That’s what many people notice when they see a session done at Superior Athletics. Imperfect drills, frustration, elation, all common themes. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
80% of the drills that we do have some form of reactive component to them, even down to drills such as marching and skipping; common drills with an uncommon twist.
We receive messages from athletes, and questions from parents asking, what is going on there? The kids don’t look fast. They make a ton of mistakes. At times it looks like they are getting worse and not better, not what Instagram has lead you to believe a “speed” session should look like.
Reactive agility isn’t sexy. It doesn’t always play nice. Yet, after over a decade coaching athletes, and nearly 1,000 athletes trained, we wouldn’t trade our ugly drills for beautiful ones any day.
Defining Reactive Agility
Reactive agility is the ability to use speed, change of direction, and decision making under the duress of an increasing number of unknown variables.
More plainly, we continue to change the variables that an athlete must sift through before getting the body to move in the fashion which is most desirable. Training in this way allows us to work equally on the brain of an athlete as it does the actual hardware of performance.
Purpose and Pressure
Speed and agility are hated in strength and conditioning circles because people will say “you can’t train speed”. The start of this idea is founded in track and field, where the best athletes in this sport have more to do with genetics than acquired skills.
Reactive agility is designed for the field sports athlete that must learn to be fast beyond a straight line, and often is tasked with a decision-making process that slows both body and brain.
Drills are created with a purpose – jab steps, hip flips, t-steps, crossovers, shuffles, and a myriad of other movements all have a purpose on the field. In the past, coaches would just set up a cone in one place and then in another and asked the athlete to go from A to B and back again. Here the athlete has what we call a “known, known” drill. They easily know when to go and they knew where to go.
Reactive agility continues to open the world for the athlete to use skills. We can progress to a drill that is “known-unknown”, where they know when to go but the rest is variable. We also can have “unknown, known” where the athlete does not know where the initiation will start but knows where to go when the times comes.
Lastly, we have more open free-form drills, where an athlete is tasked with making their decision in real time and at high speed. This is where we can shrink a few external variables, but task the athlete with solving problems in their own way, under pressure, and at speed.
A note on pressure. We need to subject an athlete with pressure in their decision-making process. Pressure has a tendency to change the dynamic of a session. Where a known-known drill provides safety, we can still add pressure to this drill in the form of competition. This quickens the brain and changes the perception of the exact same drills.
We don’t desire to create complete safety for athletes, but rather to offer ever-increasing doses of stress to bring your confidence in competition up.
When you compete in small ways all the time, it’s easier to begin defaulting to enjoy the pressure.
Legendary coach Mike Boyle wrote years ago that when trying to talk to an athlete you must “speak coach”. This breaks down to understanding the roles and actions of the sport in order to connect athletes and parents to the why of a drill.
“We medball slam to work on your ability to stop with greater amounts of tension, this will help you playing soccer as you will need to come in and out of cuts better. If we do that, we can stay in front of the forward better and lock down our position on defense.”
“We medball slam to work on creating more power and tension down into the ground through our whole body, this will help you playing basketball as you try to get up and dunk more consistently. If we can do this easier, we can show off your explosiveness more often.”
Same exercise, done for the same reasons but explained in importance to the sport you play. This is why in the beginning I recommend you do a sport analysis when choosing a drill.
The first step is where are you on the timeline and do you play two+ sports. If you do, we try to see where we have some overlap like a football player who plays basketball
Lastly, we can do a quick rundown of the things necessary for each sport. Each sport has particular skills and physical qualities needed. Understand those, and better drills will follow.
What Can You Do Now?
We need to actually see an athlete run and move a bit to understand who they are as an athlete. If we see issues, we want to put together corrective drills that will bring out the qualities we want by shaping the environment to grow them.
I can teach a shortstop how to do a crossover, but if I just roll a ball out and tell them to field it, I will usually get close to what I want.
Find these moments and build a connection to how they help and what they already know how to do.
- We are looking to see how you move from arm action to knee drive and hip extension. We can begin to create better drills and options to meet you where they are.
- Balance, coordination, and body control. We don’t just want to see slow easy movements, but actually what is going on in transition. Stiff hips we will teach dissociation. Balance and coordination we will spend time on jumping and landing mechanics on a single leg.
- How do you look when changing movements, do you rise up, do you fall. What about under reactive conditions? Does movement change?
What About Mental Ability?
- How well do they react to sounds and words when making decisions?
- How well do they react to visual cues when making decisions?
- How is their reaction to contacts and the relationship to where they are in space?
The drills we choose matter to the goal of performance that is most needed for development, but with a younger population (8-12) we want to focus broadly and with an elite population we want to bring depth to specific areas.
However, all sessions follow a similar progression of known-known up to unknown-unknown where applicable. We don’t want to jump right into the highest level reaction, rather we want to sprinkle in more and more as the session progresses.
One recent speed session I did with my coach, Jay Fulco, had me pitted against a former NFL athlete. We were trying out a few different ideas, and the session kept building reactive ability and pressure to make decisions simultaneously. The last drill was 360 degrees of decision making with changing variables and a competitive end result.
Had I started right away with those movements at his speed, it would have been too much failure for me. I would’ve been frustrated. Instead, I was primed for the drill and ready to compete (and lose) but win my share of reps.
Here Are A Few Examples
Lateral agility and decision making with a clear competitive focus
Linear acceleration and decision making with a clear competitive focus
Acceleration and deceleration with a cognitive decision making emphasis
Specific speed development for baseball with visual reaction and decision making
These are just a few of the ways that we can bring about changes in on-field performance with an athlete by shaping the brain and decision making as much as developing better physical characteristics. We get too caught up in physical qualities like max bench when the reality is that not much has changed and advanced in physical development in decades. However, our understanding how to better apply learning and development has changed dramatically. If you want to take your training and results to the next level, focus on changing those areas. There is boundless room for growth and experimentation.