Considerations for developing speed and agility in young athletesDecember 9, 2016 | by Akriti Sharma
Human obsession with speed and making things faster is evident in all spheres of life - from innovations in computer technology to make faster processors to the automotive industry that competes in improving a car’s acceleration.
The realm of sport is no different where the faster individual or team has a significant advantage over its opponent. Thus a significant amount of research is dedicated to investigating methods to improve speed.
At this point, it is pertinent to take pause and identify the different “speed qualities” required in different sports. For example, successful performance in the 100m sprint is underpinned by highly developed abilities to accelerate out of the blocks and attain high levels of maximal speed. Team sports such as basketball, soccer, and football, that involve multiple changes of direction over shorter distances, require being able to accelerate and decelerate over shorter distances. Rarely do athletes in such sports attain maximal speed.
In these sports, another quality that is frequently deemed to be trained is agility. While one may come across various definitions of agility, the one that resonates with the author of this article is as follows:
“Agility can be defined as the ability of a fast-whole-body movement involving the changing of direction or speed in response to a given stimulus”.
What distinguishes agility from speed and change of direction speed is the reaction to a stimulus. This is easily seen in all team sports where athletes are required to constantly react to opponents and implements.
The Long-Term Athlete Development and Youth Physical Development Models provide recommendations to train speed and agility in youth athletes based on their maturational age as assessed by the timing of the growth spurt.
When talking about linear sprint speed, research has shown sprint performance to decline in pre-pubescent athletes around the start of the growth spurt but subsequently improve around the growth spurt. This can be attributed to the body adjusting for structural changes and re-learning the patterns to coordinate sprinting.
Speed is suggested to develop in a nonlinear process with prepubescent and pubescent increases in performance. Prepubescent improvements have been proposed to be influenced by improvements in coordination via the nervous system and motor recruitment patterns, whereas pubescent and post-pubescent improvements can be attributed to structural and hormonal changes that lead to increases in muscle size and limb lengths.
Evidence to support this contention can be found in a research study that found pre-pubescent athletes to improve sprint performance by way of plyometric and sprint training that target the nervous system, while older athletes past their growth spurt showed more improvements via a combination of strength training (that would influence muscle size and force production capability of the muscle) and, plyometric and sprint training.
It is recommended that athletes aged 7-12 years focus their training on coordinating sprint and plyometric (jumps and bounds) technique and complement it with strength training. Athletes aged 11-16 years, while including technique training, should start incorporating strength training that is aimed at inducing muscle size, and utilize the onset of hormonal changes that promote muscle hypertrophy and consequently force production capabilities.
Agility training follows a similar pattern in terms of learning technical skills related to change of direction prior to building on speed in such maneuvers. A significant amount of research indicates that strength relative to one’s body weight is related to change of direction, speed, and acceleration, and thus as with straight running speed, strength training should be incorporated through all stages of youth athlete development.
Specific methods of agility training include technical skills and change of direction drills that involved planned and unplanned changes of direction. Pre-pubertal athletes should generally focus on developing the fundamental movement skills involved in changing direction such as being able to maintain a low hip position and neutral spine position in different movement patterns as well as planned change of direction skills. This provides them with a closed environment to practice their technique and as they approach puberty, more reactive drills can be included. Training this reactive component of agility will form the majority of post-pubescent training and it should also be noted that in the competitive environment, this quality is influenced by an athlete’s ability to read and anticipate game situations, and thus will be trained over the years by participating in the sport itself.
The effects of speed, agility, and strength training have been shown to have an impact on youth athletic performance and thus, young athletes are urged to complement their sport training with physical training that prepares their bodies for sport.
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