Agility Rule #1: In sports requiring maneuverability your center of mass cannot remain stationary.
We’ve all seen them on Facebook, Instagram or any number of blogs across the interwebs… video clips of athletes doing all sorts of fancy footwork running through a stationary ladder lying on the ground with a caption that reads something like “Getting my agility training in today.”
No, my friend. No you aren’t.
Agility is the ability to explosively move to change direction and position of the body quickly and effectively while under control in reaction to external environmental stimuli on the field of play(1). (Notice that some of the words in that previous sentence are bold, in italics AND underlined? That means they’re really important.) Agility therefore requires that the center of mass (the body) be displaced and that the displacement occurs due to an athlete reacting to some external factor such as an opponent or the change in the travel path of a ball/puck/shuttlecock(2), etc.
One of my favorite visual representations of this definition comes from the world of rugby. Quade Cooper(3), who plays for the Australian national side, has one one the best lateral steps in all of sports(4). Check him out as he makes Cory Jane of the All Blacks look just a bit silly:
Notice what he did? He took a big step, planted hard, and reversed direction. There were no mincy, choppy quick-steps, and it was his body that changed direction, not his feet. That movement pattern is the same no matter what the sport(5):
And guess what? It’s the same movement pattern on skates as well(6):
None of those movement patterns look anything like this, and for good reason:
If the people in the first three videos did what the guy in the last one is doing they would get crushed by a tackler, blown past by a ball that sailed out of reach or blocked back into the pack and brought to a dead halt. He would get beaten because his center of mass never moves. And while this guy isn’t exactly the most talented or graceful ladder runner, the movement pattern is the same no matter who is in the ladder. All motion is happening below the center of mass and that means this movement doesn’t meet the definition of agility. In short, ladder drills are simply not effective at training ANY of the skills necessary to be agile(7).
If you want to become more agile, ditch the ladder and let’s talk a bit about things you can work on to help with your agility. The first is strength, and that brings us to:
Agility Rule #2: In order to explosively displace your center of mass, you must be strong enough to overcome both gravity and inertia.
“Strong enough” is a relative phrase. Just because someone can deadlift 500 pounds doesn’t mean that they will be able to stop on a dime to avoid a sweep blocker or make a sharp lateral cut to catch a jammer as she tries to slide past on the inside line. The strength that I’m referring to here is more elastic in nature. It deals primarily with your legs and your core. Your leg muscles must have the strength to decelerate your body mass efficiently, the strength to make the moment between deceleration and re-acceleration as short as possible, and the strength to efficiently propel you in the other direction. Your core strength is even more important in determining the rate of direction change, particularly with respect to your trunk stabilizers which have maintain static tension as you go through the motion.
Great. So what the hell does all of that mean?
Since, in my opinion, core stability is the most important feature of strength as it applies to agility we’ll start there. I’m going to assume that everyone reading this knows how to do a plank. Good. Unfortunately they just aren’t very useful when it comes to athletics. Unlike the static motion of a plank, when playing sports at least a portion of your body is moving at all times. You also (hopefully) don’t spend much time in a prone position staring at the floor. Instead, what we’re looking for are exercises that help your core musculature do what it needs to while you skate: stay stable to transfer force between your shoulders and your hips as they move, and produce force by contributing to hip flexion and rotation.
The list of exercises that can help improve these functions is vast, but here are a few examples of ones that I use with my clients(8):
Wide Stance Anti-Rotational Chop:
Banded half-kneeling Pallof press:
Landmine rainbows (works both lateral anti-flexion and anti-rotation):
Rotational medicine ball toss variations:
Those should give you some stuff to start working with. Although I mentioned leg strength above, we’re going to deal with that in a future post because it’s quite a bit more involved and deals with multiple joint angle training, working with various types of muscle contraction, ground reaction time and mobility.
Now, let’s say you’ve been training for quite some time and have all the strength of Hercules, with legs as powerful as pistons and your core as stable as a tree trunk… you are ready to unleash your fury against your opponent, right? Nope. There’s still more to it.
