4 Change of Direction Drills Valuable to the Lacrosse Athlete

As the spring lacrosse season is upon us, we are prepping hundreds of lacrosse athletes for their up-coming season. While our goal is to not mirror the exact game of lacrosse, we utilize these drills in order to break down specific technique involved in the game in a controlled setting.

You will notice when we talk about agility through this article, there is no mention of agility ladders or complicated/rehearsed drills that are commonly seen on social media. These drills emphasize power production and reduction in ground contact time in order to move the body faster from point A to point B. Along with building reaction time, that is the true transfer of agility onto the field.

Lateral Shuffle to a Crossover Reach.

In a lateral shuffle drill that can seem as basic as it can be, I noticed Coach Matt June making a very slight, yet critical adjustment in the hand placement of the athletes. Notice when performing this drill when reaching to touch the cone with the same side hand you can notice how easy it is for the athlete to get lazy with their position and simply bend over to touch the cone.

Notice now when performing this drill with a cross-body reach with the opposite side hand. The change that this makes in the athletes position is massively different, and the latter mirrors the position we would deem optimal for sport. By crossing the body it forces the athlete to hinge at the hips and rotate through the mid-back, all while maintaining their universal athletic stance (Universal Athletic Stance = stable and upright chest + knees slightly tracking out + weight on the center foot if not slightly on the toes). 

Shuffle to Vertical to Shuffle

This drill is highly effective for any sport where one must utilize fast lateral movement in both a defensive and offensive positions. For example, if we watch this drill in real time, we can see how the vertical jump allows the athlete time to gain proprioception of when their foot is going to hit the ground. This offers a platform for the athlete to begin to decrease their ground contact time after landing. 

Say when we ask an athlete to split dodge (Split Dodge = A basic movement of offensive attack in lacrosse), the athlete must have incredible awareness of when their foot is going to make contact with the ground so that they can accelerate themself in the opposite direction. Simply put this drill teaches an athlete how to be faster out of their dodge.

Figure-8 Variations

We have found figure 8 drills to be incredibly effective in simulating play around the crease for both offensive and defensive players.

Acceleration to 180 Turn Deceleration (Advanced)

I began utilizing this drill with many lacrosse athletes as I realized this foot work can expose an athlete at incredibly high sprint velocity. A drill like this must be progressed, however by training this movement pattern in a controlled environment we can prepare the athlete to absorb these forces in a way that will greatly reduce the risk of injury on the playing field. During transition play in lacrosse (When there is a change in possession and the ball is moving to the opposite end of the field) athletes will often hit their max velocity sprint speed, which is very rare in sports other than track. In this play athletes have upwards of 60 yards of open field to reach max velocity sprint speed. During this phase the athlete is generating their peak forces during sprinting. These athletes must then stop on a dime and turn a complete 180 degrees to drop into a defensive position. By forcing an athlete to complete this footwork in a shorter distance, we reduce the speed and therefore the forces that they can generate while approaching the turn. As we progress this drill the athlete will take longer distances between turns, allowing them to generate more speed.

Teaching Agility and Game Speed

Game speed is an abstract concept. Sometimes athletes who are slow on the track appear as though they have a totally different gear on the field. For a long time, coaches struggled with this concept. They would often say, “That kid just has that type of speed you can’t teach,” or “That’s natural born speed.” But what is it about these athletes that makes them appear so fast on the field, when on a timer they are not nearly as impressive? This type of speed is called agility, and it is something that has been attempted to be taught through the use of speed ladders and complicated rhythmic drills. In Athletes Warehouse, we have the answer to unlocking agility, and it is no longer something that can’t be taught.

Agility is the ability to accelerate, decelerate, and change direction in any combination. However, we have found the number one determinant of agility to be reactive ability. This can explain how someone is able to continually gain a step on a defender who has faster acceleration times on the track. Once we determined that reaction determines agility, agility in game speed no longer becomes a skill that can’t be taught. In fact it can be taught very easily to athletes who are exposed to a specific training progression at a young age.

Agility drills that require the athlete to memorize and in-grain patterns into their memory fail to transfer to the requirements of sport. For example, if I’m a lacrosse defender and an offensive player is attempting to go 1-on-1 with me to the goal, there is no time for my mind to operate in a rhythmic order like a speed ladder drill. My subconscious mind is going act on the first hint of body language the offensive player gives away. Sports are chaotic, and therefore there are moments when we must train in chaos.

When we look at sports in terms of reaction to chaos, we realize how simple it can be to mirror this in training. No athlete should be in an agility drill by themselves because no athlete is on the field by themselves. Every action performed on a field is in response to another person. Utilizing a partner in our agility drills allows our athletes to accumulate repetitions reading another person’s body language. Even the best athletes will naturally express body language that will expose the direction they intend to move. When we progress athletes through a series of reactive agility drills they begin to become more efficient at reading their opponents.

