Developing Agility in Lacrosse

 

Agility Drills For Lacrosse:

Beneficial? Or as Useful as Sunscreen in Upstate New York?

Billy Ward – Performance Unlimited Director of Lacrosse

Okay before all you Upstaters check out, let me be clear, I was born and raised in Upstate New York and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Although Syracuse will always be a special place to me, it was time to move on to the next stage in my life and that brought me to Charlotte.

While in Charlotte I have had the opportunity to begin working at Performance Unlimited, working as the Lacrosse Performance Director and training athletes of all ages. My recent training with lacrosse athletes, along with my playing history, has peaked my interest in the role of agility drills within a lacrosse strength and conditioning program.

The bullets below outline the three questions I want to touch upon in this article:

  1. What is agility? And why do lacrosse athletes need it?
  1. How do we effectively place agility drills in a strength and conditioning program?
  1. How can I create a progression of agility drills for my lacrosse athletes? 

What is Agility?

If you are like me, you thought you “knew” what agility was; but when someone asked me to explain it in more detail, it was like trying to talk with seven Saltine crackers in my mouth. My lack of clarity brought a desire to search through the current literature to examine how research describes it.

The academics define agility as:

1) “The ability to react to a stimulus, start quickly and efficiently, move in the correct direction, and be ready to change direction or stop quickly to make a play in a fast, smooth, efficient, and repeatable manner (1).”

and

2) “When Individuals select and refine movement based on task-relevant cues, including an opponent and/or external object (2).”

From these two definitions we gather that agility is the ability recognize a stimulus in our environment and react to it with proper movement patterns.

But what exactly defines a stimulus, in the lacrosse world? A stimulus could be the ball, an opposing player and their movements, or even the whistle. When an athlete can recognize stimuli like the ones mentioned, they can react quickly and efficiently, ultimately enhancing agility.

But let’s expand this a bit further. Agility is a physical skill that involves a whole-body movement from point A to B, often times through a variety of maneuvers, in response to an external stimulus. Maneuvers resulting in this whole body movement can be accomplished through cutting, shuffling, changing direction, accelerating, and decelerating.

How do we effectively place agility drills in a strength and conditioning program?

Alright Billy, thanks for the nerd talk, but does agility even need to be in a strength & conditioning program? Wouldn’t building strength and power be enough to make me a more agile athlete?

I will be the first to state the importance of progressive strength and power training in an athlete’s program. At the same time, like strength training, agility is a skill that must be developed in a progressive manner. It doesn’t matter if you are a beast in the weight room; if an athlete tries to change direction with a faulty movement pattern because his stance is too narrow or his center of gravity is off, that athlete will not be as efficient (therefore not as quick) as they could be.

As coaches, it is our job to develop and coach proper movement patterns. It’s rare for an athlete to come in on day one with perfect lifting technique. Because of this we start by grooving the fundamental movements for each lift and add intensity and/or volume only after our athletes show a standard of competency in the movement pattern. The same type of approach should be taken with agility.

 

So what can we do? 

I thought you would never ask.

All athletes’ start somewhere along the proverbial spectrum of movement quality and it’s our job, as coaches, to guide them through this process with appropriate progression.

The first step in any agility program is to understand the movement demands required of the athlete (3). Considering that lacrosse is a field-based sport with 360-degree patterns in each position, some examples of these target movements are backpedaling, shuffling, cutting, dodging, and accelerating.

From here we need to address the specific mechanics needed to perform each target movement. For example: If side shuffling is required of an athlete for their sport, what are the major mechanics that translate to an athlete side shuffling more efficiently? These answers need to be the focus of this stage of agility training.

Field-based sports, like lacrosse, are primarily composed of movement combinations but it’s our jobs as coaches to break these down into single, more simplified pieces to be practiced. After the target movements are identified and the mechanics of those movements are determined the next progression is to allow your athletes to master the mechanics through quality repetition. If you determine a movement pattern is important, demand quality and do it often.

At Performance Unlimited, we feel so strongly about the need for players to develop better deceleration and reacceleration mechanics for agility, we include the necessary components and progressions in every single session warm up. For instance our athletic principles in changing direction is 3-fold:

  1. Keep the feet roughly shoulder width apart with toes pointed forward. This creates an appropriate base of support that allows for balanced changes of direction when reacting to stimuli.
  2. Bend from the hips, knees, and ankles to enable the body to absorb the force in deceleration and prepare for an appropriate reacceleration.
  3. Lean into the direction you want to go (into the turn). This will put the majority of the weight on the inside leg and allow for efficient stopping, starting, and turning.

