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Q & A on quickness & agility.

Buzz terms such as "first step explosion," "stick 'n go," "jump cut," and "C.O.D." (change of direction) have all become part of coaching vernacular.

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They are simply examples of "running the same plays from different formations." Once you sift through the nebulous semantics, they merely refer to quickness and agility.

Misconceptions, half-truths, and flat-out fairy tales abound during discussions on the improvement of these two important abilities and the sport-specific skills that rely so heavily upon them.

In past issues (April, '02, Sept., '04), we've presented specific quickness and agility drills. This time around, we thought it would be beneficial to answer a few questions from our mailbag and discuss some of the finer points for improving these precursors of athletic prowess.

Can quickness and agility be appreciably improved with training, or are they basically inherent abilities?

Research has taught us the host of cognitive, sensory, neuromuscular, and morphological (body type) factors that contribute to both of these abilities. Yes, genetic predisposition plays a major role in the rate and level of improvement that the athlete can achieve in either area.

This is especially true of neuromuscular efficiency or the speed and accuracy with which neural information is sent and received along the brain/muscle pathway--which is not as alterable through training as the other constituents.

Basically, you either have the right "hook-ups" or you don't. You can't "re-wire" this genetically predetermined network that serves as the information highway for both simple and complex movements.

However, there are specific variables that are subject to positive changes through training. For instance, strength and power are extremely vital for improvements in quickness and agility, and can be enhanced with sound, progressive strength training.

All else being equal, a stronger muscle is capable of higher force production, which enables a faster rate of contraction. This accelerated rate of muscle contraction will result in quicker movements on the playing field. The athlete must, of course, learn to skillfully direct this newfound quickness with quality practice.

Overall conditioning and body composition (muscle to fat ratio) also plays a key role, as a finely tuned engine is able to respond to visual and auditory cues with more proficiency.

The primary energy system (aerobic or anaerobic) for the sport in question should be targeted, and a systematic approach for progressively overloading it put into motion. The majority of sports requiring high-speed movements and quick, precise responses to various sensory and cognitive stimuli are anaerobic (ATP-PC and/or ATP-PC-Lactic Acid energy systems) in nature.

Simply put, these are high-intensity activities with short respites between work intervals.

Note: We have described these systems in the past and we will offer further training protocols for them in the future.

Other than strength training and conditioning, what are some other key factors in improving quickness and agility?

As with all other movement education, you should start at the top with the brain. The central nervous system (CNS) stores, initiates, controls, and sends vital efferent (i.e., from brain to muscle) information to the working muscles regarding the specific muscle firing pattern, body positioning, and appendage (i.e., arms/legs) speed.

As the movement is being executed, afferent (i.e., from muscle to brain) information from the muscles' pro-prioceptors is being transmitted via the neural pathways back to the CNS. This transmission is replete with needed feedback on the correctness of the executed movements. Adjustments are made accordingly; even while the movement is in progress (e.g., a basketball defender responding to a pick). This all happens in milliseconds, of course.

Throughout weeks, months, and even years of correct and specific execution, the CNS stores information on the techniques of the movement in the form of motor memory impressions. Known as engrams, these impressions are paramount in the correct execution of motor skills.

Think of engrams as snapshots and/or videotapes of learned movements. Quality coaching and practice result in indelible engrams that are immediately called upon when a specific movement is initiated and when responses to a host of cues (e.g., a linebacker reading his "keys") are required.

What does this simplified description of motor memory mean in practical terms? Here are a few bullet points that will enhance your athletes' cognitive processes as they relate to quickness and agility:

Reduce the number of stimulus-response choices.

Remember, activity does not automatically result in achievement. Athletes must be taught the best responses to various stimuli and these stimuli/response activities must be repeated over and over with precision.

This approach will assist the brain in constructing the specific engrams in its motor memory for successful recall.

As coaches, we often make the unforgivable mistake of overloading our athletes with reams of useless information that serve only to blur the motor memory. One reason why experienced players tend to execute drills and respond to cues more fluently than novices is the fact that every aspect of the movement is encoded like a blueprint in their memories.

Experienced players also tend to make better use of visual cues in determining their responses, as they are more capable of seeing through the "surface" and making correct predictions on what is about to transcend.

In other words, they are more difficult to fool with the flood of false indicators (e.g., a QB "looking off' his intended receiver) used as diversionary tactics.

Search for key predictors.

When the great Bill Russell was asked to share a few secrets on his great rebounding skills, the response raised some eyebrows: "Most of the time, I knew what was coming before it happened. I knew where everyone was on the court, I would position myself according to the shot, and I would predict how the ball would come off the rim."

