Gaining Another Gear

We know a lot about speed, motor learning, strength, and agility as separate entities, but how do you put all four together to train for game speed? The keys are proper progression and drill choice.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at

Training & Conditioning, 13.9, December 2003,

Gaining Another Gear
Throughout my career I have had a fascination with agility. As a young athlete, it was painfully obvious to me that the best players were not the ones who won wind sprints during practice, but those who were fastest during the game. Yet my football coach was training us for straight-ahead speed.

In the 30 years since, we’ve come a long way in training for game speed. We’ve learned that agility and quickness are usually more important than straight-ahead speed, and that the mechanics of straight-ahead speed differ from those used for game speed. However, there are still many misconceptions about the most effective ways to train for speed and agility—misconceptions that keep many athletes from reaching their full potential.

The most harmful misconception is that agility training is not necessary outside of actual sport-skills practices. The argument here is that practicing the movements outside the sport is contrived and entails only non-specific work that will not transfer to the game. The same naysayers also believe that it is impossible for a training session to duplicate the intensity of an actual practice or game.

I do not share that viewpoint. I believe that if you carefully design agility drills, you will progress the athlete more efficiently, and with less chance of injury, than you will by working on agility only in practices. If you tap into the exact repertoire of coordinative abilities that make up the movement components of the specific sport, make the overload progressive, follow sound motor learning principles, and adapt drills to each individual athlete, you are doing much more for the athlete than he or she experiences when practicing game-like situations. During a typical sport practice, drills do not allow for learning a progression of movement skills. Nor do they allow for the kind of biomechanical analysis that can be made during a strength and conditioning session.

Other misconceptions center on the components of agility, proper progressions, and how and when to train agility. I will go into detail on these areas in the following sections.

Coordination & Strength
While page after page has been published about speed training, motor learning, strength, and agility, very little has been written about how to integrate them. The principles of speed development are well known, but have not been systematically applied with the improvement of agility in mind. The principles of motor learning have been clearly defined, but they have not been joined with speed training. The principles of leg strength are clear, but it is not clear how to harness that strength for agility.

Without a lot of guidance on this topic, many strength coaches train agility in isolation. However, in my experience, this is not effective. Perhaps we put the cart before the horse by training agility in isolation. Instead, we need to train two areas before adding in more sophisticated agility drills: the underlying coordinative abilities and strength.

Fully developed coordinative abilities provide a repertoire of motor skills that can be adapted to deal with the demands of sport specific movements. What are those coordinative abilities? According to Jo’zef Drabik, PhD, author of Children & Sport Training, they are:

Balance: maintenance of the center of gravity over the base of support, which is both a static and a dynamic quality.

Kinesthetic differentiation: ability to feel tension in movement to achieve the desired movement.

Spatial orientation: control of the body in space.

Reaction to signals: ability to respond quickly to auditory, visual, and kinesthetic cues.

Sense of rhythm: ability to match movement to time.

Synchronization of movements: unrelated limb movements done in a synchronized manner.

Movement adequacy: ability to choose movements appropriate to the task.

Strength is the partner of coordination in building agility. Here is a look at the different types of strength needed:

Basic strength is needed for balance, body control, and awareness. It is also a prerequisite for developing concentric and eccentric strength.

Starting effectively from a standing position demands a high level of concentric strength to overcome inertia. It is the extension of ankle/knee/hip pushing against the ground that propels the body in the intended direction. Reducing force, which is needed to change direction, demands a high level of eccentric strength and requires tremendous joint stability and control.

In both eccentric and concentric strength, force must be produced and reduced in extremely short time frames, often 10ths of a second. Therefore the premium is on the rate of force development. But load cannot be forgotten, since in an eccentric mode athletes must have the ability to handle forces up to 12 times their body weight to efficiently overcome those forces and change direction.

Basic strength can be assisted through speed strength and plyometric work. This aids in starting, acceleration, and overcoming difficult angles and vectors. It has the added benefits of teaching the athlete how to better use the ground as an acceleration tool and to be explosive.

Power endurance helps the athlete with complex footwork. It also helps the athlete prepare for the fatigue that results from repeated explosive movements. Training should entail 10 to 20 reps.

An athlete can create more force and speed in stopping and changing direction through maximum strength work. This work should be done at maximum weights with just one or two reps. It is also the last step in the progression of strength training. It should not be introduced until the athlete has developed basic strength and become proficient at plyometrics and power endurance.

Within all the different types of strength work, developing leg strength is important. Without adequate leg strength there is a limit to the quality of the movement. The forces involved in multiple plane movements also demand that we take a less traditional approach to the development of leg strength that will transfer to the movement skills. This means sequencing the weight training properly and emphasizing eccentric work. It also requires working on unilateral and reciprocal leg strength.

In all areas of training for agility, the unifying component is footwork. The idea is to build strength from the ground up. Strength from the feet translates into body control, acceleration, complex footwork, and explosive changes of direction—all of which lead to great agility.

Proper Progression
Although I’ve defined coordination skills and strength skills separately, they must be developed in a parallel manner. There is great overlap and interdependency between basic coordinative abilities and body strength, which never work in isolation. As coordination is gained, more strength work can be done. As more strength is gained, coordination drills can get more complex.

The traditional approach has been to develop strength through repetition of movement. Theoretically, as the athlete drills with more and more repetitions, he or she gets stronger and movements get better. But, in reality, this does not happen. If strength is not sufficient, poor movement mechanics develop. Faulty movement patterns then impede the formation of correct skills. So even though the athlete does the drills, the transfer is negative.