Agility Rule #3: Physics and biomechanics matter.
All the strength and power in the world won’t matter if you can’t apply the force you’re generating into the ground at the proper angle. That’s because no matter how awesome you are, you can’t defy physics. To move in a particular direction you must apply force in the opposite direction of the way you plan to go and the more force you apply to the ground, the more the ground will push back at you.
Maximum force application to change directions therefore requires an athlete to utilize certain angles, and the ones we’re primarily concerned with in roller derby are shin angles. There are two types of shin angles, positive and negative. This is what they look like(9):
What we’re looking at is the angle between the shin and the foot. If it’s acute then it’s a positive shin angle, if it’s 90 degrees or obtuse then it’s negative. When you are doing linear acceleration and deceleration (in a straight line) off skates your shin angles should be positive on the acceleration and negative on the deceleration to allow you to put as much force into the ground as possible. However, when on skates the mechanics of linear deceleration are obviously different because you can’t utilize negative shin angles unless you spin backwards and dig in with your toe stops. This is why using lateral deceleration (variations of hockey stops and power slides) is usually the best option for derby players to stop quickly from high speeds(10). When you’re doing lateral acceleration and deceleration your shin angles should be positive during both actions because it allows you to generate maximum force to overcome both momentum and gravity. This is why a jammer dancing on her toe stops to try to move laterally around a wall of blockers once they have her hemmed in rarely succeeds. By going up on her toe stops she creates a negative shin angle which automatically tells her brain that she is in deceleration mode, limits the activation of calf and quad muscles and prevents her from putting enough force into the ground to move sideways efficiently(11).
Here’s a fun example of what good shin angles can bring to the table in lateral movements:
While his body position relative to the ground is what most
people immediately notice, what I’m actually looking at are his shin angles on the inside foot. It’s tough to see in the video because he’s moving so quickly, so I tried to capture a still shot so it’s more easily visible. Look at his left leg (on the right to us) and the angle between his shin and top of his foot. Pretty damn tight, even with his heel up. (He’s also getting some really good drive because he’s coming in so low to the ground, however, that’s not very useful from a sport perspective because there are virtually no moments during a game that an athlete would find themselves in this position.)
Like the strength training exercises discussed above, there are tons of different drills you can do to help improve your ability to keep a positive shin angle. Most of them are designed to increase linear acceleration rather than lateral, but the shin angle mechanics are the same.
Mountain climbers into sprints(13):
Once you have the idea of positive shin angle down, you can include it in your lateral drills, which I’ll show you some examples of in the next section.
So now you’ve got the Herculean strength to unleash on the track, along with Sir Isaac Newton’s grasp of physics… that means you’re ready to go embarrass your opponents, right? Still not quite yet. Remember that there were some words in bold in the definition of agility? The stuff above covers the body part of the definition, but we still have to deal with this bit: in reaction to external environmental stimuli.
Agility Rule #4: No matter how much body control you have you’ll still get hit in the face if your brain doesn’t react fast enough to the fact that someone threw a punch at you.
This is the part where most “agility” exercises fall apart. Most of the exercises touted as “agility work” would better be called change-of-direction training. This is because whether we’re talking about stationary cone drills, lateral hurdles, plyometrics, etc. they all leave out this one key component. They’re static in nature, so you don’t have to react to anything because you already know what’s coming. In other words, if you aren’t being forced to react to some external change in stimulus then you are not becoming more agile. Think of strength and physics as building blocks. You need them, but they’re not the whole structure. What ultimately matters is your ability to use those attributes to react to external stimulus and reorganize your body accordingly.
That requires a whole different type of training and this is where most of the really fun stuff comes in. We’ll call them Reactive drills. There is virtually no limit to the number of these you could come up with, and I’ve frequently done partner-mirror drills, partner reactive sprints, multi-directional shuffle drills, etc. (both on and off the track). Recently, however, I saw some new ones (or new to me at least) on Matt Dickens’ Pure Health, Pure Sport blog that I really like. Matt is currently the head of physical preparation for the Andorran National Men’s Alpine Ski and Snowboard Cross Teams and he has his guys doing some really cool Reactive training.
