When it comes to understanding and improving agility and change of direction (COD) Ian Jeffreys is man to go to. His articles, books and correspondence via email over last couple of years have influenced my approach for agility training in greatest degree. Speaking of articles, I have just finished reading Ian’s newly published article for NSCA journal – A Task-Based Approach to Developing Context-Specific Agility. Ian just keeps pushing the field into better understanding of agility. For this reason I wanted to pick his brain regarding agility training and what he changed in it over the last couple of years.
For some introduction on Ian’s work and agility in general I suggest checking my final paper Training and Testing Agility in Sports [in Serbian], the old version of Physical Preparation for Soccer [from 2007] and blog entry Planning and Programming of Training in Sport Games. All of these are hugely influenced by Ian’s work and ideas.
Mladen: First off thanks for taking time and effort to do this interview Ian. Can you please introduce yourself to the readers; you know, the basic stuff – who you are, what you do, and what project are you working on at the moment?
Ian: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do the interview and for your kind words in the introduction. It’s an honor to be asked, especially given the other notable people who have contributed interviews to your website.
Currently, I head up all of the strength and conditioning provision at University of Glamorgan which involves academic provision as well as directing all of the athletes training much of which involves providing strength and conditioning services to university athletes and professional teams. I am also the proprietor of All-Pro Performance, a training company based in Mid Wales through which I direct the training of a number of athletes and provide coach education services around the world. I am also heavily involved with the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association as a founder member, a member of the Board of Directors since its inception, and the editor of ”Professional Strength and Conditioning”, the Associations’ Journal.
Mladen: What is agility and can you briefly explain your task-based approach to developing context-specific agility? How does this differs from change of direction (COD) ability and how does your ‘gamespeed’ concept fits in?
Ian: That’s a good question. I feel that agility is unlike many of the other fitness parameters that we try to develop, as agility is directly related to effective movement. Effective movement necessarily has to reflect the sport which is the athletes playing, and so has a large degree context specificity. To me agility is all about the movement patterns deployed in sport and optimizing their application to ensure that ultimate sports performance is maximized. In this way, agility will ultimately be reflected differently between different sports and that is why I like to use the concept of gamespeed. The term gamespeed itself suggests a context specificity and I think that it’s important that we, as coaches, ensure that what we develop practice reflects what the athlete has to do in a game, rather than simply focusing on developing the capacity to perform closed movement patterns. Clearly, while change of direction speed is an element of agility, true agility is so much more. If we look at why athletes undertake specific movement patterns it’s because they are trying to perform a specific sports related task. If we understand the task, then it is easier to ensure that the movement patterns that we are developing in practice are those which allow the athlete to effectively carry out the tasks required the game situation. This is the essence of my task-based approach to agility development.
Mladen: A lot of coaches still utilize [closed skill] cone drills (T-drill, L-cut, 20 yard agility run, etc), or try to utilize non-specific stimuli (whistle, hand, sound, light) as a method of improving agility. Is there a time and place for these methods in the progression of learning or is this pure waste of time?
Ian: I think one of the weaknesses of many strength and conditioning approaches is that we seem to want to take an either or approach, and favor one approach entirely over another. I feel that we need to take a more inclusive complementary approach to the methods that we deploy. So I don’t feel that the question is whether we should use close drills or open drills I think the question should be when best to deploy each of these and being sure we are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. So yes, closed drills still have their uses and can be really effective methods by which fundamental movement patterns can be developed, using an essentially behaviorist approach to skill learning. However, if the training program only uses closed drills, then I don’t believe that it develops the cognitive and perceptual elements that are also critical to effective agility deployment. So I really believe that closed drills must ultimately be supplemented by more open and sport specific drills, if we wish to see the maximum transfer into sports performance. In reality, despite my penchant for open drills, most of my sessions includes include some form of closed drills, but more often these are used as initial warm-up activities and then we progressively move onto more challenging open activities as each session progresses. A major difference here is that our less experiences athletes typically spend longer with the closed drills and less time on the open drills, with the reverse being the case for our more advanced athletes.
Mladen: Ian, you are the guy behind classification of movement patterns that emerge in sport games into (1) initialization, (2) actualization and (3) transition. Can you please explain this classification and rationale behind along with how this evolved over the last couple of years?
Ian: Basically the target classifications arose out of the need to categorize movements, and to enable an organizational structure to be developed with which to effectively develop agility in both the short and long term. A lot of the resources that were available at the time had large numbers of effective drills, but I didn’t feel there was a structure around which to build individual training sessions and especially longer term agility development programs. Similarly, I didn’t feel that some drills that athletes will performing necessarily reflected the movement patterns that I was seeing in sport. So what I tried to do was to come up with a system by which I could look at a sport and identify common movement patterns, together with an analysis of why the athletes were performing these movements. The system I devised was based on an analysis of a large number of sports, and identified four levels of analysis, the target context (an analysis of the sport itself and any key constraining factors), the target functions (what the athlete was trying to achieve), the target movements (the key movements within each function) and the target mechanics (the most effective way of performing each movement).
