Speed & Agility Training Zone!

How to Use The Tec Model to Optimize Change of Direction

By Nick Winkelman

Part of the EXOS Speed, Agility & Acceleration Series

While linear speed represents the most efficient way to move from one point to the next, rarely are we afforded this opportunity in sport. Rather, sport is dominated by sudden changes in direction, which allow offensive players to evade and defensive players to close. This movement skill not only requires physical qualities (e.g., mobility, stability, and strength), but also the ability to make effective decisions. So it's important to build physical and mental demands into practice to simulate the nature of competition.

Unlike sprinting, cutting occurs from multiple positions (backpedal, shuffling, and sprinting), speeds, and angles. There are, however, common characteristics to focus on from a coaching perspective. In every instance of cutting, there's a need for rapid deceleration, proper angle, and quick application of forces. Errors in any of those areas will result in poor performance and an increased likelihood of injury.

Since cutting is limited by a number of factors, we'll focus on the technical attributes necessary to change direction in the majority of scenarios. Once athletes have mastered the technical aspects of change of direction, they'll limit their risk of injury while improving their ability to navigate the chaos of sport.

Technical

There are a number of cutting angles an athlete will encounter. We'll focus on a 180-degree cut, as this is one of the most common in sport. A linebacker, for instance, makes a 180-degree cut after tracking a running back to the left and cuts to the right as the back reverses direction. We also see this 180-degree cut in change of direction drills, such as the 5-10-5. We'll assume for this discussion that the athlete is either sprinting and cutting back or shuffling and cutting back.

When analyzing cutting technique, we'll focus on the three areas of the body: (1) the trunk alignment and height; (2) the outside "cutting" leg; and (3) the inside "stabilizing" leg. While all three areas are interdependent, there can be errors that are unique to independent areas of the body.

During the initiation of a cut, the athlete must rapidly decelerate, which requires a lowering of the body through flexion at the hip, knee, and ankle. The feet will be shoulder-width apart or slightly narrower. This is best observed by focusing on the trunk alignment and height. Specifically, we should see the trunk remain neutral from head to hip, with the center of the trunk (belly button) lowering toward the ground in preparation for the cut. As the lower body flexes, the trunk approaches a parallel position with the ground, as if the athlete was preparing to field a baseball. This position is referred to as the athletic base position, as it's the most stable position from which an athlete can cut.

The outside "cutting" leg plays a key role in directing the forces needed to move in the opposite direction. The athlete should load through the inside edge of the foot (or shoe), attacking the ground at roughly a 45-degree angle. The outside leg should load with the hip inside of the knee and the knee inside of the ankle, creating alignment from hip to heel. This is important because without proper alignment, the athlete is at major risk for injuries of the ankle, hip, and especially the knee. Finally, the hip, knee, and ankle should flex in proportion to the speed and severity of the cut.

The inside "stabilizing" leg should stay under to slightly inside of the lead shoulder (the shoulder opposite the side of the cut). This provides additional ground support for a severe/fast cut. Additionally, the inside leg plays a key role in lowering the body during initial deceleration, which off-loads the amount of force the outside leg needs to produce. This results in the inside and outside legs adopting a similar angle of attack (45  degrees), which further allows the inside leg to help push during particularly demanding cuts, such as a 180-degree cut.

We should see the body progressively lower and lean in preparation for the incoming cut. From head to heel, the body should align so that force can be directed at the correct angle. Any break in trunk or outside leg alignment will threaten performance and increase risk of injury. If the inside leg is outside the shoulders, or too far inside the hips, the right balance of stability won't be present, which puts greater demand on the outside "cutting" leg.

Errors

While there are many errors that can emerge when we talk about change of direction, we'll highlight and prioritize the dominant four.

1. Trunk alignment
The trunk is the foundation from which the legs must pull. So any breaks in the trunk position will result in energy leaks. The most common errors will be trunk flexion and/or rotation instead of a neutral position from head to heel. This can be due to general weakness or a compensation for a lack of hip flexion. Specifically, the body will sacrifice a neutral spine in an effort to lower the center of mass in the event that the hips lack the mobility to do so.

2. Trunk height (center of mass)
The inability to lower the trunk by way of a stable/wide base and effective flexion of the hip, knee, and ankle will result in the trunk leaning into the cut, which threatens the alignment of the hip, knee, and ankle. Lateral trunk flexion in the direction of the cut is often associated with excessive valgus forces at the knee. So the primary error is associated with poor timing and/or a lack of flexion in the hip, knee, and ankle. This error is more likely to occur if the athletic base is too wide (i.e., outside of shoulders) or too narrow (i.e., inside of hips), which affects the stability needed to decelerate before cutting.

3. Outside "cutting" leg
The common error here is poor alignment of the hip, knee, and ankle. Specifically, the knee collapses inward. We also see excessive flexion of the hip, knee and ankle, along with the posture drifting toward the cutting leg. The trunk, for instance, flexes laterally toward the cut instead of the cut staying inside of the hip. A cornerback who bit on a cut would flex laterally.

4. Inside "stabilizing" leg
We see the inside leg either too far inside — under the hip instead of the shoulders — or too far outside (well outside of the shoulders). If it's too far inside, it perpetuates slipping as the base is too narrow. If the leg is too far outside, then not enough weight is shifted to the "cutting" (outside) leg. Plus, if the leg is too far outside, then the athlete is more likely to pull himself out of the cut.

Correction

Here we look at corrective coaching cues for each of the errors. While we emphasize coaching cues, it helps to consider the physical qualities (mobility, stability, and strength) that potentially could correct the error.

1. Trunk alignment

a. "Stretch the front of your T-shirt."
b. "Show the numbers on your jersey."
c. "Stay long from head to hip."

2. Trunk height (center of mass) 

a. "Lower into the cut like you're getting under a roof."
b. "Lower and lean away from the cut."
c. "Lower into the cut like you're ducking and dodging a punch."

3. Outside "cutting" leg

a. "Push, snap, or punch the ground away."
b. "Focus on striking the ground before the ground strikes you."
c. "Don't let the ground steal your shoes/cleats."

4. Inside "stabilizing" leg

a. "Lean away from the cut."
b. "Sit down into the cut."
c. "Angle in…angle out."

While there are many cues and drills that can be used to improve cutting, the above represent some examples that target the four primary errors. Since many of the cues use analogies, it's important to use references appropriate for your athletes. Finally, while this segment has focused on cutting technique, we'd be remised if we didn't mention the importance of context when teaching athletes to improve their cutting. Specifically, there's a rare cut in sport that isn't preceded by an opponent.

Whether it's a wide receiver evading an oncoming defensive back, or a post player trying to get position on the baseline, in both instances the change of direction was in response to an opponent's movement. That's why it's important to bring in reactive and decision-based drills as the athlete masters the technical characteristics of cutting, especially during return to play.

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(January 2014)