Speed & Agility Training Zone!

So: You Think You Can Dance...?

Applying ABC Ladder Footwork Skills to Create Better Athletes

By Steve Myrland

Developing functional athletic footwork is a lot like learning to dance: You slowly master the steps and then increase the tempo until you can keep up with the music (the game or event). The mistake made in employing the ABC Agility Ladder for footwork training is limiting use to learning and repeating different footwork patterns without adding the music. Mastering patterns of footwork is essential; but the real benefits of ladder training come from connecting quick, agile, balanced and coordinated feet with the movement elements reflected in the competitive arena. Adding reaction, acceleration and directional-changes from good footwork and leading to good footwork is a great way to improve athleticism while reducing injury potential.

Agility ladders (and agility ladder drills) have become commonplace in the training environments of most sports over the past fifteen years, or so. Athletes are challenged to learn various patterns of footwork with the ladder spaces serving as both quantifying and qualifying targets for each successive step. Step in, step out; go forward, go backward, move laterally; hop, bound, jump, turn . . . the footwork pattern options are limitless; but footwork drills can actually be limiting if footwork is not connected to other aspects of the game or event for which the athlete is training.

Technical footwork is a prized commodity in nearly every athletic contest with the possible exception of rowing, where the feet of the rowers are tied and connected to the boat, or golf, where the feet remain effectively rooted through the swing motion*. But nearly every other game or event requires skilled, athletic feet.

*I did use the ABC Ladder when training the rowers at the University of Wisconsin. It is a nice change-of-pace activity, and it helps create knee stability in the frontal-plane: fewer kneee problems and more power.

A single football play niceley illustrates the need for efficient footwork skills at all positions. The quaterback drops back to pass, while offensive linemen dropping into pass-protection against onrushing defensive linemen; receivers accelerate and then fake to become open against defensive backs who are reacting to and recovering from the receiver's moves.

A tennis player's forward, lateral or backward acceleration will end with a fast re-organization of the feet in preparation for returning the ball across the net. Good feet and good footwork are a soccer player's stock and trade. And a shot-putter's short, swift well-choreographed dance across the circle is only successful if the steps needed to assist with the generation of maximum force without stepping over the circle's boundary is an example of a non-game need for "good feet."

But it is important to consider that, in most cases, technical footwork is a subset of play. It is a critical subset, to be sure, because specialized step patterns always come at critical transitional moment(s) of competitive action, when offensive and defensive players close on each other or offensive motion must become defensive motion. So athletes must be proficient at creating good footwork following a short sprint or fast directional-change, and then coupling good footwork with a subsequent acceleration, jump, hop, bound, or another directional change. This is why being creative with the use of the ABC Ladder in practice can pay the biggest dividends in developing athleticism. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to build competitive complexity into ladder training by adding movement elements. This can be done with simple equipment (cones, hoops, hurdles, flags, etc.) or no added equipment at all.

A fully connected ABC Ladder is ten-yards long with nineteen linear aligned spaces serving as targets for the feet. Ten-yards of a repetitive footwork drill is a nice way of learning and establishing good neural patterning for feet that can adapt quickly and efficiently to rapidly changing competitive landscapes. But once patterns are mastered, they must be applied to increasingly complex training situations to make them truly useable in competition. For this half-ladders (five-yards) and quarter-ladder segments (two-and-a-half yards long) are ideal.

A simple example of combining the ABC Ladder with game-like movement elements is the sprint-out and return idea. A cone (or cones) are placed a few yards from the end of a short-segment of an agility ladder and the athlete accelerates away from the final step of technical footwork and to the cone, at which point she will plant and cut around the cone and sprint (or backpedal) back to the starting point at the far end of the ladder.

