Analysis: why speed and agility development are crucial for successful team performances

Strength and conditioning training has become commonplace in field sport settings for players of all ages. Professional elite team sports now employ strength and conditioning coaches to develop the physical capacities needed for successful performance. These coaches spend time developing numerous physical capacities such as aerobic endurance, flexibility, mobility, hypertrophy, strength, muscular endurance, power, speed and agility.

While all of these qualities are of importance to different degrees for various field sports, it can be argued that speed and agility development are one of the key qualities for all field sports and for crucial successful team performance. For example, being fast, agile and dynamic in rugby will allow you to break through defensive lines, side-step your opponents and get over the try line before being tackled. Research has also indicated that speed and acceleration, in particular, are important qualities in field sports and play a decisive role in successful outcomes in various team sport competitions.

Before we can look at the various methods used to develop speed and agility, having some clarity around the meaning of these various terms is of value. You will hear the terms speed, agility, change of direction, acceleration and top-end speed or maximum velocity used and sometimes used interchangeably when referring to this quality, but they are essentially separate entities.

Complete this work when the players are at the start of a session after a thorough warm-up 

Speed refers to the ability to get from A to B as quickly as possible. Acceleration is your ability to accelerate and increase your speed over short distances, such as 5 and 10 metres, and is one of the most important qualities to develop for field sport players. Top-end speed or maximum velocity is the maximum velocity that you can reach and occurs generally after 20 to 30 metres of running for players and involves the player running with a tall upright position. Change of direction involves the player altering their direction of movement in a pre-planned manner, for example side stepping on a cone. Agility is your ability to change direction in response to a stimulus, such as a defender's movements.

As an Irish Olympic sprinter, I have been asked by many people over the years what is the secret to getting quick. The answer is there is no secret. You get quick by running quick and ensuring that you are regularly performing sprinting practices with quality. Research has indicated that undertaking distance-specific sprint training is the most beneficial way to improve sprint performance for field sports.

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From Fit-4-Rugby podcast, Paul March's quick speed session

Look at the distances that players normally cover in your sport and then design sprint practices where the player is running over these distances. For example, front-row forwards in rugby should perform sprints over distances of 5 to 10 metres (acceleration) while a winger should sprint over distances up to 40 metres or so (maximum velocity). Often, coaches will prescribe this type of training, but certain guidelines need to be adhered to in order to optimise the training effect and ensure it's effective.

Here are some guidelines to follow when implementing distance-specific sprint training:

(1) Do this work at the start

Complete this work when the players are at the start of a session after a thorough warm-up. Don’t expect players to sprint with quality at the end of the session when they are in a fatigued state.

(2) Maximum intensity 

Ensure players are running at maximum intensity. To get quick, you need to run at 100% intensity. Too often when players sprint, they run at sub maximum speeds and slow down before the finish line. If the players are not running at 100% pace, coaches should encourage the players to run at maximum intensity and/ or devise competitive drills where the players are competing against each other.

A note of caution: when you introduce competitive drills into speed development, watch the players’ technique as it can deteriorate. Counter this by emphasising the key coaching cues for speed technique before each repetition. 

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From Bekas Vagelis, a spring training session for soccer players

(3) Recovery time

Give the players sufficient recovery time between each sprint. As a rule of thumb, a player should be given one minute recovery for every 10 metres that he runs before the next sprint. Also allow 48 hours between each sprinting session.

(4) Keep it short

Don’t focus on too much sprinting in each session. Sessions can be short and the number of repetitions can be low. Aim for sessions of approximately 25 to 30 minutes where the players perform over 10 to 15 repetitions in total.

(5) Focus on technical proficiency

Players need to sprint with efficient form in order to get quick. As a coach, you need to focus on developing this skill and know the key biomechanical qualities necessary for effective sprint performance. For example, in order to develop a player’s acceleration technique, get the player to focus on staying low and keep a low body angle. Players should imagine that they are like a plane gradually taking off and focus on pushing the ground away on ground contact so that there is a straight line from their shoulder to their ankle.

From, who is the fastest All Black?

Coaches should also design speed and agility drills that mimic the change of direction and agility demands of the field sport. Coaches need to reflect on the sport that they work with and assess the movement demands of the sport and of the individual positions within the sport. From this, drills and practices should be designed that mimic and incorporate these movement patterns. Such patterns include getting up off the ground and accelerating, moving laterally, side-stepping, turning, and weaving to name a few.

For a winger in rugby, for example, the ability to side-step and accelerate is key and practices should be designed that develop the player’s side-stepping technique and ability to react to a defender’s movements and side-step around them. Similar to the guidelines for speed development, quality is the key and the coach should encourage the player to perform these movements with efficient form, maximum intensity and should give optimal recovery between each repetition.

So what's the secret? Sprint, sprint and sprint. To become more agile and faster, make sure that players are sprinting at maximum intensity over distances that are reflective of the demands of the sport. Examine the movement patterns used in the sport and incorporate these patterns into practices. If the key change of direction and agility movements are lateral shuffling make sure these are reflected in your session plans. Above all, make sure the sessions are challenging, well thought-out and designed and include fun and engaging activities. With quality training comes quality results and faster more agile and successful players.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