He didn't mention his strength, jumping skills, or any other physical attribute. He spoke only of cognitive aspects--the chess match of body positioning, visual predictors, and skillful anticipation.

Russell became a master at interpreting the visual and pressure cues swirling around him at a frenetic pace and used this information to execute a successful outcome. He was always at least one step ahead of the competition.

This is what the great ones refer to as the "zone," where all of the fast-paced action unfolds before their eyes in slow-motion. Sure, some of this is due to great, innate ability. But it is also the product of hard work, film study, and responding to these situations through quality practice, endless repetitions, and studying the competition.

As Russell would say, "I knew the opponent's favorite things to do and least favorite things to do, which helped me get most of my rebounds before the shot was taken."

Design quality, task-specific, and speed-specific practices/drills.

Coaches must identify and incorporate the exact cues, responses, body positioning, and techniques they expect to see and execute in practice and games. This is especially true of tasks that are extremely complex and require a great deal of organization in the memory centers of the CNS.

The take-home point here: Don't waste precious time and effort with practice drills that are in no way related, or merely "similar," to the specific movements required in competition.

Example: If the plant foot on a wide receiver's pattern is supposed to be perpendicular to the new direction, then make sure it is perpendicular, not diagonal. Otherwise, the footwork might telegraph your intention and give the defender a jump on the pattern.

How important is flexibility in improving quickness and agility?

Flexibility is an often overlooked aspect of quickness and agility. When married to a progressive strength-training program and used in conjunction with all of the aforementioned cognitive and movement-specific recommendations, the improved flexibility will expand the distance over which muscle force can be applied.

This is a crucial component in abetting power, as indicated by the Power Formula (Power=Force X Distance). Increased force application (via strength training) combined with an augmented range of functional motion (via flexibility exercises) should result in the ability to effect rapid initial movements and fluid changes in direction.

There is some squabbling in the scientific literature surrounding the efficacy of stretching as an injury deterrent. However, many researchers and practitioners, regardless of their stance on the short-term injury prevention issue, continue to recommend both static and dynamic flexibility routines over the long-haul.

Two major caveats: (1) ensure a proper warm-up before any pre-practice/game stretching activities, and (2) emphasize post-practice/conditioning flexibility sessions, as they will likely result in the most prominent long-term benefits.

FINAL REP

My constant search for better, more efficient protocols for the various aspects of strength and conditioning occasionally unearths a gem.

Jim Kielbaso has written a comprehensive, definitive text on quickness, agility, and speed improvement entitled Speed & Agility Revolution, which presents the biomechanics, physics, paradigms, rationale, and techniques for enhancing these all-important areas.

All of this is presented in a well-written, easily understandable format that will enable the reader to immediately implement the suggested programs. I highly recommend it.

It's available through Crew Press (www.crewpress.com).

TIP FROM THE TRENCHES

When to sideline the sick athlete

"'Tis the cold and flu season, and at least a few of your athletes are bound to attract some sort of bug like a car windshield.

It starts with "not feeling so great" and escalates to a sore throat, stuffy head, runny nose, and an uneasy stomach. When these and other related symptoms hit, should the athlete practice, work out, or call it a day (or maybe a few days) and get some rest?

First off, the athlete's primary care physician should be called upon immediately for a thorough examination and diagnosis, along with the appropriate treatment. The good doctor might call a timeout for the athlete, put him in sick bay for a spell, and prescribe some meds to fight-off the infection.

How quickly the athlete can get back into the fray is usually determined by what ails him:

"Neck-up" conditions such as a stuffy head, runny nose, and sneezing are not perceived as being serious conditions in themselves, and the athlete might be allowed to test the waters with a few reps here and there without overexertion.

"Neck-down" symptoms such as lower respiratory congestion, hacking cough, chills, vomiting, and diarrhea are bright red flags indicating more discomfort and possibly some serious complications, and should be viewed as such.

Throw in a temperature of over 100 degrees F. and you have a fairly sick athlete who will probably only do further harm if he tries to practice or workout.

Vomiting and diarrhea are a devastating duo that can lead rapidly to dehydration, and are strong contraindications to exercise that will only exacerbate the dilemma.

If the sick athlete is still contagious, coaches always have to consider the risk of infection to others.

The bottom line: Exercise caution when dealing with the sick athlete, get all of the facts from a physician regarding the seriousness of the ailment, and follow the doc's guidelines on when to get the athlete back into the game.

--Ken Mannie (mannie@ath.msu.edu)

By Ken Mannie, Strength/Conditioning Coach

Michigan State University
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Title Annotation:POWERLINE
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:1853
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