May 28, 2020
Speed Kills: Incorporating agility training give programs an edge
Wesley Sykes, managing editor

Nowadays, every athlete is bigger, stronger, and faster than those from previous generations. 

Offensive linemen, once thought of as the “hogs” of the football team, are running sub-five second 40-yard dashes and sub-eight second three-cone drills at the NFL Combine. Athletes in general, specifically offensive linemen, have learned they don’t necessarily have to sacrifice size and strength to be fast — at least in terms of what they’re asked to do. 

At the top tier NCAA levels, athletic powerhouses like Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State and so many more Power 5 conference schools rarely have to choose between a big, strong prospect and a fast prospect — they simply select from the top of the list. But what about Division III schools? How does a strength trainer mold an incoming high school graduate into a DIII athlete? 

Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

Drawing from a smaller pool like many other Division III programs, Massachusetts Maritime Academy looks for student-athletes that possess overall athleticism than one who is just a “hog” in the trenches. 

“We’re not getting the 310-pound linemen that are built like a brick and can dominate off the line of scrimmage,” said MMA’s head athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Barry, ATC, CSCS. “At our level of football, if we match up well from an athletic standpoint, we have a better chance of winning. That’s where speed and agility training comes into play.” 

Fighting In A Phone Booth

As it pertains to those that make a living battling it out in the trenches, operating at a high level in a small space is imperative for success. Getting a strong initial burst off the line and maintaining that power until the whistle is blown can be the difference between pancaking a defender and turning into a modern-day matador. 

“Everything [for offensive linemen] happens in a very short distance — in a five-yard box, let’s say. If they can do their job in that frame, then they’ve done what we’ve asked,” Barry said. “They don’t have to run miles to get in shape or even 40-yard sprints.”

So if not jogging or wind sprints, how does Barry build speed in his student-athletes? By utilizing drills that will simulate a lineman’s in-game motions. 

He goes back to that five-yard box example and has his linemen complete different types of movements — ranging from shuffles, sprints, and backpedals, among others. To manufacture that off-the-line burst, the Buccaneers trainer equips his players with weighted vests or has them hold medicine balls and complete a series of squat jumps. With the added weight, Barry said, the squat jump alone won’t translate on the field when lining up opposite a 250-plus pound athlete. He even pointed out the now-viral video of Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, the 320-pound first-round NFL Draft pick of Tampa Bay, doing a clean jump out of the shallow end of the pool — a clear sign of simulating the burst of raw power and speed that is needed in dominating at the highest level. 

Footwork is also a pillar of focus in building speed and can utilize various drills using agility ladders or even tires to sharpen this skillset.

“There’s a science to [building speed in athletes] for sure, but it’s not rocket science,” Barry said. “It’s about getting down to the bread and butter and finding ways to succeed in a five-yard box. 

The results speak for themselves, as the Buccaneers finished with their best record this century and sent four linemen to the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference (MASCAC) first or second teams. MMA also had the top-rated rushing offense, thanks in large part to a veteran offensive line unit that didn’t have one starter weigh more than 270 pounds while boasting a defensive front seven that relentlessly tormented opposing quarterbacks. 

“Having an athletic line of scrimmage was really the secret to our success this season,” Barry said. “And those guys bought completely into our strength and conditioning program.” 

Buying In Bulk

A short trip from the MMA campus, down I-195 westbound, is where you can find UMass Dartmouth’s assistant athletic trainer Kevin Pickering, ATC. While the Division III trainer has little trouble getting student-athletes in the weight room or on the treadmill, getting them to buy into the effects of speed training requires a little more convincing. 

Most student-athletes want to either get as strong as possible or condition themselves to long period activities. Without speed and agility training these other aspects will never be used at their full potential,” Pickering said. “In my opinion speed and agility is a portion of strength and conditioning that is undervalued.”

Agility training exercises can help improve speed, explosive power, coordination, and sports-specific skills. It can help the body maintain alignment and posture during activity. It’s our body’s ability to be fast and nimble while in motion. Agility training has shown effectiveness in injury prevention as well as increased cognitive function and recovery times. 

Ultimately, agility training is what can separate the average student-athlete from the All-Americans. 

“I believe that athletes are seeing the value that it brings and how much it can improve an athlete’s overall talent when they have maximized other facets of strength training,” Pickering said. 

Barry shared a similar sentiment as his Massachusetts state school counterpart, adding that he typically has to pull student-athletes off the squat racks and put bands in their hands. 

Sports Specifics

Whether training for strength, endurance or a combination of the two, there are very few sports where athletes wouldn’t benefit from agility training. From soccer to softball, to volleyball and mixed martial arts, having one’s body under control while in action is beneficial to reach a desired result. 

As it pertains to volleyball, Barry is having the team run circles around the gym for an hour. With a sport that requires sudden bursts, constant jumping, and lateral quickness in a rather confined space, he likes to work in-game scenarios to get the most out of his players. 

“You play the way you practice,” Barry said. “Volleyball is reactionary. They need power in the upper body and a strong core where they are diving around the floor all the time. Plyometrics are super important, as is generating short bursts of explosiveness.” 

If volleyball is reactionary, sports like field hockey and lacrosse are speed games, predicated on the constant change of direction. The same could be said of basketball, where Pickering puts a general focus on jumping, quick bursts, quick feet, lateral shuffles, and straight-ahead activities. But he added that with the Corsairs, he tries to tailor each workout to the individual. 

“As an athletic trainer, I try to evaluate the individual’s strengths and weaknesses along with other factors such as position, playing style and injury history,” Pickering said. 

With hockey, Pickering focuses on single-leg workouts to help strengthen core muscles and improve overall balance that’s demanded by skating on a sheet of ice. Additional crossover footwork maneuvering is also implemented for the hockey program, designed by the UMass Dartmouth CSCS staff. 

Baseball and softball, with the nature of the game being stationary followed by quick reactions, present a different issue of problems. Much like volleyball is a reactionary sport, so too is baseball. And the key to avoiding muscle sprains, tweaks and pulls is to also stay loose. While MMA was in Florida for their annual preseason spring training, Barry took notice of the baseball team’s dedication to staying loose. 

“After our dynamic workouts, we’d break off into three or four groups. One was doing [agility] ladder footwork, another was working on mobility using hurdles while the other was doing resistance training,” Barry said. “There’s a lot of standing around in baseball, but when things happen you have to be ready. You’re constantly training for [maybe] that one moment in time.” 

No matter the sport it’s important to incorporate agility training into the athlete’s workout. And just like weight training or conditioning, agility work is optimized when done year-round. Pickering subscribes to the four-phase approach to strengthening his teams — offseason, preseason, in-season and postseason training. 

During the offseason, Pickering suggested student-athletes focus on power, strength, endurance, speed and agility, and flexibility five or six times per week. In the preseason, he said to decrease the amount of weight used for strength training with increased reps, increased endurance, speed and agility, flexibility, and proprioception four to six times a week. Once the season starts up the idea is to maintain the machine. That means incorporating low or bodyweight activities that center around strength and proprioception two to four times a week. After the season is over, time should be taken for rest and recovery. Initially, Pickering will tell players to take the first two weeks off before starting to resume activities similar to offseason training. 

“[Student-athletes] are all in the weight room and want to be strong, but we need athleticism and power,” Barry said. “They all want to get bigger and stronger. I tell them to be faster and more athletic.”

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