We then give the lacrosse athletes a basic drill that allows them to master just one movement pattern at a time. For example a basic drill we do for change of direction is called the “salsa” and it is learned first, on the ladders. Does the athlete have to worry about accelerating and then changing direction? Not at all. The focus with this drill is mastering the mechanics to be successful in one piece of the movement before we add progressive techniques that can translate to the game-like demand.

The next progression in the process is to begin combining the specific target movements challenging the athlete to perform two or more movements consecutively. Taking the lacrosse athlete who mastered the salsa, we could now move to a “shuffle to run” patterned drill that puts the isolated drill into a game-like movement. Just like the game, these drills require the athlete to sprint, decelerate, change direction, and then accelerate again. The focus here is still quality of movement but we are challenging the athlete to put together a series of fundamental movements.

As athletes begin showing proficiency among these drills, one of the last progressions we add would be the training stimuli (3). This step is also a great place to begin adding games and “player vs. player” competitions by adding an opponent or make the athletes react to either a verbal or directional cue. Since agility is as much a cognitive skill as a physical skill, the most agile players are the individuals who can read their environment and react to the stimuli in it with proper technique.

After our athletes have shown proficiency in this series of progressions it is time to get even more lacrosse-specific by creating modified lacrosse games in a smaller area, forcing them to change direction quickly and often while reacting to the opposing player.

Remember variability is huge in working with athletes. Always look to change up angles, cues, and stimuli in order to enhance the learning process.

The video below is a brief example of several drills we use at Performance Unlimited when training with a change of direction focus. The purpose of this video is to give an idea of how drills can be progressed as athletes begin showing proficiency. Notice the changes in the number of fundamental movement patterns as the drills progress. By adding a stick and eventually progressing to a run to run pattern, we can make the change of direction drill more specific to the demands of lacrosse.

 

Main Takeaways

  • Before adding in any agility drills, break down the sport and develop fundamental movement patterns along with their mechanics.
  • Build agility exercises around fundamental movement patterns, developing quality of movement.
  • As your athletes begin to show proficiency, begin progressing your exercises by combining the fundamental movements of the sport.
  • Don’t think the only way to improve agility is by using ladders or cones. As athletes begin to progress, introduce sport specific games and cues. 

 

References

Farrow, D. and W. Young. A review of agility: practical applications for strength and conditioning. Strength Cond. J. 28 (5): 24-29. 2006.

Holmberg, P. Agility training for experienced athletes: A dynamical systems approach. Strength Cond. J. 31 (5): 73-78. 2009.

Jeffreys, I. Motor learning – applications for agility, pt 1. Strength Cond. J. 28 (5): 72-76. 2006.

Posted in Billy Ward, Blog, Coaching, Education, lacrosse, Speed, Video | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to prevent injuries and increase performance in 6 weeks

 

“Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – Ben Franklin

“The function of protecting and developing health must rank even above that of restoring it when it is impaired” – Hippocrates

 

The ACL injury rate with female soccer players is at an epidemic rate. We all know that…but I am calling out all the parents and coaches that read this and do nothing about it. If you are not helping your player to resist these injuries, you are accepting that this is just a part of every athlete’s journey. I strongly disagree with that rationale, and for those who are already in a strength program, you may want to question everything that your son or daughters trainer is doing and seriously begin to inquire about the effectiveness of their program. I am in constant reminder that players are moving more and more into the notion that they need programs that will work on the physical aspects of the game, but not all programs are created equal.

  • Does your physical program know the demands of soccer?
  • Does your program understand the culture of soccer (seasons of competition)?
  • Does your program understand your individual needs?
  • Does your program include movement quality with strength gains?
  • Is it correctly progressive?
  • Is it grounded in research?
  • Does it force the player to work on cardio conditioning (trust me…most young players do not need it and older players get too much of it)?

My point is that it is up to you, as the consumer, to ask these questions and get to know what the program itself is really doing for your performance.

