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.