Traditionally, speed and agility drills involves performing tasks as rapidly as possible. However, when I looked at sport itself or I noticed was that athletes would spend a large amount of time waiting to react to the game that was evolving around them, and that at these times maximum speed wasn’t necessarily the differentiating factor but instead it was the control of movement that was crucial. So fundamental to the system was the identification of three target functions, namely initiation, transition and actualization, and the identification of key factors to success in each of these. In many sports, athletes have to be constantly in a position of readiness to appropriately react in a game related context. I developed the term transition movement for these actions and they were probably the biggest change that the target functions brought in. This was because with the old mindset of agility as maximal speed of movement, transition movements were often overlooked or worse were performed in a way that didn’t reflect the required function in the sports context. This has proved to be crucial in ensuring maximal transfer from training to performance, and in the development of task related drills.
This is not to say that speed of movement is not important, of course it is. Indeed the actualization movements can be thought of as the payoff movements in sport, in that it is here that the athlete is often trying to maximize their performance. These will typically involve maximal accelerations periods of maximal speed running or the performance of sports skills. Developing these abilities has been the focus of speed and agility training for a long time and these continue to be an important part of my own agility development program. What is important to keep in mind though is that the application of the actualization movements often depends upon the execution of effective transition movements, and these need to be integrated in a true gamespeed program.
We should also be aware of the sports context. Effective gamespeed has to take into consideration what the athlete needs to achieve in terms of the sport and even in actualisation movements the athlete always needs to be in a position from where they can actually play the game. In this way there may well be subtle differences between the ideal models put forward by track coaches and the actualisation models that we need to deploy in our own sports.
This deployment of actualization movements also led me to develop the initiation category. This can very easily be thought of as the first step towards subsequent acceleration. I have consistently found that by maximizing the effectiveness of these initial movements the athletes can optimize their gamespeed, and give themselves a big advantage over the opposition. So it’s important when coaching speed and agility training sessions that the coach focuses on the quality of these initiation patterns as well as on the ultimate speed achieved. This is especially important in the game context where the athlete may not necessarily know how far they are required to sprint and where the ultimate success of the movement may be dictated in these initial steps.
So essentially, by examining the type of movement patterns (target movements) that fit into these categories I can then devise an appropriate agility training session and more importantly devise an agility training long-term development program that ensure that the athletes have all of the movement fundamentals with which to deploy at a later date as they play their sport. Similarly, by focusing on the optimal movement patterns, and their associated mechanical foundations,(target mechanics) I can build up a coaching model for each and every movement patters I use.
Mladen: What is your take on plyo-step [false step] as an initialization movement?
Ian: Undoubtedly, the plyo step has become the subject of great debate among strength and conditioning coaches. Interestingly, my take is that we are overly concerned with this step. To me the plyo step discussed is deployed when we are starting from a static start and in a position where we are square on to the target we want to go from. In the vast majority of sports I work with this simply isn’t the case and is initiation movements need to be deployed from a moving position, or a staggered position. In these situations the discussion of the plyo step is largely irrelevant. A key part of agility is a constant adjustment of overall body position to allow the athlete to read and react to what going on around them. In essence these constant readjustments can essentially be seen as plyo steps, simply repositioning the athlete to a position from where they can accelerate, perform a skill etc. So to me the debate is far more of an academic nature rather than something that’s as a coach I need to worry about.
Mladen: In the recent NSCA article you mentioned that „not all movements require maximal velocity; instead, an athlete will spend a great deal of time waiting to react to a stimulus. In these instances, the key to effective performance is not necessarily their velocity of movement but, instead, the ability to constantly adjust their position to allow them to optimally react to a stimulus when it occurs—what have previously been termed transition movements“. Can you please expand more on this – the difference between skilled and non-skilled athletes, how to train this and how to test this if possible?
