Speed and agility are essential for success in almost every sport, yet few parents, coaches, or athletes understand how to safely and efficiently develop those components. While genetics determine an athlete’s potential for speed and quickness, the nurturing of those innate abilities determines how closely the athlete reaches peak potential.
Speed is the rate that a body can move. Track sprinters, for example, train for maximum linear speed as their main objective. For the majority of athletes, however, agility—the ability to accelerate, decelerate, then reaccelerate in a new direction—is more important than maximum speed.
During most sports, athletes move only a few feet or a few yards in one direction—rarely reaching maximum speed—before moving in a new direction. Agility is required to move with a soccer ball, to get by an opponent while dribbling a basketball, to move and return a tennis ball, to cut through opponents while carrying a football, and to execute many other movements required to be successful in sports.
Both speed and agility are significant components linked to a functional training program. Optimizing speed and quickness requires improving strength, power, mobility, balance, coordination, and technique—all of which develop slowly over time. No seemingly magic six-week program, specialized equipment, or targeted exercise will develop long-term quickness and speed.
Speed & Agility are First Nurtured Through Multiple
Sports Participation and Free Play
Today’s youth sports culture is misguided in the way of developing young athletes. Many think that if kids specialize early and practice their sport-specific skills, they’ll rise to the top. Study after study indicates, that’s not how successful athletes are developed.
Some of these specialized athletes dominate early with their skills. Then between the ages of 12 and 15 they are passed over by kids who have taken time to develop general athleticism through participation in multiple sports and have developed explosive speed and strength as a result of a functional training program. Good skills can’t make up for a lack of strength, speed, and quickness. Stronger, more athletic kids will eventually dominate; they’ll also be more resilient to injuries and experience more longevity in sports.
Another concerning trend in youth sports is the lack of free play and it’s replacement with structured adult-centered training.
Recall times watching kids gathered to play soccer or baseball in a park or neighborhood lot—or friends shooting hoops in a park or driveway. Think back to playing hop-scotch, tag, red-light-green-light, kick-the-can, and other childhood games. All those activities are central to the physical, mental, social, and emotional development of children. Not only is free play imperative to athletic development, studies show that athletes who spend more time in unorganized free play—such as pickup games—decrease the probability for injuries while playing organized sports.
As a parent or coach looking to help athletes become quicker and faster, how do you sort through various programs and choose one that is both safe and effective? Recognize that a non-functional program, even a functional program implemented improperly, can put athletes at more risk for injuries than no program at all.
The following building blocks are good indicators of strong speed and agility programs.
Progression for Teaching Proper Starting Position, Landing Form, and Movement
Before executing advanced agility, speed, or plyometric drills, athletes should be taught how to jump, land, cut, and run. Presumably, athletes already know how to do those things. Finding a qualified instructor, however, who can teach the intricacies of mechanics will improve an athlete’s performance in those specific areas while decreasing risks for injury. Note that children under the age of 8 do not need to be taught skills in a formal manner, they should learn through discovery. Children between the ages of 8 and 11 can benefit from some formal instruction, however unstructured games and play are still crucial to development.
Functional Strength Training Component
Athletes who develop functional strength and control improve performance and decrease risk for injury. When athletes lack the explosive strength to exert force into the ground and the eccentric strength necessary to tolerate high loads involved with stopping momentum, good technique falls apart, performance falters, and athletes become susceptible to injury.
Strong Focus on Acceleration, Deceleration, and Lateral Movement Versus Top Linear Speed
Unless an athlete’s sole athletic endeavor is to become an elite sprinter, linear speed is not as important as the ability to start and stop quickly and move in multiple directions. Acceleration and movement in multiple planes should be emphasized over top speed.
As emphasized, there are no short-cuts for developing speed and agility. Those skills require improvement in strength, power, mobility, balance, coordination, and technique—all of which (with proper training and environment) will mature over time.
Emphasize Lower Impact Work Until Baseline
Strength and Proper Technique are Acquired
Short-duration programs that promise quick results typically include high-impact jumping and agility exercises. Unless athletes simultaneously develop functional strength, their bodies won’t be ready for the load requirements of high-intensity workouts. Even after having developed strength, power, mobility, and balance through a functional training program, 30 minutes or more of repetitive jumping, running, and cutting is too much impact even for well-trained athletes—and will eventually result in overuse injuries, such as stress fractures and tendonitis. In some circumstances, this combination of high-impact, high-volume training can cause ligament tears and other severe injuries.
Today’s impatient youth sports culture seeks instant gratification. Trainers, coaches, parents, and athletes tend to want want bigger, faster, stronger, better, NOW. Unfortunately, this attitude leads to injuries and stunts the long-term growth for young athletes. Speed, agility and overall athleticism develop over time—nurtured by plenty of free play and multiple sports participation in the early years—and through participating in a science-driven long-term functional sports enhancement program.