TRAINING THE CHEERLEADER

When observing the detailed movement requirements of a cheerleader we can see the broad range of movement capacity required out of the athlete. In our context, movement capacity can be described as the ability to perform a wide range of patterns (jumping, twisting, flipping, landing, balance on a single leg, handstand, etc.) with efficiency and stability. With this, a successful cheerleader must possess the prerequisite strength to produce a massive amount of force as well as have the stability to absorb such a force to avoid injury.

In all sports, athletes from youth division up through elite levels deal with overload injury. “Overload injury” is commonly synonymous with “overuse injury”. These injuries are those such as stress fractures, tendonitis/tendinopathy, muscle pull/tear. “Overuse” implies that the athlete is at imminent risk of these conditions upon too much volume of their sport, which is most certainly not the case. “Overload” describes these conditions as a result of the athlete not possessing the physical requirements to handle what their sport is throwing at them. While athletes may get hurt while exposed to repetitive movement patterns, this only becomes an issue when their bodies can no longer handle the load placed upon it.

In terms of cheerleading, athletes have such a variety of physical demands. From holding as a base support, sprinting and tumbling, to jumping and landing, and everything in-between. The injuries stated before happen as a result of an unprepared athlete. As strength and conditioning professionals, our skill set is not in coaching the fine movement patterns required of cheer, but to build the capacity of the athlete’s muscular and connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, and bones) to handle the forces that they will receive throughout a cheer season.

Movement’s that we implement with a cheerleader may be scaled dependent on age. However, the planes of motion, as well as muscle groups that we train, will be relatively similar across the board. Here is a simple list of sample exercises that we would implement upon training cheerleaders:

Landing: One of the first things we do with any athlete is teaching them how to properly land and absorb the force of their own body dropping from an elevated surface. The drill begins with two-foot landings and progresses to one foot as well as implementing rotation and lateral movement too. This will inevitably be a prerequisite for any complex plyometric drills that we implement in the future.

Squat: Shown here, one can see the similar mechanics squat to the landing. We train our athlete’s to create a stable and strong squat stance that will allow them to build strength that will carry over to the landing itself.

Quadruped/Crawling: By getting the athlete to crawl with opposite arm to leg, it forces them to create a cross body and torso stabilization. This is an incredibly important strength requirement whenever an athlete is rotating, twisting, or changing direction. Proper crawling is also key in building transferable upper body strength in athletes as they are forced to coordinate their upper body with their lower body. Spending time supporting their body weight on their hands will also build stability in the elbow and wrists.

Box Jumps: Shown here is a box jump, which is a useful tool in any training program. It allows the athlete to produce a tremendous amount of force and athleticism in landing on an elevated surface. Box Jumps are a very good tool for increasing vertical power, which when done properly can increase an athlete’s vertical jump. Again, whenever we complete this movement we are always reverting back to our landing/squat position to ingrain those proper force absorbing movement patterns.

Sled Pushing and Pulling. This is by far one of the greatest ways for an athlete to express and build their absolute strength. This will be the primary platform that we utilize in providing a younger athlete with an external load other than their bodyweight. The reason being is that the weight never leaves the floor. Upon fatigue or technique breakdown, the athlete is never in a position of vulnerability or injury as they only bare the weight when they are pushing or pulling it. These are great movements in building strong and stable ankles, knees, hips, torso, and shoulders.

Pushups and Pullups. Finally, these two movements have stood the test of time in strength training for a reason. Similar to the crawling pattern stated above, the pushup teaches the athlete to support their body weight on their hands and press with a stable torso. Moreover, the pull up is another foundational movement as we are going to build shoulder stability by teaching athletes to support their body weight from a hanging position. These are the starting points to building strength through the upper body for an athlete who is going to be supporting their own bodyweight, or in this case someone else’s body weight, with their arms.

Strength and conditioning for cheerleaders is an integral part of both their performance as well as their health and longevity in the sport. Regardless of the sport, our goal is to create resilient athletes who are able to handle the demands of what their sport throws at them. An important takeaway message is to realize that many of the muscular and connective tissue injuries that youth athletes constantly suffer from are those of overload. Their bodies simply were not capable of handling the force or volume placed upon it. These issues are preventable with a well planned progressive training program.

AGILITY IS PURELY COGNITIVE 

When it comes down to performance training, the main objective of training for sport is to improve on field success. Improvements in the weight room and practice field are always a goal of an athlete or coach, but just because I PR’d in the weight room, or ran my fastest 5-10-5, does it actually translate to the field?

What exactly is agility?

It’s hard to define exactly what agility is. But in the most simplest terms, agility is the ability to change direction in a single event or multiple times. There are a ton of ways to evaluate or test agility such as 5-10-5 (pro agility), T-test, L-test…etc. Most of these tests have pre planned directions involved with the test. Therefore, Some may consider these tests to only measure change of direction. These tests can be useful and are standardized so that coaches or athletes can measure and compare other athletes times in the test. However, in sports, agility is not pre planned. Agility incorporates reaction to the environment around you. In football, when a running back is running with the ball, the athlete does not pre plan his run, instead he is reacting to the environment around him and (hopefully) making the appropriate reactions to try and avoid defenders. Make sense?