ABC Ladder: Sprint-out & Return (1/4 Ladder)

Movement Ideas*:

• Forward 1-in's; sprint to cone & back
• Forward 2-in's; sprint to cone & back
• Forward slalom-jump; sprint to cone & back
• Backward slalom-jump; back-pedal to cone & back
• Lateral 2-in's; side-shuffle to cone; sprint back
• Forward shuffle; sprint to cone & back
• Backward shuffle; back-pedal to cone & sprint back
• Lateral 1-in's; side-shuffle to cone; sprint back
• Forward cross-step; sprint to cone & sprint back
• Backward cross-step; back-pedal to cone; sprint back

* Be sure to do each movement to both sides of the pattern.

By adding an additional cone, your options for progressive complexity are magnified:

Movement Ideas*:

• Forward 1-in's; sprint to 1st cone; side-shuffle to 2nd cone; drop-step & sprint back
• Forward 2-in's; sprint to 1st cone; side-shuffle to 2nd cone; drop-step & sprint back
• Forward slalom-jump; sprint to 1st cone; turn & sprint to 2nd cone, turn & sprint back
• Backward slalom-jump; back-pedal to 1st cone; side-shuffle to 2nd cone & sprint back
• Lateral 2-in's; side-shuffle to 1st cone; sprint to 2nd cone & backpedal back
• Forward shuffle; sprint to 1st cone; backpedal to 2nd cone; turn & sprint back
• Backward shuffle; back-pedal to 1st cone; side-shuffle to 2nd cone & sprint back
• Lateral 1-in's; side-shuffle to 1st cone; sprint to 2nd cone; side-shuffle back
• Forward cross-step; sprint to 1st cone; backpedal to 2nd cone; turn & sprint back
• Backward cross-step; back-pedal to cone; turn & sprint to 2nd cone; turn & sprint back

* Be sure to do each movement to both sides of the pattern.

These two drill variations permit all kinds of additional, sport-specific modifications. A baseball player can take a throw at the 1st cone, make a throw, and then sprint back as in covering a base during an extended play. Soccer players could receive and distribute the ball at any point in the process. In the second iteration of the drill, a volleyball player can dig or pass a ball (fed by a coach or teammate) toward the second cone, sprint to that cone, then pass the ball accurately back to the feeder before sprinting back to the start. You get the idea: you create additional layers of gamesituation complexity, building—progressively—from success to success.

Adding reaction is an essential element of advanced footwork training and, again, short ladder segments are key to making this work toward competitive competence. The drill, below, is another easy-to-set-up movement puzzle for athletes to solve using combinations of footwork, reaction, acceleration and deceleration as the athlete must prepare for the last segment of ladder after an acceleration away from the last cone.

ABC Ladder: Footwork & Reaction

NOTE: Coach (or training partner) stands at the "X" position and flashes the reaction direction.


1) Forward 1-in's
2) Forward 2-in's
3) Forward slalom-jumps
4) Backward slalom-jumps, turn, sprint – forward 1-in's
5) Lateral 2-in's, turn, sprint, forward 3-count shuffle
6) Forward 3-count shuffle
7) Backward 3-count shuffle, turn, sprint, forward 2-in's
8) Forward cross-step, sprint, forward hop – step
9) Backward cross-step, turn, forward 1-in's
10) Lateral cross-over, turn, sprint, forward cross-step

You can also add a competitive element to ladder drills once the footwork skill-levels of your athletes are sufficiently high. The key is to require quality of every ladder repetition—no dragging or distorting the ladder by going faster than the athlete can do the drill. That is a disqualifier in competitive ladder drills. The goal is always to do it fast and well rather than simply fast without regard to skill. Here, below, are two ladder relay race ideas that incorporate reaction in a competitive setting:

Parallel ABC Ladder Reaction Drill

(Use full [10-yard] ladders)

A & B begin the drill at the same time from opposite ends of their respective ladders. On the coach's signal, they each sprint or shuffle from whatever rung they find themselves in (in their original ladder) to the corresponding rung on the opposite ladder and complete the ladder drill. A & B are racing against each other, but the drill must be completed without dragging either ladder.

