Everyone loves a good agility ladder.
But take the ladder away, block out what the feet are doing, just look at the torso and hips; what is the person doing?
Almost without exception, they’re looking down at their feet and their actual body is going almost no where: No where fast.
What exactly is being trained? ‘Footwork’?, ‘Fast feet’?, ‘Quickness’?
Let us be clear, the way in which many agility drills are trained is essentially only training one facet of what is necessary to move quickly in a field sport. Stride Frequency.
You’re basically getting a lot of foot contacts, all the while at a low actual speed across the ground.
In and of itself this is not particularly useful. Moving your feet up and down on the spot quickly is clearly not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to move the whole body (centre of mass) quickly, chasing and evading. In sports, this is the only thing that matters, as we’re not talking about a sport where form is scored: diving, aerial skiing, gymnastics…… we’re talking largely about invasion games; football codes, hockey etc (** ask me some time about why gymnasts often make terrible runners**)
Now take another look at someone performing ladder drills and the like. Does their foot contact look like this?
You’re about to have a bad day. Think about the difference in forces on the interface between the ground and the foot on a ladder drill and compare it to what is happening in a game situation at high speed. They are nothing like each other. If you’re up on your toes like this on the field, you are not moving quickly and you’re now possessing the same problem as you do when you run like this in a linear fashion at speed; you’re over-stressing the plantar fascia and soleus. Shin splints and plantar fasciitis are about to visit you.
Landing high on the toe and compressing down to the heel gives us the same inefficient effect as training for speed on the sand….. you’re creating a longer contact time. You’re also throwing in un-due stress, and inefficient use, of the lower leg for free.
You neither want to be landing primarily on your heel OR on your toe. It should be forefoot first and then *maybe* heel depending on other factors. Hard deceleration we will come to another day.
Now, back to the ladders: what are they good for? Not that much really. Particularly if you are a very good athlete. Indeed there are people who are preparing for their sport who are not blessed with very good anything. They’re not fast, strong, agile, flexible, well conditioned or very adaptive. Yes: they will be better at their sport by using agility ladders. Coordinating themselves, starting to get an idea of tempo and cadence, starting to condition themselves and the lower leg structures, most of all build stride frequency.
A good athlete though can basically use them as a warm up and that’s about it. In fact, teaching a good athlete a bunch of drills and techniques that encourage them to take more steps in a smaller space, get up on their toes frequently, look down, and have no regard to the vertical displacement of their body is a terrible way to train them.
Watch this sequence of pics. A massively valuable ability is that of being able to make high speed cuts and explosive movements in opposing directions. Here a 90 degree cut is being trained. The athlete needs to learn how to effectively reduce their vertical displacement (drop their centre of mass), take a significant horizontal displacement step, push off and take a smaller step that creates a shin angle that can be pushed off.
Run straight, drop center of mass and step horizontally, fall into the cut, take a small step that you can push off and accelerate out of the cut. DO NOT take a bunch of quick choppy steps. DO NOT try to stay upright.
Footwork that reaches, footwork that stutters, footwork that keeps our foot on the ground a long time: the Devil’s work!