A more effective approach demands mastery of prerequisite fundamental movement skills that are within the strength capabilities of the athlete. As the athlete’s strength increases through a systematic strength development program, the complexity of movements can increase. Given the large window of adaptation open to developing athletes, this can occur quite rapidly.

Once athletes have mastered this initial developmental phase, the training can include reaction and game-situation drills. These teach the athlete to respond quickly to stimuli in the game. However, reaction elements should not be added until the athlete has developed sufficient basic strength and built it progressively into sport skills.

Reaction is the response to a stimulus and initiates movement—a conscious act that can be improved through training. It should not be confused with reflex, which occurs at the sub-cortical level and cannot be trained.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming in most agility work is the lack of a reaction component. Research out of Australia has shown significantly different patterns of activation on simple cutting drills when done with reaction compared to the same tasks done without reaction.

Reaction should be practiced to the dominant cue demanded by the game. Consider using the following stimuli:

Visual: tracking ability, narrow versus wide focus, peripheral vision.

Auditory: different cadences and tones.

Kinesthetic: pressure, pushes, bumps, and surfaces.

The final progression is incorporating fatigue. Agility in game situations takes place in a time span of two to five seconds. This is high neural demand work that must be consistently reproduced in a climate of fatigue. However, we do not start agility training in a climate of fatigue, we work up to it.

Agility work is not conditioning, it is speed development work. There is no question that athletes must be able to do the plants, cuts, starts, and stops in a fatigued state. But that is not where you start. Movements must be mastered before any element of fatigue is brought into the picture. Otherwise, incorrect movement patterns are learned and grooved. Add reaction, add game situations, and then add fatigue when the movements are mastered.

Developing Your Program
Following the above progression will ensure that your athletes learn agility in the most efficient way. The next step in developing your program is making it sport specific. To do this, carefully examine the movement patterns of the sport and each position within the sport. Look for those commonalities in movements between sports. Also find what movements are unique to that sport, understand those movements, and prepare for them.

It is best to use game analysis to determine needed movements and the role of game speed in the particular sport (see T&C Vol. XII, No. 7 for an article on game analysis). Game analysis will also determine the volume of work in the actual sport, which will in turn determine training volumes and intensities. Take as much guesswork and opinion out of the process as possible. That way you can be precise in the selection of exercises to produce an adaptive response that will transfer to the game.

Like many strength coaches, I have spent too much time drilling for drill’s sake. Agility drills with a million cones and sticks look good, but they often do not transfer to the playing field. The athlete may get proficient at the drill, but their game performance stays the same. Drills should not be an end in themselves, they should be a means to an end. The goal should be efficient, effortless, flowing movement that transfers directly to the sport.

The best approach for improving agility is to design a hierarchy of exercises that lead seamlessly into the sport skill. This requires understanding the breakdown of the movements in the respective sport. The hierarchy is:

First Derivative: the actual movement done at game speed.

Second Derivative: the movement broken into its component parts.

Third Derivative: basic movements (coordinative abilities) that comprise the component parts.

Design your program by starting with the third derivative and advancing to the first derivative. Test the athlete to determine when and how quickly to advance.

Equipment will often dictate movement patterns and positions—for example, the glove in baseball, the stick in field hockey and ice hockey, the ball in football. Since movements will differ when an athlete wears certain equipment, make sure you incorporate game equipment into agility training.

One last note on developing your program involves the proper sequencing of drills. Do not mass the agility drills together. Massed practice has proven to be ineffective for optimal learning. Instead, conduct a distributed practice where a skill is practiced and recovery is allowed. Then another skill is practiced at another point in the workout.

Finally, remember to provide feedback to the athletes. In the early stages, demonstrate correct movements, correct poor movements, and praise proper movements. In more advanced stages, time drills when possible. Listen to your athletes’ questions, watch their movements carefully, and examine how their progress correlates to their performance on the court or field.

Agility is the key to game speed. It not only has a performance enhancement component, but it can make a huge contribution to injury prevention. An athlete who is more agile will be able to safely get into and out of positions that would otherwise be problematic. This can only be developed through a systematic approach that has a foundation in sound motor learning principles.

Sidebar: Areas of Agility
There are five main areas of agility training to keep in mind when developing a program:

Body Control & Awareness: This is the ability to control the body and its parts while maintaining a high level of awareness of those parts in relation to the goal of the movement. A simple drill would be to have athletes scramble from a prone position to an athletic position.

Starting: The ability to overcome inertia is the definition of starting. In multi-direction sports, starts can be stationary or moving, or even a combination of both depending on the sport. Try using the wheel drill: The athlete rehearses first-step mechanics in eight different directions (like the spoke of a wagon wheel).

Footwork: Conceptually, agility is built from the ground up, therefore footwork is the unifying thread in all agility work. The foot to hip relationship is key. Using ABC ladders develops footwork well.

Change of Direction: This component involves stopping, and often restarting, regardless of the position of the body. It is initiated when the center of gravity is outside the base of support and the athlete must regain control and move in the intended direction. Here, I use the star drill: The athlete runs back and forth between one cone set up in the center of a circle and eight other cones that are three meters from the center. The athlete must plant and touch at each cone. Another good drill is a slalom run in which the athlete runs through a series of flags and cones.

Recognition & Reaction: Recognition is the domain of actual sport skills. Recognition of patterns and cues key reaction. Reaction is the ability to respond quickly to the stimulus. A good drill here is the ball drop, where the coach drops a ball and the athlete has to get to the ball and catch it before its second bounce.