The key here is that the athletes have to utilize their hard earned strength as well as as physics while simultaneously reacting to unknown/unexpected/changing external stimulus. And that is exactly what we’re looking for. It’s an added bonus that all of the drills in this video can (and should be) done by derby players both on and off skates.
Ladder drills don’t work for increasing agility. Period.(14) If all of this is coming as a shock to you and you’ve been using ladders for training, please don’t feel like you’ve been duped. Most of the American football programs in this country still use these silly things and the misinformation about their training effect is right up there with the stuff going around about elevation training masks (hint: those masks don’t actually train you for elevation) so you’ve got a lot of good company. Hopefully, however, the information in this article will help you start training more effectively to help you reach your dreams of track dominance.
1. That definition is my own phrasing, but is similar to what was used by Sheppard and Young (2006), who defined agility as a “rapid whole body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus.”
2. A shuttlecock is the thing that badminton players, who are truly some incredible athletes at the world championship level, smash back and forth across the net. I’ve never had the opportunity to use the word shuttlecock in a sentence before and I feel that my life is just a little more complete now that I have (three times). I’m betting that you’ll never forget what’s called and that you’ll whip out that linguistic gem the next time you’re at a family barbecue and someone strings up a net. You’re welcome.
3. Just by way of disclosure, I am a HUGE All Blacks fan (the New Zealand national rugby team that Mr. Cooper is seen out-stepping in that clip) and I also support a team in Super Rugby, the Gallagher Chiefs, that he has caused havoc for over the years. The point is, despite the distress this guy has caused me as a sports fan, I have no choice but to acknowledge his magnificent level of agility.
4. Quade Cooper’s side step of Cory Jane is impressive, but is definitely not unique in the rugby world. If you want to watch some really impressive agility just from the last Super Rugby season point your browser here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woJxp65SyUo .
5. Serena loses that point and ultimately the match (Australian Open 2016 final) to Angelique Kerber. However, her incredible ability to react to the ball and explosively move her entire body from one position to another on the court is one of the things that has made her one of the best athletes of all time.
6. Up until the last few years it’s been really tough to get good clear video of derby games to use as examples of specific movements. Thankfully WFTDA.TV now has excellent production value and a huge video library available on YouTube. It only took me about ten minutes of reviewing footage from last year’s WFTDA Championships to find that fantastic clip of Rose City’s Scald Eagle doing her thing. The portion of the clip you need to pay attention to is the first part of the replay as she side steps to pass Gotham’s pivot. Note that it’s her torso that shifts as she takes one hard plant step.
7. They also don’t increase your speed, but I’ll save that break down for a later article.
9. I can’t draw. At all. Not even a stick figure. I learned this when trying to use inkscape to create a diagram for this today. I resorted to theft from http://accoladeathletics.blogspot.com/ . Hopefully they won’t sue me.
10. Because of the mechanical differences created by our equipment, off skates linear deceleration training is of limited use for derby players.
11. A jammer might be able to execute a quick hop sideways off of a toe stop if she already has momentum coming into the pack, but if she’s stopped or doing a slow roll, it’s next to impossible to generate enough power that way to propel you laterally past an opponent. If you don’t believe me, try this: without your skates on get into derby stance and jump straight up as explosively as you can. Now get back into derby position, get up on you tip toes and try the same jump. Unless you’re some sort of alien or a superhero, I’m guessing you only jumped about half as high the second time.
12. Video by: King’s Sport Training.
13. Video by: Joe DeFranco.
14. I’m not saying that they are completely useless, because I do believe for brand new skaters they might increase proprioception (the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement) and help with motor control as newbies are learning to connect their brain to their feet. My colleague and vaunted rugby strength and conditioning coach Keir Wenham-Flatt would probably disagree with me about that, because his distaste for ladder drills is even more deep seated than mine. One of his NSFW posts about the topic is here: http://rugbystrengthcoach.com/agility-ladders-are-bullshit/