[Agility Lab] Out of Our Comfort Zone

If you are an S&C coach like I am, you most likely come from a strength training and sport science dominant background, where Physiology and Biomechanics have been at the forefront. At least that has been my experience. Both in my own learning and to now working with 100’s of UG undergraduate and post-graduate students. To be clear, there isn’t really anything wrong with this. But it does have a role in creating some of the hurdles for coaches to become comfortable coaching COD and agility.

In the gym, we have clear technical models which are stable from rep to rep. A model designed based upon where we want to direct stress and what adaptation we want (as well as other things). Then we take a linear, progressive overload approach to achieving our desired adaptations, supported by good quality research and evidence. Simple (ish!).

But this doesnt ransfer well to COD and agility developlent. Too much time in this comfortable areas creates three expectation hurdles:

1) Linear Progression

2) Technical Models

3) Research

In COD, we aren’t always trying to stimulate the body to achieve the same adaptations as in the gym. We are more commonly challenging the body to coordinate and apply its force in multiple situations. Then in agility, we are trying to get them to coordinate where their actions are linked to what they perceive in the environment. We may have a desired outcome of changing step characteristics, improving the application of force, or decreasing decision time. But most of these outcomes remove the need of a linear progression model, as skill acquisition doesn’t often work like that.

As mentioned, one of the most important things in COD and agility development is challenging athletes to move and apply force in different situations. Because of this need for varying conditions, some of the comfort we find in our ‘right and wrong’ technical models also diminishes. The lack of technique certainty and the ineffectiveness of our regular linear progressions is frustrating, compounded by seeing people perform who break all the ‘rules’, but are still more effective than everyone else. This isn’t me saying there aren’t any COD related technical models, there are. But here we need to look at what is happening in more depth in order to understand what our expectations should be.

The strength training equivalent of the changing situations of COD can be compared to performing a set of squats but with a change in stance and load placement on every rep. If that happens our technical model would have to have some deeper understanding. Rather than a very long list of points that we want to be followed, that list would need to be much shorter to make it applicable across different variations. I’ll expand on this in another post, but in this squat example, my opinion would be that as long as the feet remain flat for stability, there is control over the knees in the frontal plane and control over the proximal structures of the body (pelvis and lumbar spine), there isn’t much else to worry about (other than safety considerations with how the load is held). This is where we get into what would be termed attractors and fluctuators in Dynamical Systems Theory. But as I said, I’ll expand on this another time.

Finally, research. Research into COD and agility is much harder to carry out and even harder to transfer than our standard gym based strength training. Subsequently, it doesn’t solve our problems or answer our questions as quickly. For example…

  • 3D motion capture is looking at a particular moment in time, usually in a very sterile environment. Important and useful, but limited.
  • Time motion analysis studies rarely quantify the angles we turn and how fast we complete them. GPS until recently has been a barrier.
  • Motor learning tasks more frequently use finite finger tapping and juggling tasks than complex, high demand movements such as COD (although there are some good examples).
  • Performance studies commonly simply measure time to get from one point to another, which isn’t often why agility is used in the first place.

I could go on.  And I haven’t even added perception and decision making in here. This isn’t a moan or a dig at anyone or any of that research. It all has an important role and moves the needle forwards, just unfortunately very slowly! But there isnt any getting around that.

In summary, this is an extremely challenging puzzle, and no discipline, person or group are going to solve it on their own. We need to communicate, challenge each other and slowly piece things together as the research will never publish ‘the answer’.

In order for most coaches to move forwards in the immediate future, there are a few things I recommend…

  1. Embrace some uncertainty, it’s not as risky as you think. Afterall, competition isn’t tidy and controllable.
  2. Focus on learning and skill transfer rather than our more traditional physiological changes. We want players to be adaptable but with sound foundations, not consistently ‘perfect’. Learning as mentioned above is far from tidy.
  3. Be critical of what you read (including this) and synthesise information. This is a HUGE multi-disciplinary challenge and you’ll need to develop your own lens by taking what makes sense to you and discarding what doesn’t. Make notes, ask questions and develop your own system.

Much more detail coming later.

Rich