Ian: As I mentioned earlier, an athlete in the majority of sports will spend a large amount of time in transition. This is essentially the time where they are waiting to read and react to what is evolving around them. What is important here is that they maintain a position of stability from where they can deploy appropriate initiation and then actualization movements as the game unfolds. Research suggests that skilled athletes are able to make more frequent adjustments than non-skilled athletes and this hopefully suggests that this is a skill which can be developed over time. Unfortunately, closed drills don’t really develop this ability and a more open context is needed to encourage the athlete to constantly adjust to the stimuli they are receiving around them. This is the concept of the dynamic athletic position, a skill I often call jockeying and where the athlete is constantly adjusting their position in reaction to key stimuli. I have a range of exercises which I use to develop this skill, and which progress from relatively simple, to more complex and increasingly sport specific exercises. However, traditional agility tests will not be able to differentiate this ability. However, just because the skill cannot be effectively tested it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be developed. Similarly, while it cannot be effectively tested it is often evident in performance, and the ability of a coach to identify improvements in these abilities shouldn’t be discounted as evidence of an improvement in the athletes function. One of the factors that I’ve noticed as athletes have been through my development program is an improvement in on field performance in terms of being able to effectively carry out key sport related tasks. While not scientific evidence in the classic sense, I feel this must not be discounted, as ultimately the aim of any strength and conditioning program is to improve on field performance.
Mladen: Similar to Kelly Baggett I tend to break most athletic movements into two basic qualities: (1) movement efficiency and (2) horsepower. In the case of agility and COD I will consider movement efficiency as the ability to quickly reposition one’s feet for a better expression of [horse]power. How is this “quick feet” ability important in agility (initialization, transition and actualization) and how can it be trained.
Ian: I agree, and essentially what I have discussed so far is very similar to what you suggest. In terms of transition movements, it is all about efficiency, control and precision, ultimately allowing the athlete to maximize their sport specific skills. Where I feel horsepower comes in is during efficient initiation movements and then maximizing acceleration and maximum speed ability. So again to me gamespeed development isn’t about replacing old systems, it’s about maintaining the best features of traditional systems and supplementing it with exercises that ensure that what we do in training transfers optimally into the game situation. It’s interesting also that you use the term fast feet in this context. Yes, we do need to reposition our feet rapidly but this repositioning needs to encompass the whole kinetic chain and must not just focus on feet. Positions of efficiency stability and control are crucial to effective transition, preparing the athlete for effective initiation and actualization. If an athlete’s overall postural alignment is wrong, regardless of how fast they move their feet they will never optimize performance unless the whole kinetic chain is in the appropriate position of control. So whenever coaches attempt to use fast feet it’s important that they also look at the overall body alignment the athlete is using and the overall technical model which they are deploying in order to effectively reposition.
Mladen: Speaking of horsepower, the research showed that strength and linear speed work has limited transfer to agility and COD. What is you opinion on this and what are the strength/power/plyometric exercises that seems to have transfer to agility and COD?
Ian: This has always been an interesting feature to me given that according to Newton’s laws there should be a close correlation between force and acceleration ability. I think one thing we need to take into account is what measure of force we’re using and what is the nature of the change of direction task that were assessing. To me the nature of the agility task will to a large extent define the relationship between strength characteristics and agility and between speed abilities and agility. I try to ensure that my gamespeed programs are supplemented by an effective force development program that tries to address the entire spectrum of force characteristics from maximal strength through to stretch shortening cycle activities. Again, I don’t look for one specific magic exercise instead I try to address the force continuum to ensure that the athlete is able to maximize their performance in a range of movement patterns that they will need to use in the sport itself. Similarly, traditional acceleration work remains an important part of the overall gamespeed program.
Whether a single best way of developing agility exists is debatable. Due to the fact that the key tasks that the athlete will be required to perform in their sport’s vary, then it is likely that the “best way” may well vary for different sports. However, in my experience I cannot see that simply working on closed drills can optimally prepare the athlete to play in the sports in which I’m involved. So I use my own gamespeed system which is essentially a development model that firstly develops key fundamental movement patterns (identified through the target classification system)and then progresses these into more challenging situations and ultimately into task-based approaches. This approach attempts to use best of a range of skill learning techniques from the behavioral approach ,through the dynamic systems approach and into the constraints led approach and tries to optimally combine the advantages of each in order to maximize the skill learning of my athletes. I would imagine that this system will continue to evolve due to the multifactorial nature of agility.
Mladen: How can readers learn more about you and your approach?
Ian: Again because my approach is relatively new there are few resources out there that relate to agility and gamespeed development. I have written a few articles that have tracked my evolving approach to agility and these articles can be found in the NSCA’s Strength and Conditioning Journal and also in the UKSCA’s Journal “Professional Strength and Conditioning”. A few of these articles are available on my website www.allproperformance.co.uk and coaches and athletes are welcome to take a look at these. Additionally, my Gamespeed book, outlines many of the exercises I use and in the development model I have successfully deployed for a number of years. In the future I hope to develop additional resources to enable coaches and athletes to effectively deploy these methods in their training.
Mladen: Thank you very much for this insightful interview Ian. Hopefully we can expect a lot more from you on this topic.
Ian: Again thank you for the invite to contribute, and I hope your readers get something out of the interview.