Movement Ideas:

1) Fwd 1-in's / lat slide / fwd 1-in's
2) Lat 2-in's / fwd sprint / lat 2-in's
3) Fwd shuffle / turn & go / bkwd shuffle
4) Bkwd cros-step / turn & go / fwd cross-step

The second relay idea incorporates both power and speed cuts in addition to the competitive reaction component.

ABC Ladder: Footwork with Acceleration & Cuts

NOTE: This pattern provides opportunities for both power and speed-cuts. Cones can be arranged in other ways to change the directional demands.

Suggested footwork and acceleration combinations:

1) Fwd 1-in's / fwd sprint / cut & fwd sprint return
2) Fwd 1-in's / fwd sprint / cut & backpedal return
3) Lat 2-in's / def-slide / fwd sprint / cut & fwd return
4) Bkwd shuffle / turn & sprint / cut & fwd return
5) Fwd shuffle / fwd sprint / cut & def-slide return
6) Bkwd cross-steps / back-pedal / turn, react, fwd sprint / cut & fwd return
7) Fwd cross-step / fwd sprint / cut / fwd sprint / backpedal return

There are myriad agility-ladder footwork drills and just about as many DVD's available to instruct you in how to perform the different stepping patterns; but it is essential to remember that the footwork patterns are just the starting point for real training. Footwork must be made relevant to the actual competitive demands of the game or event to make ladder training functionally viable. By studying video footage of competition, coaches can get a good sense of which footwork drill might be most applicable to their sport and (even) the different positions of players on the field. Those are the patterns on which to focus, of course. In mastering them, your athletes must be required to perform well in a holistic fashion, combining proper posture and arm-action with the appropriate light, quiet steps. Here are some basic guidelines for mastering footwork patterns using an ABC Ladder:

• Each ladder drill has its own teaching points and cues; many have rhythmic patterns, as well. Learn a few drills, well; repeating them many times, each, before moving on to others. Build a repertoire of drills by reviewing those you have already learned (to cement them into your body's movement memory); then add a few new ones.

• In order to get the most from using the ladder, an athlete must be taught to integrate correct upper-body movements with the footwork patterns. In virtually all cases, this means the application of basic runner's arm-mechanics. Watch the arm-action of your athletes, carefully (they will be monitoring their footwork), and encourage classmates / teammates waiting in line to focus attention there, as well. Once an athlete has the basics of a footwork pattern down, she or he should be coached to include the appropriate arm-action before attempting to go faster.

Fast feet should also be quiet feet; speed at the expense of one's joints is a fool's economy. Teach your athletes to do everything they can to reduce impact forces without compromising speed.

• You will occasionally work with athletes possessing no sense of rhythm, which makes acquiring footwork skills more difficult. You can, however, still get results from using the ladder if you teach the word-cues, and then persuade the athlete to say them out loud. Saying the word-cues out loud can connect the feet to the brain, and the drills can be learned.

• Finally: athletes must be coached to do each drill as fast as they can, not as fast as they can't. Twisted English, true; but too often athletes try to tear through a drill, managing to get about a fourth of the way down the ladder before missing a step, or over-reaching their center of gravity. At this point they trip over the ladder and the continuity of the drill (for the athlete, and the est of the team) is destroyed. Teach the difference between "rhythm" and "tempo," and encourage athletes to go slowly, at first, to commit the movement pattern to memory before trying to increase the pace of the drill.

Use your ABC Ladder to build athleticism into your athletes by teaching them to master footwork patterns that apply to their sport or event; then add increasing levels of competitively relevant complexity to help them gain confidence in their ability to respond well when whistle blows. Don't stop at learning the steps: teach your athletes to dance.

Steve Myrland is an athletic development and performance coach for competitive athletes at all levels and a consultant on health and physical fitness for corporations and school Physical Education programs, nationally. While with the University of Wisconsin (1988 – 2000), Steve assisted with Big-Ten and National Championship efforts in Hockey, Soccer, Cross-Country, Tennis, and Rowing. Steve is the creator of several training products including the original, patented, ABC Ladder.

(November 2014)