Agility for team sports: Time to bench your cones.

September 5, 2018

 

World Cup fever has finally settled, and the England back room staff are most likely analysing successes and looking to make positive alterations to the team that progressed the furthest in the tournament since Italia 90.  I had fully expected to be writing this blog amidst a media feeding frenzy that exploited every mishap and mistake made by the team, but instead they have been hailed as heroes and there has been an overwhelming feeling of national pride (south of the Scottish border).  This blog was not written because of that, but because of a particular image that was floating around the internet during, that I feel may be misconstrued by fans and impressionable coaches.  See below:

 

 

 

Here we can see Theo Wallcott and Jamie Vardy side stepping in and out of luminous yellow poles.  If we were to delve back to previous championships we would probably see many photos like this.  I am sure papers enjoy it because the angles make a great photograph composition and help sell papers, but what do young fans and coaches take from it?

 

In my experience different sports regularly include sport specific physical training practices that are only seen within their environment. In my experience, the longer the history of the sport, the more embedded certain practices are. This may come as no surprise, but with the trickledown effect these practices become the most engrained at grass roots. The top tier has more than likely moved more with modern research, the engrained practices remain and are detrimental to athletic development. This neatly leads to the photo above. Poles and cones in football often equate to agility training. 

 

You can attend a local football practice and will see this same set up mimicked, but taken out of context. To the untrained eye they see high profile players changing direction, bobbing and weaving and before you know it, the rest of the team are completing the same drills the following Tuesday evening.

 

This is by no means an attack on the coaches behind the team in Russia, as they will be more than qualified for the job and will have rationale for carrying out particular exercises. These images can be misconstrued by developmental coaches and the term “agility” is attached. They are pretty to watch, but your ability to weave in and out of a cone is going to have very little transfer to your performance on the field, and do very little to improve over-all agility.

 

So where should we look to improve agility? The most recent definition of agility is

 

“A rapid whole body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus.”

(Sheppard & Young, 2006).

 

If we break it down we can see the following physical qualities:

 

·        Force application

·        Speed of movement

·        Change of direction

·        Reaction to a stimulus

·        Accuracy of moment

 

Components of Agility:

 

Compared to many other physical facets (Strength, power, jumping) agility is comprised of a wide variety of capacities and skills, which makes improving it a complicated task and measuring these improvements, even more challenging.  So, what can we do to improve agility?  Agility training can be broadly broken into three categories: ‘closed’, ‘open’ and ‘game situation’. 

 

 

Closed Agility:

 

A closed drill would be an exercise where the participant moves along a predetermined (or pre-planned) path or pattern (Young & Farrow, 2006). This is compared with an open drill/skill which involves a reaction from an external stimulus. At the top of the performance pyramid the mastery of a closed skill/drill is unlikely to differentiate between competitors. Although a generalisation, it is fair to say that most (not all) athletes at an elite level will all be competent at closed movement patterns that are specific to their sport.

 

So, should we use closed agility skills at all? Well, if we look back at the components of agility; change of direction, quality of movement/technique are involved with agility.  So, if we take a reductionist approach to our training then having a foundational level of movement quality at a given sport is required. For court-based sports I know first-hand that a completely autonomic understanding of the movement patterns is crucial to move past the most basic stages in training. When reacting to a fast-moving object, a player cannot be consciously thinking of whether they have put the correct foot in the correct place at the correct time. It is simply too slow.

 

If you play a sport like football, footwork patterns may not take priority over shooting and passing drills.  However, this does not mean that they should not be well versed on good acceleration, top speed and change of direction mechanics. Good running mechanics are a component of closed skills and a solid foundation is an asset on the field.

 

 

On top of straight line movement, in a sport like football, other movements will include cutting or laterally changing direction. Using image 1, does this really mimic the angle, speed or intensity that a cutting movement looks like in game play that can be seen in image 2?  Not really. 

 

An athlete will most likely have to adopt a lower centre of gravity, plant their outside foot further away from the body and lean body weight towards the direction they want to travel.  Working around cones and poles might be a gentle way to warm up the body for latter movements but the coach is going to have to push the speed and specificity of the movement for it to have any resemblance of a cut in football.  A simple option could be to gradually increase the distance (and therefore speed) that an athlete approaches the cone.  For them to cut at an acute angle they will be forced to do all of the above movements in a much more specific manner.

 

Open Skills/Chaotic:

 

Open skills require an athlete to complete a movement in response to a stimulus.  This does not necessarily mean that they are responding to an opponent but could include the use of lights, sounds or visual cues to disrupt the athlete’s movement and challenge them to complete the task.  As you can see from the graph the progression from closed to open is far more fluid than many coaches may employ.  I think that the ability to blend closed skills into open skills is important in the development of agility skills and their transfer to the sporting environment.  There will not come a time when you ‘high five’ your assistant coach and go “well, that’s all the closed skills learnt, time to move onto open skills”. 

 

The graph below illustrates a suggested ratio when blending the different training methods together.  When it comes to open skills, the saying “you’re only limited by your imagination” springs to mind.  However, this saying frustrates me massively as if you have a limited reference range you are rarely going to create something innovative.  If you are struggling for ideas, get out there and see what is going on outside of your usual sporting world.  In general, you should be looking to throw as many different constraints and pressures on the athlete as possible so that they can develop that skill in many different situations.   Overloading the senses (within reason) is there to bridge the gap between closed and game-based agility.  When competing the athlete will be processing an incomprehensible amount of information, from the surface they are on to the opponents they are trying to avoid etc etc.  A light gate or reacting to a direction call might not be ‘game-like’ but it does take away the emphasis from the skill and focus attention elsewhere and train the reflexes of the individual. This means the athlete has to utilise the learnt closed skill in a much more fluid manner.

 

Game Skills:

The last piece of the puzzle is game based situations.  As an athlete progresses towards advanced levels most of their agility work will come from game situations.  In football, small sided games (SSG) have well and truly been rinsed in the research world with every imaginable variable scrutinised.  In terms of agility, one area that SSG training develops well is perceptual and decision-making skills.  Young & Farrow (2006) break this down into: ‘anticipation’, ‘visual scanning’, ‘pattern recognition’ and ‘knowledge of situations’.  Research indicates that better athletes are able to pick up information from their opponents to help them anticipate their next move (Abernethy et al., 1998).  This could include the posture of the athlete or the direction that their pelvis is facing.  There is no better way to train this than by exposing them to supra maximal situations where they are likely to have this challenged frequently and learn the consequences of their correct or incorrect anticipation.  On top of this, SSG games allow the athlete to develop these skills under fatigue. Not a pseudo-game-fatigue achieved in the gym, but an actual fatigue that replicates the exact movement patterns and energy systems that are challenged in their sport.

 

So, if I was to do agility training with footballers, would you find many poles and cones in my bag?  Obviously, everything is situational (context driven) but in general, no. Closed skills do have a role in agility development, but they make up a very small portion of my agility training and as I spend more and more time with an athlete I would hope they play a progressively smaller role.  Simply put, develop the skill early on and then challenge it in more and more sport specific ways to see real transfer into performance.

 

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