One question I hear a lot from the parents of prospective youth sports performance clients is “Do you guys do speed and agility training?” “My kids need more agility!” While I understand the concern, this request may be misinformed. It is pushed through the media a lot that agility is the number one things that athletes need to perform better and when you see members of the Seahawks and Sounders running through “agility ladders” (I will address the quotes latter) it is only natural to think that your kids need to do what the pros are doing, after all they are professional athletes. Though this may not be the best way to look at it.
First things first, let's define agility. Agility is the ability to change direction quickly. Now using an agility ladder might help your athlete learn how to change direction quickly but the problem is they are only moving side to side in a closed environment. When you look at an athlete using an agility ladder they never move more than a couple feet and that doesn’t take a whole lot of force to achieve. This will make them better at the agility ladder but not necessarily better at soccer or football. Most of the time athletes are having to slow down and change direction while moving relatively fast in the opposite direction, meaning it is going to take a lot of force to change direction. This means they are using significantly more force than they would using an agility ladder.
There are a few reasons why “agility training” in a literal sense is not what your youth athlete needs.
1. Most youth athletes don’t even know how to run properly in a straight line.
Running mechanics are way more important at a young age than change of direction speed, in my opinion. There are people that will disagree with me and to be clear I am not saying that change of direction work is not important. What I am saying is that with these young athletes, you have to spend time teaching them how to control their movement in one plane before expecting them to be good at a movement in a plane that is harder to stabilize. If they can control their movement forward and backward, then we start to go after side to side and diagonal movement.
2. They get enough exposure to agility training by participating in multiple sports, playing games, and practicing.
When athletes are playing games and practicing they are forced into the positions that the sport demands, and working on the technical skills of that sport. The number one way to get better at a sports is playing that sport more. So the more your athlete practices and plays soccer, the better they get at changing direction in the way you need to for soccer. Now there are technical elements that are specific to each sport , that is for the sports coach to determine, what that sport specific agility is.
3. Most youth athletes don’t have enough strength to produce the force necessary to get really agile.
The problem that I see when most athletes come into my gym is that they are not strong enough. They have no idea how to use their bodies to put force into the ground. When a parent tells me their athlete needs more agility training but they can't even squat there own body weight with good body control or position, we can get a lot better results with that athlete by teaching them how to lift and getting them strong than by having them run more cone drills which their coach already has them doing. Athletes need to get stronger; they don't get enough overload on the field or in practice to produce the forces necessary to make large improvements in what we call the velocity reserve (more on this in a future article). If an athlete can produce more force, they can run faster which is the goal.
4. Most youth athletes don't have enough strength to resist forces so that they can slow down fast, which is really where agility comes from.
Continuing our discussion on strength, athletes will also learn how to control forces by strength training -- especially through the olympic lifts, eccentric portions of lifts and landing from jumps. All of these skills are essential for sports performance and just being athletic in general, as well as preventing injury. Being able to control the forces exerted on the body on the field of sport is just as important, if not more important, than being able to produce forces. Cal Dietz talks about the importance of the eccentric portion of the lift in his book Triphasic Training. Being able to resist forces will allow athletes to not only become more resilient and less likely to be injured, but it is key to that athlete being able to change direction faster.
Technique is technique and each sport is going to have their similarities and differences. I leave the specific technique training to the sports coach because that is not what I do. When a parent comes to me and asks about agility training, I tell them ‘What we do will make your athlete more agile but this not what you would traditionally call “agility training”.’ When I say that, I mean that we develop the athlete’s ability to change direction faster and with less risk of injury using strength training as opposed to “traditional” agility training which offers little benefit for where your athlete is in their development of sports mastery.