Agility isn’t a single ‘thing’, agility is lots of things. This means lots of things need to be in place in training in order to optimally develop it.
Sprinting is the foundation and is especially key in invasion sports. Invasion sports involve getting from one end of a pitch/court to the other and speed helps us do that. Plus, we are built to most optimally move in the sagittal plane. So in short, if your players are slow, I would start there and not get too distracted just yet.
Once there is a good foundation of speed, the next priority is a little more complicated as there are two directions to go in. We now need to think about both the frontal plane and deceleration. If an athlete is at speed, their direction options are small (limited GCT available to change direction). Therefore, deceleration is needed in order to increase the adaptability of players. On the other hand, both sprinting and deceleration are sagittal plane dominant and agility needs competency in all planes of motion, so we also need to think about applying force in the frontal plane. Both of these steps can be implemented at the same time in my opinion. But I am going to focus here on my thoughts about integrating a deceleration stimulus into speed and acceleration sessions.
You already have sprinting session in place, so you have done half the work as you can’t decelerate if you aren’t at speed. The challenge is, if you add a deceleration stimulus to the same session, you don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul. There are challenges when you have two different and relatively opposing outcomes in a single session.
If you are asking players to sprint and there is a pre-planned deceleration at the end of each sprint. There is a good chance that your acceleration will be negatively impacted. Players may try and cruise their acceleration component to conserve energy. This is tough to get around but there are a few tweaks which can help if constructed effectively. But they won’t completely solve things.
1. A longer approach distance will mean the player won’t think about the deceleration component until later in the sprint, increasing your likelihood of still getting an acceleration stimulus.
2. Add in competition to increase intent.
3. Make the deceleration component reactive to increase intent in approach and deceleration demand.
For example, take a linear 20m sprint with a 180degree turn at the end. To maximise the acceleration, you might keep the sprint above 20m (athlete level dependant), have two or more player’s race or make the turn reactive.
The reactive option is the most complicated. You can create uncertainty in two different ways, either with a temporal stimulus, or a spatial stimulus. Meaning WHEN to stop, or WHAT direction to go in once you stop. But changing ‘when’ means you have varied sprint distances and lose a lot of control over the session load. You can also make the deceleration infrequent (e.g one in three attempts) which again helps the acceleration but impacts training load. Changing ‘what direction’ sometimes doesn’t help at all as athlete’s then can’t ease the deceleration demand by making early postural adjustments, so they keep cruising.
As you can see there isn’t a perfect answer.
What I would challenge you to think about however, is does this cruising really matter?
Think about it as an opportunity to see how different players utilise different strategies. If there is a reactive deceleration, some players will commit to their sprint more than others. Those who commit, are usually those who have the least to lose when the deceleration occurs. Meaning those who moderate their acceleration or entry speed are usually the worst decelerators. Their speed moderation is them trying to protect themselves (from injury risk and loss).
Players who cruise more than others (it is natural to so rarely will a player never do it) are either a bit lazy which is a training culture and long-term education thing. Or there is a good chance they are cruising because they don’t have the attributes needed to decelerate or to change direction from high speeds. This is the ‘affordances’ concept at work. They know their task is either to complete a linear sprint or to stop and turn 180 degrees. They also know that if they are sprinting past a certain velocity, their ability to stop in good time is compromised, meaning their competitor has the advantage. So they will try and find a velocity which makes them competitive in both the linear and the deceleration component of the task. Importantly, this is exactly what happens in competition. You have just identified a key issue for certain people. More speed isn’t what they need to improve their competitive performance. What they need is to be more effective and adaptable at a higher relative sprinting velocity.
So my question would be, why worry about the negative impact of the athlete moderating their acceleration? Even if you further improved acceleration in this session, it would have a pretty small performance impact during competition because competition is uncertain.
This is of course about finding rate limiters. What is the main thing limiting performance for each individual at this point in time? Or what is your priority at this moment based upon the long-term goals. But, if you neither test deceleration or change of direction, and/or don’t expose them to it in training. How will you identify which athletes are continually preforming sprint sessions which aren’t improving performance?
As always, it depends. A speed focus is the foundation, but we also can’t be blinded by more and more linear speed as competition isn’t linear. The athlete needs many more physical and perceptual-motor skills than that.
From a time component, the addition of a deceleration stimulus to a sprinting session is relatively small. It requires some creativity, but it is an amendment rather than a completely new set of drills or a new session in the week. Remember my general rule with deceleration training is give athletes a task which requires them to get up to a high speed, then given them another task which requires a lower speed. Whether these are linked by pre-planning or a reactive stimulus is up to you. But I would emphasise that they work better if the athletes are given a genuine task which requires them to reduce their speed. Not to simply ‘stop on the line’. Remember that the technical model for deceleration will be amended based upon what we are decelerating for, so try and pick something which is representative and also drives some intent and buy-in from players in the session.
Rich is the founder of Strength Coach Curriculums and an S&C coach who specialised in multi-directional speed. He runs the S&C provision for Bristol Flyers Basketball and consults with clubs across the globe while also leading the MSc programme at the University of South Wales
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