strength, explosiveness and quickness from these different positions.
Some people in sport may believe that agility is primarily determined by genetics and is therefore difficult to improve or enhance to any significant level. Sport coaches often become enamored with an athlete that possesses natural physical attributes (physical size, strength, vertical & horizontal power, ideal body composition) that are generally associated with a successful performance in sport (6,10).
However, many coaches often find these attributes alone will not guarantee success in sports that require agility. Unfortunately, because of the focus placed on physical attributes the focus on off-season programs often revolves around strength training and conditioning. Often agility and speed development at sport-specific speeds are neglected or only focused upon during small blocks of time in the preseason (10). Agility is a neural ability that is developed over time with many repetitions (11). The nervous system, motor abilities and sport specific movements at sport-specific speeds will have little time for development if not addressed throughout the off-season. It takes athletes weeks and months to see improvements in speed and agility (10,11). Agility should be trained as an important component of the annual training program.
Athletes who train for power oriented sports by only strength training and not incorporating sport-specific agility training are making a mistake in reaching their absolute best performance enhancement for sport. Whether it is a basketball player cutting toward a pass or a football lineman pulling to trap a defensive lineman, agility is a “critical” and often overlooked component of athletic performance. In sports such as baseball lateral speed, agility and quickness can be just as essential as strength and speed (17). The performances of athletes in sports today have dramatically elevated the level of agility necessary for performance success. There is a direct correlation between improved agility and the development of athletic timing, rhythm and movement (6).
The key to improving agility is to minimize the loss of speed when redirecting your body’s center of gravity. Drills that require rapid changes of direction forward, backward, vertically and laterally will help you improve your agility as well as coordination by training your body to make these changes in movement more quickly (5,17).
Athletic Performance Benefits of Agilitiy Training
Sport coaches may have difficulty bridging the gap between the application of strength, power and metabolic conditioning developed with strength training and conditioning to sport performance. Even for the athlete who will never make that Koby Bryant type move and bring the viewing audience to its feet, agility training has many benefits. Neuromuscular adaptation, improved athleticism and injury prevention and decreased rehabilitation time are three critical benefits that an athlete can receive with agility training (10).
1. Neuromuscular Adaptation – Agility training may be the most effective way to address the neuromuscular system and sport-specific skills necessary for sport performance, since agility training most closely resembles the sport itself (6). Training at sport-specific metabolic training speeds enables athletes to train at a level that most closely resembles the intensity, duration, and recovery time found in sport during the off-season. The use of agility training in an annual training cycle provides a critical link for athletes to apply their strength and conditioning program gains to the competitive athletic arena.
2. Improved Athleticism – The most critical benefit of agility training is increased body control resulting from a concentrated form of kinesthetic awareness (10). Athletes that incorporate effective, consistent agility programs into their training often talk of the stunning gains in athleticism, no matter what the sport. It teaches the intricacies of controlling small transitions in the neck, shoulders, back, hips, knees and ankle joints for the best postural alignment. Athletes gain a sense of control to the task of moving faster. This can be seen in a greater sense for the uncoordinated athlete who learns more about him or herself through agility training then the coordinated athlete.
3. Injury Prevention & Decreased Rehabilitation Time – While it is virtually impossible to eliminate injury from sports, agility training improves athletic injury management. Injuries are not just a result of bad luck. By possessing the ability to control the body during that split second, critical instant of impact, an injury can often be prevented or have its severity reduced. This means preparing the body for the awkward movements, which can occur in sport and may result in injury. By imitating sport movements under low to moderate stress levels in practice situations and through training, the athlete’s body becomes better prepared for sport movement and injuries can be prevented or greatly reduced. When athletes utilize agility drills, they develop neuromuscular awareness and thus are better able to understand the movements of their bodies. The rehabilitation process can then proceed much more rapidly if the injured athlete possesses such neurological awareness.
Components of Agility Training
A comprehensive agility program will address the following components of agility: strength, power, acceleration, deceleration, coordination, balance and dynamic flexibility. When designing an agility program for athletic performance enhancement a strength & conditioning coach should incorporate the following components of agility (5,6,10,11,12,14,15):
1. Strength – Strength refers to the maximal force that a muscle or muscle group can generate at a specified velocity (distance ¸ time). When an athlete is in contact with an opponent the addition of their opponent's resistance plus their own body weight is the resistance. Research has demonstrated a strong correlation between lower body strength and agility. The more emphasis the sport has on strength and power the greater the need for strength training, particularly the Olympic lifts, where the rate of force development is most similar to that of agility movements on the field or court.
