Training for field sports in Ireland has come on leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades. I’m sure you’ve noticed it is now common practice for players to complete some sort of mobility training, such as foam rolling or stretching, before and after training. Many clubs have their own gyms allowing players to strength train and take advantage of the reduced injury risk and performance enhancements it allows. High intensity intervals rather than laps of the grounds are how most athletes get their conditioning. Instagram is busy with posts of trips to the sea or local lakes and rivers with players keen to show that they are on top of their recovery from matches. Yet there is another aspect of training that gets very little attention.
Agility is the ability to evade and pursue your opposition during competition. The most exciting and game breaking passages of play happen because a player executes a highly skilful, agility-based movement. A line break into space that cuts the game wide open; a sidestep making a defender look foolish; stopping on a sixpence while the defender runs beyond; these movements are often the highlights of the whole game and often result in a match changing score.
On a less positive point, the majority of ACL injuries, resulting in 9 plus months of recovery and rehabilitation, happen during non-contact agility-based movements. ACL injury rates are 2-8 times higher in our female athletes. More positively though, there are agility technique factors that that can reduce the risk of these injuries from happening, yet these are rarely coached. Agility, like any other skill, can be practiced and honed. However, when was the last time you saw a section of a training session, even a small section, given over to agility training?
I know what you’re thinking, ‘Great, another bit of training that we have to squeeze into the session!!’ It doesn’t need to add much to the session plan though. By just tweaking the structure of certain parts of the training session, you can have a marked improvement the agility skills of your players. Here are 3 tips to adjust training to improve agility.
Many of the drills players perform already, with some minor adjustments, can improve agility. For example, basic passing shuttles where players form lines opposite each other and pass then follow the ball over to the other side. Instead of the groups all being parallel to each other, have them criss-cross each other. Then each time the player crosses to the opposite side, they have to avoid other players on the way across.
Anything goes games:
We love to watch the maverick flare player who pulls off something in a game that we think is impossible. They are able to do it because they practice it. By using conditioned games, we can allow players to practice their agility. For example, a training game where a score only counts if a defender has been beaten one on one will encourage players to take their man on and figure out, over time, how to get better at it.
Make the most of the warm-up:
The warm-up is probably the most important part of the session for injury prevention and developing physical skills like agility. The reason is that, if you are able to structure it consistently, your players will get exposure 2-3 times per week to those skills. This adds up week on week until over the year, each player has had hours and hours of agility practice. Simple exercises such as running around a figure-8 or zig-zag cone layout will develop curved running and sidestepping. Partner shadowing drills will develop attacking speed and deception skills in the leader and defensive footwork in the partner who is shadowing. This can be done facing each other side to side or matching the partner’s movements and speeds in a straight run.
There are 3 tips to try in your training to help improve agility in your players. Give them a go in your sessions for a few weeks and see how you get on. For pointers on technique and more drills, subscribe to my youtube channel and follow me @agilitycoach on Instagram.
Dr Neil Welch is head of lab services at the sports surgery clinic. He completed his PhD in 2019 looking at the role of strength, power and change of direction in rehabilitation and performance. He was strength and conditioning coach with the Kildare senior football team under Cian O’Neill for 4 years and is currently working with Moorefield in Kildare. He has recently started to share his thoughts and interest in agility training through his @agilitycoach project.