Agility is mostly mental

Regarding agility to actual on field performance, the best athletes with the best on field agility also have the best perception or awareness of the environment around them. The environment around a field athlete would include other players (teammates or opponents), field restrictions (out of bounds) or any other component depending on the game being played. Cutting at the right time to have the defender go by you is a way that an athlete is able to absorb information of their surrounding area and implement a quick, accurate and effective plan to essentially get where they need to get. Higher skilled athletes are generally stronger and faster but also posses the ability to absorb information and make an accurate decision based upon the environment factors at hand. High skilled athletes posses a certain feel for the game they are playing and are able to use their high strength and speed levels to carry out what they are feeling in the game.

How do we train this?

As a strength coach, one way I am able to train on field agility is through reactive drills. Reactive drills incorporate the physical and mental aspect of the sport at hand. For example, for a football player, lets just say a QB, making the athlete complete a speed ladder, working on foot mechanics while looking downfield and making a decision and actually throwing the football to a receiver based on the defensive formation. This drill is able to incorporate agility or change of direction training with a cognitive aspect. The speed ladder is a useful tool and can look really cool when preformed fast and accurate, but being able to make a decision based on environment while doing it makes the translation to field success higher. This is just one example and there are many different ways to train agility with some kind of mental aspect or reaction aspect that will translate better to the field.

What we think of when training for sport you would generally think of the physical aspect- weight training or agility training. The technical side of training which would evolve your basic skills for the sport. For example, in basketball, passing, dribbling and shooting would all be trained. Other side of training would be the tactical side of training which would involve your game plan. For example, in basketball, going over offensive plays and defensive plays. A lot of people forget the mental aspect of the game.

There are physical aspects of agility of course. But, for the purposes of this post, we simply wanted to focus on the mental side. 

LINEAR SPEED VS SPORTS SPEEd

Before we start, it is important to understand we are using linear speed in reference to straight ahead sprinting as done in track and field.  Sports speed is in reference to every other sport there is that requires running or sprinting. Yes, there is a difference between the two and this article will focus on how and why we train certain ways for all our athletes.

In terms of training, how are they different between track athletes and field sports athletes? Keep it simple – track athletes need a tremendous focus on sprint technique, starting mechanics and actual practice and conditioning for their individual races.  Field sports athletes need to focus on so much more than technique. Field sports should be looked at as multi-directional speed athletes and track athletes as linear speed athletes.  

Multi-directional speed is mostly based on reactive movements dependent on what is happening on the field. This speed requires a major topic that we often miss, DECELERATION.  Most field sports athletes need to be able to decelerate and accelerate very quickly. In track, there is no deceleration.

Take for example a running back in football.  Obviously, they need to be fast but it is so rare that a running back is sprinting linearly for 50 yards ever in a game.  The majority of the time they are cutting and reading defenders. Their “speed” is based on about 5-10 yards each play and their ability to decelerate and accelerate very efficiently.  How about a baseball player stealing a base? Some of the best base stealers are not the fastest guys on the field but the best at reading a pitcher and getting a good jump off a pitcher’s wind up.  A tennis player may never sprint more than 10 yards back and forth but the majority of the time they are reacting to their opponent and anticipating where the ball will be next. I think we understand the point – field sports athletes require “game speed,” which is so much more than linear running.

Let’s get back to the point of this article – understanding the training differences between the two.  For both track athletes and field sports athletes, we need to train linear, multi-directional and deceleration.  For sprinters, all they do is run linear and that is exactly the reason they need to train other things like jumping and lateral movements.  If a sprinter comes into our facility we can’t be sprinting them too much because they are sprinting linearly year round for their sport. We need to take a greater approach to injury prevention, deficiencies in their gait, jumping, and deceleration – the areas that get neglected on the track.  Field sports athletes are just the opposite; they are constantly cutting, jumping, diving, moving in various planes. We need to be cautious of taxing those movements over and over again. Imagine you just played a bunch of basketball games during the week and then arrived at training with your performance coach only to find yourself doing the exact same movements; jumping, cutting and sprinting.  It just doesn’t make sense.

The training of speed for any individual athlete is as simple as understanding their personal movement deficiencies and how to make them perform better in their sport.  I can’t tell you how many times an athlete comes in and says, “I need to get faster.” Well, everyone needs to get faster but we have to do so in a productive manner. As coaches, we want you to get faster progressively without injury.  Most injuries in sport happen during deceleration. I think this may be the biggest difference between the two types of speed mentioned in this article. Training deceleration requires technique but it is also very taxing when done with proper intent.

I could go on forever on the differences of all sports, positions, etc but the takeaway message is don’t over complicate speed. Know your athlete! This includes: being aware of their movement deficiencies, understanding their strengths, getting to know their personal schedules, feeling out when and how to push, and then knowing when to focus elsewhere.  I’ll say it once more, KNOW YOUR ATHLETE! The younger the athlete, the more the training should consist of a wide range of movement patterns. When training a varsity or collegiate athlete the training should be very specific to the athlete’s needs and be focused towards injury prevention and performance.  Train linear, train multi-direction, train deceleration and do so in a proper fashion for each individual athlete.

-Coach Matt