2. Power – Power is rate at which work is completed (force X velocity). The faster an athlete gets from one point to another, the greater his/her power.
3. Acceleration – Acceleration is the change in velocity per unit of time. It’s an athlete's ability to go from a starting position to a greater velocity and then change from one speed to another.
4. Deceleration – Deceleration is recognized as the ability to decrease speed or stop from a maximal or near maximal speed. Deceleration can be in various forms from using single or multiple footsteps, backpedaling, shuffling, or using a crossover step to slow down or stop completely.
5. Coordination – Coordination is referred to as the ability to control and process muscle movements to produce athletic skills.
6. Dynamic Balance – Dynamic balance is the ability to maintain control over the body while in motion. When the body is in motion, various feedback from the body, such as sight, kinesthetic awareness and perturbations, are made by the nervous system to adjust the center of gravity. Agility is closely aligned with balance by requiring athletes to regulate shifts in the body’s center of gravity, while subjecting them to postural deviation.
7. Dynamic Flexibility – Dynamic flexibility is the range of motion at a joint during active movements. These are generally activities utilized as a part of the warm-up designed to increase flexibility, coordination, speed and balance.
When instructing athletes on the execution of agility exercises it is critical to instruct athletes on technique. Visual focus, arm action, deceleration, recovery and biomechanics all play a valuable role in the proper technique of agility drills (6,10).
1. Visual Focus – The athlete's head should be in a neutral position with eyes focused directly ahead, regardless of the direction or movement pattern being used by the athlete. Exceptions to this guideline will occur when the athlete is required to focus on another athlete or object. Additionally, getting the head around and finding a new focus point should initiate all directional changes and transitions.
2. Arm Action – Powerful arm movement during transitional and directional changes is essential in order to reacquire a high rate of speed. Inadequate or improper arm movement may result in a loss of speed or efficiency.
3. Deceleration – The ability of an athlete to decelerate from a given velocity is essential for changing directions.
4. Recovery – When training athletes to enhance their agility it is important to ensure that drills are performed at work and rest intervals consistent with the sport the athlete is training for. Partner athletes with other athletes of similar ability. Perform drills in a competitive atmosphere with technique always being more critical than the speed the drill is performed.
5. Biomechanics – When it comes to biomechanics and agility training three interrelated considerations should be taken into account:
A. Body Alignment – Maintaining a lower center of gravity enables the athlete to move more quickly, decelerate, and reaccelerate especially when needing to overcome the resistance of an opponent or object. The maintenance of core stability (maintenance of a neutral spine through the use of the musculature that supports the spine of the body) and the athletic position (perfect posture with the shoulders pulled back and down and abdominals tight, knees slightly bent with hips back and down and bodyweight forward on the middle of your feet) will enable the athlete to supply maximum power.
B. Movement Economy – Athletes should be educated as to the most efficient movement patterns and develop the required skills necessary to reach their performance objective. These patterns and skills may include movement patterns or skills that include side shuffling, backpedaling, use of a crossover step, turn and run or combinations of these patterns and skills.
C. Acceleration & Deceleration – Most sports require athletes to have the ability to accelerate, decelerate and reaccelerate. The more efficient an athlete becomes the better the athlete becomes at creating space between an opponent, move more quickly to a space or object and enhance performance potential.
Outside of sport specific training, agility training may be the primary determining factor to predict success in a sport. Sports are not straight ahead, but require changes of direction in which lateral movements are used in several planes of movement simultaneously. Because movements in sport are initiated from various body positions, athletes need to be able to react with strength, explosiveness and quickness from these different positions. Unfortunately, because of the focus placed on physical attributes in sports the focus on off-season programs often revolves around strength training exclusively. Often agility and speed development at sport-specific speeds are neglected or only focused upon during small blocks of time in the preseason. Agility is a neural ability that is developed over time with many repetitions. Research has shown that an increase in speed and strength was not as effective in developing agility as participation in activities specifically designed to develop agility.
The performances of athletes in sports today have dramatically elevated the level of agility necessary for performance success. Agility training provides the athlete with performance benefits: neuromuscular adaptation, improved athleticism, injury prevention and decreased rehabilitation time. A comprehensive agility program will address components of agility such as strength, power, acceleration, deceleration, coordination, balance and dynamic flexibility. When instructing athletes on the execution of agility exercises it is critical to instruct athletes on technique as a priority and speed of movement only after technique has been mastered.
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