Here is a letter that I wrote, back in 2010, to a large club, after I witnessed 6 knee related injuries and/or surgeries on 1 team within 12 months. The club gently told me that they already had plans to install a proper warm up for all club teams. I agree that this would be a great step towards injury prevention and enhanced performance…but I am still waiting for that warm up to show up. I have inserted _’s to keep the identity of club and persons involved anonymous.

Thanks _,

I appreciate your concern for the subject and your efforts, so far.

_, thanks for taking the time to listen in on some thoughts/concerns that I have for the female soccer players in this area and throughout the country, as well. Obviously, the direct (or indirect) influence(s) that we may be able to have in regards to creating insight and attention into this epidemic of sorts could have profound effects on a players future objectives within soccer. In turn, this will have an effect in her choice of possible opportunities to study, as well as keeping them away from long term health issues and procedures that may be avoided.

I am close to this matter, only as a coach that has and currently is working with players that have returned to play from knee reconstructions, various soft tissue problems, chronic pains, compartment syndrome, and too many other sports related injuries that _ knows too much about already, as a prominent _ business. It is not just the frequency of injuries that have occurred, but the lack of action taken by clubs and coaches and lack of questions asked by parents and players, that have me a bit confused about the situation.

Why is everyone in the soccer community just considering this part of the game?

_, your daughter is 6 times more likely to tear an ACL than the boy that is playing at her age. As I am taking stock in the number of surgeries that have occurred within the top female teams from U15-U18 at _, it will show up to 1 in every 6 players. WITH THE U16’s HAVING 5 IN THE LAST YEAR AND A HALF! That is a staggering number, and I know that I would want to know how I could keep my daughter away from being one of the 2-3 players PER TEAM that will be having surgery. This is also knowing that 70% of ACL injuries occur in non-contact situations. So, we are not speaking about the “freak” incidences when players collide or a bad tackle happens. These are the avoidable one’s.

I have taken the liberty of going to all area clubs within the Charlotte vicinity and read their mission statements. Every single club, that I have seen, has the player’s “best interest” or “development” as the center piece, but I don’t hear about the ways that they are working to keep each player safe from injury. I apologize if any club (_) is taking measures that I do not know about, however if they are it must be minimal; because I have players at every level at every age group that say otherwise (other than the _ teams going through the _).

I know all that has been written here gives no solution, only a problem that may already be known. I would disagree, but for arguments sake, let’s say that it is being ignored or not being handled. I propose a first step to finding the solution is to give a questionnaire (separate from Performance Unlimited or any profit entity) to each player at the top team at each age group (14-18) that would begin some formal research on what patterns may be causing these injury prevalences.

For instance:

-I know that clubs are creating games for teams to play solely for the sake of the club’s profit, not allowing substantial recovery between competitions.

-There is no such thing as a true off season for soccer players, and the clubs are not helping by creating new leagues and games for profit.

-There are no (to my knowledge) formal physical programs for Pre-hab/injury prevention instilled as mandatory for all players (studies show an 88% reduction in knee related injuries from a neuromuscular program called PEP). Coaches will not institute this, as I know from experience as the Performance Director at Charlotte Soccer Club, because they feel that they do not have enough time already.

-There is no (to my knowledge) formal coaching education on how to instill proper physical conditioning or training to prevent injuries, as mandatory for each director (at least) to go through.

There are patterns to these injuries, and I believe that we may be scared to find out what they are. However, we have to get to the bottom of a solution and keep these girls away from ruining their athletic careers. The research for this injury is monotonous, at the very least, anyone can see what a problem it has been in the past 30 years since Title IX. However, nothing hits home like numbers from your backyard! I am only concerned for Charlotte, and that is why I only care to do a small population review of the female soccer within this city. My issues may come with my ties in a Performance company and my “viewed” ulterior motives being profit driven and looking for a conspiracy theory against some club. I can tell you that neither is in my sights for the end result. I want to see these players succeed, and they can only succeed when they are playing.

Hopefully, you guys can help me

I look forward to your thoughts

Update to 2014…

Nothing has changed, except that clubs are hiring “speed and agility” coaches and letting sports performance companies that know jack about soccer, come in and work with the kids for 1 hour every month. 90% of players never show up and 100% of coaches don’t care. When will we wake up? Probably only when its your child that is on the surgery calendar.

Posted in Culture, injury prevention, News, Recovery, Strength, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment