Agility is the ability to decelerate, accelerate, and change direction while maintaining good body control and without losing time in the transition. It has been said that outside of sport-specific skills, agility is the primary determining factor for success in sport. In the game of tennis, no player is going to run longer than 40 feet without having to either stop, change direction, or change speed. The player that can do this in the most efficient manner will be the player that has the overall athletic advantage in the match. It is important to train agility in the same manner that any other skill would be trained. Using the proper progression is a necessity.
1. The first steps would be training the specific movement patterns and improving the quality of the movement. In order to be able to stop or cut properly, core control and hip mobility are a must.
When the legs stop, the core must be able to turn on and be strong enough to stop the rest of the body. You do not want the chest to drop, the shoulders to round, or the upper body to continue moving in any direction. Core strength can be accomplished by using neuromuscular activation, planks (front and side), bridging, and various abdominal exercises.
Also, when stopping or cutting, it is important that the hips have the ability to drop down and load up. This will protect the other joints in the legs, as well as make the athlete more efficient in their change of direction. If the athlete does not have the ability to drop their hips and stick them out, they will be putting a lot of force on their more vulnerable joints, such as their knees and ankles. Dropping their hips in the proper manner will also allow the athlete to push back in another direction using their glutes as the primary mover, and making their push a more powerful one. Hip mobility can be worked on by using overhead squats, deadlifts, and lateral lunges.
2. Once a baseline of core strength and hip mobility are gained, the athlete can start practicing their stops. Stopping is a precursor to cutting, and it teaches the athlete the proper way to lower their hips and control their core. The three main stopping techniques that should be practiced are jump stops (stopping in athletic position), forward lunge stop, and lateral lunge stop. The jump stop allows them to efficiently get into athletic position, setting their feet and body up to react in any direction. This is best used when it is unknown what direction the athlete is going to cut. The forward lunge stop comes in handy when a cut in the forward direction, of any angle, is going to be needed. This requires the athlete to run forward and stop in a lunge stance, with their hips lowered to about 45 degrees. The lateral lunge stop is best when the athlete has to go back in the direction in which they came. This stop requires them to stop in almost a lateral lunge position, with the front leg loaded up, ready to push back in the direction they came. Learning to stop will prepare the body for the force that is required to cut and change direction. Start off going 50% of max intensity, and progressively increase to 100%. Make sure the athlete’s body is in control and their hips are lowered and ready to push in another direction.
3. After learning to stop, the athlete is ready to start cutting and changing direction. This is progressed in intensity just like the stops. Start off going 50% and gradually increase to 100%. Make sure the athlete’s body is under control and they are pushing themselves in the direction they need to go, not pulling themselves with their front leg. Start off rehearsed, meaning the athlete knows where and in what direction they will be making the cut. Then the athlete can be progressed to reactive cuts, where they do not know when or in what direction they will be cutting. This can be done by pointing, throwing a ball, or simply yelling to them where to go. It is important that there is a proper rest while practicing agility skills. While still learning the skill, it is important that the muscles are allowed to recover prior to performing the drills. Quality is more important than quantity.
4. The last step would be to incorporate metabolic conditioning. In a real game, the athlete has to be able to make these cuts while their muscles are fatigued. Once their form looks good from a low intensity to high intensity, rehearsed and reactive, then they can start working on cutting and changing direction while fatigued.