I’ve been harping on the importance of movement skills for long time, especially for team sport athletes. Today I’ll focus on team sports because while movement skills are certainly important for sports like MMA and tennis, they are going to have different solutions, whereas team sports like hockey, netball, and all codes of football, are going to have very similar movement.
The reason that I am so passionate about the importance of teaching athletes movement skills is because they’re so fundamental to playing the game. Sport coaches focus so much on ball skills – and I’m not saying that ball skills aren’t important – but say you have twenty-six players on the field. How many of them have the ball at any one time? One. How many players need to move around the field? All of them. The average soccer player touches the ball less than 2% of the game, yet runs over 10km. Even a goalie needs to move efficiently, he just does it over shorter distances.
The one thing you can guarantee for every single team sport athlete is that at some point he or she will have to move around the field. My argument is that if they need to do that, then it’s better if they need to move efficiently rather than inefficiently, and if you want athletes to do something better then you need to teach them how. This brings me to my next point: how much time is spent on learning the mechanics of accelerating, sprinting, changing of directions, cutting, and backpedalling? In most teams, none. I’ve asked every single football player who’s walked through the door if they have ever been taught how to turn around. So far I’m yet to hear one say yes. It’s such a fundamental movement that it gets overlooked. ‘Everyone knows how to turn around.’ They do, but just because a player knows how to do something doesn’t mean they’re an expert at it.
Usain bolt still gets coached on his technique, and he’s probably more technically proficient than the average sixteen-year-old League player in the Illawarra.
‘But Shaun, we do work on movement skills! We do agility ladders almost every session.’ I’m glad you brought that up. It’s my opinion that not only do agility ladders not help, but that they actively hurt.
For starters, let’s agree that ladders make no difference on an athlete’s ability to accelerate, sprint, or decelerate. So straight away we’re missing a huge chunk of vital skills. What they are designed to do is improve an athlete’s agility. There are many ways to define agility, but my favourite is ‘the ability to change the momentum of the body.’ The reason I like this definition is that it lets people understand that all the things like quick feet and the positioning of the head and centre of gravity are simply aids, and that the end goal is to change the athlete’s momentum.
So let’s take a closer look at what real agility requires on the field. Take a look at this picture.
This player’s goal is to get around the defender, and to do so he drops his weight, takes big, bold steps, and leans into the cut, thus altering his momentum. He also has his head up, which we’ll come back to later.
Now watch this clip of ladder exercises.
The most important point to note is that despite a million steps, the athlete’s body slowly moves forward in the same direction. This cannot be overemphasised. Practicing to take multiple, tiny steps that do not alter the direction your body is heading is not agility. You are not becoming more agile; you’re practicing dance steps, which is fine if that’s your thing, but don’t pretend it’s going to make any difference on the field. Changing the momentum of an athlete sprinting at maximum velocity is going to take a lot of force, and so bold, aggressive steps are needed.
The next thing that jumps out at me is how high everybody is. It’s even mentioned as a coaching point. As an example, try sprinting out to a cone, turning around and sprinting back. The first time do it with your centre of gravity high, and the second time drop your centre of gravity just before your turn. Not only is the turn quicker, but you also come out of it already in a good acceleration position. Head position is important in this, and doubly so when cutting. Compare the head positions of the players in the ladder drill clip to the picture above.
Speaking of head position, go down to any local Rugby club and watch the ladder drills. Where is every player looking? I bet that they’re staring straight at their feet. It’s the natural place to look, so I understand why it happens, but it’s also a terrible habit to get players into. Looking at your shoelaces in the middle of a game is not a habit we want to reinforce. During agility drills, I often get our athletes to track me with their eyes, and I’ll wander around the other end of the Astroturf. It keeps them in the habit of maintaining situational awareness.
Training exists for the sole purpose of getting athletes better at their sport. It is simply a means to an end. If some part of training fails to reinforce good technique, and instead reinforces a bunch of bad technique, then what use is it?
Memorising the position of the rungs of an agility ladder or perfectly positioned cones is completely worthless when it comes to the chaotic environment of a game. Doing ‘quick feet’ drills over and over won’t let you sidestep a defender any better.
Look at this article by Joe DeFranco. This is a great example of agility done right. Not only is he reinforcing proper technique with his athletes, but he’s forcing them to react to cues in a much more game-orientated way. Also, take a look at their foot placement as they avoid the defenders – doesn’t look much like a ladder drill, does it?