Speed and agility training improves performance and minimizes injury for young athletes across multiple sports. The training can be part of a regular practice session or athletes can attend specialized programs and camps that teach them how to position and move to increase performance.
John Zanas, PT, CSCS, PES is a physical therapist in Washington with over 25 years of experience running speed and agility programs for young athletes. "Our goals are designed to relate to functional athletic movement—flexibility, balance, core strength, running mechanics, developing power and working on sprinting and lateral change of direction activities. Really just breaking it down to fundamental skills and teaching the kids how to move that way," Zanas says.
That training teaches athletes to move efficiently, as well as helping players integrate these new tools into their own sport. "Youth sports programs focus so much on competition and skill within that sport that there isn't as much time spent on just foundational athletic movement," Zanas says. Improved foundational skills then improve performance. "As they develop, they should become more proficient at their specific sports skills."
When developing and running programs, Zanas tries to emphasize the many benefits. "I really try to hit on the injury reduction percentages but also the performance. If we work on all these foundational skills, the performance comes, right? You have to have the foundation before they are going to be able to compete at a higher level."
As an added bonus, he sees kids develop confidence as their skills improve. "We see kids who are now feeling faster and able to change directions quicker, so they are able to play at a higher pace."
These are important skills, no matter the sport. Even endurance athletes like cross country runners benefit from speed and agility work. "What's really interesting is if you look at endurance athletes over the course of their season, if they aren't doing strength training at least a couple times a week, their vertical jump continues to decrease as the season goes on because they lose power," Zanas says. "There's a direct correlation between power and endurance, so we try to really hammer that in with the cross-country and track coaches."
So why does this matter? "Our best athletes are our multisport athletes. And they also have significantly less injuries because they aren't doing the same movements over and over again. For a lot of these kids we're getting in these camps, it's making them move in ways that they don't typically practice in their sport," Zanas says.
What will your athlete learn? Programs will vary a bit, but in general they should include the following components.
*This information is adapted from Speed, Agility and Quickness Training, a continuing education course taught by Brain Lawler, MS, PT, OCS, ATC, CSCS, PES of Asheville Physical Therapy and presented by North American Seminars, Inc.
Performing a dynamic warm-up is an integral part of any sports practice—or it should be. A dynamic warmup improves joint mobility and flexibility, shortens reaction time, helps cement proper movement patterns and increases core temperature. Conversely, static stretching prior to competition has been shown to decrease reaction time and slow sprint times over 40 meters.
Starting Position: The Athletic Stance
The athletic stance is like the foundation of a house. Athletes learn to begin in a position that increases tension in the joints and muscles, which allows a player to explode, creating power and quickness. Proper athletic stance has the feet wider than the shoulders, the weight through the balls of the feet, hips pushed back, a neutral spine, the elbows bent and the hands relaxed.
Linear Speed Development: How to Sprint Faster
Athletes learn specific techniques to improve start times and increase power in the first steps, as well as focus on proper acceleration posture and running mechanics. Programs may include drills to improve positioning and start time, and continue with top speed drills.
Multi-Directional Speed Development: How to Change Direction
In many sports, the ability to change directions can be the difference between success and struggle. Lateral agility allows players to cut, turn and land. To do this, players need to develop single leg strength, balance, core stability, eccentric strength and the ability to land safely. Speed and agility programs focus on all these components, allowing an athlete to translate these skills to any sport.
Using Strength, Power and Speed for Sports
Once athletes have learned about the building blocks of athletic performance, it's important to use those skills together to build speed in multiple directions and use power for explosive movement.
By improving balance, athletes improve performance. It goes beyond keeping your feet; balance, especially single leg balance, is a key component of most foundational movements and skills across multiple sports.
Athletes use core strength and stability to react throughout a game or race. Whether that strength is necessary to maintain position on the ball, keep from overuse injuries while running longer distances or to stabilize in the water, it's imperative.
Plyometric training can improve both maximum power and power endurance. It also allows athletes to train multiple muscle groups while teaching safe landing techniques and loading muscles eccentrically. All these help athletes improve while decreasing injury rates.
For physical therapists and athletic trainers, injury prevention is woven through all aspects of a speed and agility program. The increased strength, improved balance, improved kinesthetic awareness and training for proper movement patterns keep athletes healthier while they are participating in sports. "The contact injuries, those are going to happen. Non-contact injuries are the ones we can have an effect on—the injuries related to the typical muscle strains and sprains and things like that—and so we're really trying to keep the kids safer as best we can," Zanas says.
READ THIS NEXT: 6 Reasons Why Single-Sport Specialization Is Out