In many sports training programs, strength and skill acquisition seem to take the front seat over other types of training. Agility is often overlooked as merely a component of an athlete’s inborn talent. To understand the concept of agility training, one must first define agility in sport. To improve sports performance, one must train the various components of agility.
Define Agility in Sport
Webster defines the word agile as “able to move quickly and effortlessly.” Agility, or having the properties of being agile, requires balance, speed, strength, and coordination.
Agility in sport is required to quickly and efficiently change the body’s direction of movement while reducing the chance of injury.
As you can see, strength is only one component of agility needed for sports performance. Balance, speed, and coordination can all be developed through running sports related practice drills, but this isn’t the best method for developing agility.
Specific training to improve balance, speed, strength and coordination is better for developing agility for sports performance.
How to Improve Agility
Explosive acceleration, sudden deceleration, and quick changes of direction are common aspects of all sports. Many sports coaches wrongly assume that these are all genetic abilities that can hardly be improved through training and practice.
Agility is a function of the nervous system. Neural pathways are developed only through extensive repetitions over weeks of continuous practice and maintenance. The problem is most athletes don’t understand that with time and specific practice, agility can be significantly improved.
Good balance means having the ability to maintain the body’s center of gravity either while in motion or when stationary. There are numerous methods for improving balance. In fact, traditional strength training has a carryover affect toward increased balance.
The balance board is one of the most studied pieces of balance training equipment. Simply standing on a balance board can be quite a challenge. Pushups with hands on the board or with feet on the board, squats, and single leg stands are all more advanced balance board drills.
You can also improve balance with no equipment at all though.
Rail walking is a great balance training method that requires nothing more than your own bodyweight. With rail walking, you find a rail somewhere in the city or a park to practice various drills and movements.
Simply walking backward, forwards, and sideways can be very challenging while on a rail. Advance by doing double or single leg squats, kneeling and hip hinging, pivoting on the feet, and jumping. Finally, try all of these drills while moving your head or with your eyes closed.
Characteristics of speed include rapid acceleration and deceleration and the ability to quickly move from point A to point B (aka power). You can get super strong but still not be very fast when not under load. The key is to develop one’s ability to apply force very quickly.
Along with general strength and conditioning, an athlete can develop speed through sprint training, plyometric drills, and flexibility work.
Various forms of sprint training exist to develop top speed and explosive starts. Explode into a sprint from varying starting positions such as standing, kneeling, and pushup positions. Practice different overall sprint distances and sprinting for max effort at different time increments.
Plyometric exercises train the muscles for explosive contractions . They also prepare the nervous system for similar muscle contractions in sport. Bounding, broad jumps, and depth jumps are some of the best plyometric drills to develop explosiveness.
Flexibility work should primarily focus on the hip extensors and flexors. Additionally, athletes should focus on quad and hamstring flexibility along with the shoulders, lower back, and ankle mobility.
Strength training for sport has gone through quite a transition over the past few decades. Long gone are the days when sports coaches shunned weight training as a hinderance to sport performance. Strength training is a near universally recognized aspect of intelligent programing for athletes.
Basic strength training involves big, compound whole body exercises. All involve the use of barbells and plate weights – either iron weights or bumpers.
The big three – squat, deadlift, and bench press. Variations of all of these. The Olympic-style weightlifting – snatches, cleans, and clean and jerks. An athlete can spend their entire career on these lifts alone and cover everything they need for strength in their respective sport.
While it can take years to master the basic lifts of a proper strength training program, you can get started learning and improving with as little as a barbell some weights and the right training guide.
Legendary strength coach Mark Rippetoe has distilled his vast knowledge into two seminal strength training books. Together they have everything needed for the beginner to advanced trainee.
Starting Strength is in it’s third edition now, and it covers all of the barbell movements such as squat, deadlift, and press and how to train them for sport performance. You can develop a basic strength training program from this book alone.
Practical Programming for Strength Training explains how, why, and when to train for strength. While Starting Strength will teach you how to lift and give you a beginner to intermediate training program, Practical Programming will show you how to develop a complete strength training program to improve sports performance.
Just like agility in general, most people mistakenly think of coordination as more a product of genetic talent than one of persistent skill acquisition. Coordination is what makes some people look graceful and effortless while a lack of coordination looks difficult and awkward.
But just like developing strength and speed, you can train the neural and muscular systems to more fluidly and efficiently move the body through space. Coordination is the ability to fire the right muscles to complete a desired task in the most efficient manner. Coordination is what ties together balance, speed and strength to produce agility in sport.
Sports warm up exercises like cross step over running (aka carioca), bear crawls, and mirroring games are all excellent methods for developing coordination.
You can simultaneously train coordination and balance through exercises like forward and backward rolls to one legged balance. Single leg strength training exercises like weighted lunges and pistol squats require a combination of coordination, balance, and strength.
Believe it or not, the game ping-pong, or table tennis, is one of the best activities for developing hand eye coordination. You can also develop tremendous reflexive skills with fun activities like traditional juggling or tossing tennis balls agains a wall.
Agility is more than a genetic talent. Any athlete can significantly enhance their agility through training the four components of balance, speed, strength, and coordination. How you define agility in sport will determine how you prioritize various aspects of training.