Agility: Enhance Performance & Prevent Injury

The fastest man can run 100 meters in 9.58 seconds, which is roughly 23 mph. The cheetah has been clocked up to 70 mph. Both are impressive running speeds.  Unlike man, the cheetah was built to have speed and agility so as to catch its prey.  It can change directions rapidly, maintaining stability at sharp corners and change-ups in speed. Perhaps man wasn’t born with the cheetah’s innate talent, but with the proper training we can adapt and improve our ability to change direction and maintain stability.  Agility is the cornerstone of ability when it comes to field, court and snow sports and is often more important than being the fastest player on the team.

What is Agility?

Agility is defined as being quick and nimble, having the ability to explosively change speed and direction, while maintaining balance and control. Quickly changing speed and direction requires the muscles to concentrically (shorten) contract, immediately after eccentrically (lengthen) contracting; also known as the stretch reflex mechanism. This mechanism increases explosive power while protecting the integrity of the muscle and tendons.

Neuromuscular training is essential to increasing athletic performance and helping avoid injury.  It improves reflexive generation of a fast and optimal muscle firing pattern, increases dynamic joint stability, and teaches movement patterns and skills necessary for sports activities.  By training the muscles to perform in this manner, an automatic or unconscious ability to reproduce desired movement patterns is possible and the athlete can then focus on the demands of the game.

In the words of UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” 

Keys to an Agility Program

***Before any aspect of agility training is started, an athlete should have normal strength, flexibility and be free of any symptomatic injury. Athletes should be cleared by their coach, trainer or physical therapist and any specific neuromuscular deficits can be addressed in training choices.***

Agility requires coordinating many intentional movement patterns as well as trained reflexes.  Therefore, agility training should include: plyometrics, balance & perturbation exercises, acceleration & deceleration drills, cutting drills, and sport-specific demands.

Before performing agility training, a dynamic warm up should be performed first. A dynamic warm up takes muscles through their full active range in a slow and controlled manner, loosening and exciting the muscular system and thereby decreasing the risk of injury.

The Plyometric Aspect of the Agility Program

Purpose: Plyometric training enables muscles to develop maximum strength and power in a short period of time.  This allows athletes to generate explosive movement and to decelerate or stop this force when needed. Repeated practice using correct form trains the nerves and muscles they innervate to become more accurate, automatic and explosive.

Example Exercises:  Jump rope, box jumps, and quick change of directions, start/stop exercises such as ladder and cone drills

Progression:  Typically designed for 2-3 sessions per week. Use progressive intensity based on mastering and tolerance of demands.  Beginner programs often start with light demands and repetitions of 15.

The Balance & Perturbation Aspect of the Agility Program

Purpose:  Balance is the ability to hold a position without falling and depends on information from vestibular, visual and proprioceptive systems.  Balance focuses on keeping the body in an athletic position in order to perform athletic demands quickly and accurately while preventing injuries.  Perturbation is an unconscious reaction to a sudden, unexpected external force or movement. Perturbation programs train balance, reaction choices, and reaction times and are essential to athletes.

Example Exercises: Stand on one leg with eyes closed, then turn head back and forth while maintaining balance.

Stand on an unstable surface (such as a foam disk, a BOSU ball, or an air pillow) while swinging one leg as if kicking a ball.

Jump onto and off an unstable surface while maintaining balance.

Stand on an unstable surface and have someone apply pressure against your center while maintaining balance.

Progression: Balance and perturbation work can be done daily.

All athletes, especially court and field sport athletes, should be able to quickly change directions or speeds without losing their balance. These skills are essential to enhancing athletic performance and preventing many common athletic injuries.  So you may not have been born like a cheetah, but with a proper agility training program, you may be able to perform like one.

By Erica Moody, MPT, ART®

Disclaimer: This is intended for informational and educational purposes only and in no way should be taken to be the practice of physical therapy or professional healthcare advice or services. The information should not be considered complete or exhaustive and should not be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes without first consulting with your physical therapist, physician or other healthcare provider. The owners of this accept no responsibility for the misuse of information contained herein.

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