Athletes need to be able to change direction well in order to excel in their sport.
It is a pretty simple concept that someone who is slow to react, slow down, and accelerate in another direction is always going to be a step behind.
Despite this, most people take the wrong steps to working on agility.
Ladders are a good tool depending on what you are using them for. I like using ladders for the reason that I believe athletes should be athletic enough to do ladder drills. If they cant’t, then we have a problem. In this sense, I make younger athletes master ladder drills early on in the session.
But there are limitations to what ladder drills and other programmed, closed agility drills can train.
Sports are chaotic and unpredictable. 95% of the time an athlete needs to react to the other athletes on the field or make strong decisions to force others to react. Even then, they never know what is going to happen next and must be able to change their plan at the blink of an eye.
I feel that this is the lost quality of sports performance training. There is sometimes too much control and not enough of letting the athletes figure some things out on their own.
Athletes must make mistakes, learn from them, and then repeat when training for agility.
When it comes to agility training, we can still use some of the planned drills to reinforce good technique but a program is incomplete without reactive training.
An athlete that wants to improve their change of direction needs to first learn how to decelerate themselves. They must be able to slow down before they can stop and go the other way.
Athletes must hinge the hips back, bend the knees, and lower themselves to the ground to properly slow down. The athletes that lack the strength needed to decelerate will often round at the back, keep the hips too high, and stay upright. This does not allow for them to take advantage of the next point.
Once the athlete slows down, they have to be able to explosively move in the other direction. This comes from a solid lower body push.
This is where the high hip position becomes problematic. If an athlete does not load the lower body going into a stop, they will not be able to use that momentum to push back the other way.
Athletes must have the strength to lower their body under control, but also develop enough power to push in the opposite way.
This is the key reason why athletes that disregard strength training are in trouble. You can only do so much without strength. It really is the key to improving speed and agility.
It takes a lot of strength to keep the lower body under control while hinging the hips back. It also takes a good amount of force to explode out of a turn.
Athletes have to be strong to be successful. They cannot just continue to run and play games if they want to get better.
The last part of the equation actually comes before the athlete is slowing down and pushing back. It is their ability to react and make decisions.
An athlete that is slow to start the change of direction process is going to be slow to do it.
We can train for reactive ability by using drills that forces the athlete to make a decision on the fly.
One that I like is to spread some different cones out on the turf and make the athletes run around them without knowing which one ahead of time. I will switch between yelling colors, numbers, directions, and pointing to make the athletes react to different cues.
I also like to incorporate mirror/partner drills. In these drills, one athlete has to react to another athlete that is leading the way. We can do this with shuffles, sprints, backpedals, or any other type of field movement.
A mirror box drill puts two athletes in their own set of four cones, making a box. The leader will run to different cones, without a pattern, and the other athlete must run to the corresponding cones in their own box.
I like to get athletes out of their comfort zone as much as I can. Reacting to someone else is not in most of their wheelhouses. But that is exactly why they need to train it.