Within any team invasion type sport, the physical development of speed and agility are arguably one of the most important physical characteristics for success in the sport. Even though they are underpinned by many physical qualities (strength, power, stiffness so on and so forth), this piece will discuss the development of technique and specific speed/agility work on the pitch/court, and how we as practitioners try to transfer development of speed/agility to competition.

My question to practitioners is that, if we are just applying closed skill exercises, is there any transfer at all in competition?

The most common speed/agility drills I see other practitioners prescribing, are very much closed skill type practices, which have very little cognitive process, and have a definitive start and finish, whether that be a cone or a coach etc. These types of drills can be done developing linear acceleration/top speed qualities, or change of direction, note that the term agility isn’t used, as that requires some cognitive input and decision making processes by definition.

The reason for this piece on the forum is to then question the use of closed skill practices, and their transferability to competition. My question to practitioners is that, if we are just applying closed skill exercises, is there any transfer at all in competition?, where athletes have to react to many different stimuli and perform a highly complex task with multiple decisions being made in short time frames.

Therefore, I propose fewer drills that only focus on closed skill technical models, and apply drills that enable athletes to problem solve and make decisions quickly to provide a solution, even if the athlete’s technique is not in line with the ideal technical model. If the athlete can perform a skill effectively, and it doesn’t look like the optimal technical model, then should we spend ages trying to re-model it, which is a) time consuming and b) could negatively impact the performance outcome short term? Unless, there is a greater risk of injury, whatever technique suits the athlete in terms of maximising their performance, should be encouraged and enhanced and put under pressure within a highly cognitive training environment.

With this in mind, here I propose some practical models around this concept of on-field/court locomotive development. The first one is a model I use regularly with athletes I work with, and it splits the training year/season into phases of 6 weeks. Within the 6 week phase there is a focus; e.g. change of direction / agility.

The first two weeks for example would focus on closed skill change of direction and progressing the degree of the cut from 45 to 180 degrees etc… The first two weeks would then provide the players a platform to be taught the technical model of changing direction with little distraction or decision making, and providing the kinaesthetic awareness of the movement. This would be called scaffolding the technical model. The middle two weeks would then advance to more open skills where there is some reactive element, ensuring the athlete can still execute the skill under a fairly low cognitive load and decision making strategy. The final two weeks would then prescribe this skill in a chaotic environment where there is a multitude of variables and stimuli to contend with, whist trying to provide the best solution to the problem and ultimately, have the highest performance outcome.

The next part of discussion with the above topic in mind, speaks about how it can be related to LTAD and working wit academy kids from when they first enter the system, to when they progress through the age groups. It is proposed in my opinion, that from the foundation ages (8-11), that all of the locomotive drills are done in a game/chaotic environment, so you create athletes from early on to deal with highly cognitive load and decision making processes, providing them the opportunity to problem solve and find the best solution to enhance the performance outcome.

Of course, a practitioner can step in and coach certain aspects of the game (accelerate/decelerate/change direction), but for these ages and stages of physical development, I personally do not see the benefit or transfer from doing closed skill activities. Games should also be completely randomized and varied constantly, to optimise learning.

The next phase would then be the development phase and go from 12-16., This range varies immensely but should start to introduce a balance of both closed skill and chaotic reactive drills etc…. Close attention should be paid around PHV (approx.. 14) where more closed skill drills should be done to re-align and teach basic motor patterns etc… This phase however, in my opinion should still provide a very unstructured and varied approach when prescribing all type of drills on field/court.

The last phase, known as the professional phase from 17+ should then start to adopt the 6 weekly phase periodisation proposed in the last passage. Where it is periodised in more detail and two week blocks of closed skill, open/reactive, and chaotic are implemented. It would also be of interest that I always like to periodise in a particular order. My starting point is to always focus on acceleration/deceleration and progress this physical skill within the 6 week phase, before moving on the changing direction / agility. This makes logical sense, and ensures athletes can start and stop effectively, before changing direction which required the previous qualities as well.

It will be very interesting to hear from applied practitioners and their thought processes on the above when trying to enhance a certain quality on field/court within your athletes, and if you have a different thought process on it.

Ross Bennett

Head of Sport Science QPR FC Academy and Head of Performance London GAA Snr Football

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