Watch any soccer game and you will see players who can cover distances very fast and others who seem to be able to navigate congestion in the penalty area with ease. The player who is accomplished at both is rare.
Numerous research reports show that agility and speed are different characteristics.
As with speed, agility has many components, including:
Recognition/Reaction: Recognize the situation and react ASAP
Decision-Making Speed: Moving as fast as possible while assessing game situations
Balance/Body Awareness: Controlling and knowing where all body parts are all the time
Footwork: Full control of the feet
Change of Direction: Rapid and accurate changes of direction
Obstacle Avoidance: React quickly to obstructions in running path
Improving agility improves quickness both on and off the ball, body control and prevents injury.
More on Soccer Speed Training
Footwork is critical to agility. The common error is a short back step before moving in the desired direction, which lengthens the total reaction time. The more proper "first steps" are the cross-over step (used for great distances, the back foot crosses over the front foot while the main push is from that front foot); open step (the lead foot steps out not too far and the push comes from the back foot); jab step (the lead foot steps slightly back and turns in desired direction--the push comes from the back foot); and the drop step (the lead foot drops straight or diagonally back while the push comes from the back foot).
I could never do the drop step--a European teammate in college said I had American feet. Picture this: You are facing the dribbler who manages to give a feint to your right and go around you to your left. My European friend would take the feint. Now his right foot is out where he took the feint and the left foot is back; basically the starting position of the drop set. Instead of running around this foot placement (like me), he would just swivel on his feet (no steps) as they were planted and end up with the ball at his feet. Try it. It works.
Quick recognition of the situation, drop step, turn, and there is the ball. My friend could do this so quickly that he would get called for obstruction (by the American refs who didnt understand the move) and then get very mad.
Our college team once played a seriously good English team. One of the many skills they demonstrated as they destroyed us was the ability to cut in one step. It took us three or four steps to try to keep up.
So what kinds of activities can help improve agility? Try some of these:
- Partner holds a ball in each hand and faces the player. The partner drops both balls and the player must control both balls before the second bounce.
- Player in front runs the field with a player shadowing every move. Encourage the front player to change speed and direction often. Also do this with each facing each other, where the shadow player does the opposite of their partner.
- Jumping rope is great. Try some of these variations: typical two-foot jump, stride jumps (swap forward foot on each jump), crossover jumps, single-leg jumps.
- Line steps: Stand to the side of a field line or rope, step over the line with near foot and then the trail leg as fast as possible, then back. See how many can be done in 10 seconds. Make it harder by having the players do this over a cone or ball.
- A speed ladder is a vinyl ladder you roll out on the field. Have players run through (always as fast as possible) with one foot in each space. Then do two-foot jumps forward. Step sideways on the left and step the right foot in, then the left foot in, then out to the right, then back to the left and so on. Lateral crossover steps. Shuffle sideways straight through the ladder leading with the left foot, then back leading with the right. Some ladders have different distances from rung to rung and that is fine. A speed ladder is a good investment.
- Put players in the "ready position," and on command the players immediately hop and turn 90 degrees, plant, then immediately return back to the front. On the next command, turn to the other direction. Football players do this a lot.
- Set up your corner flags in a slalom course (not always in a straight line). Players run fast through the course, emphasizing the plant of the outside foot and cut tight around the flag. Make sure girls run this low, bending at the hips and knees.
- 5-10-5 shuttle: Going sideways, each player runs as fast as possible five yards to the right, 10 yards to the left, then five back to the right.
- Icky Shuffle: Use the speed ladder and stand to the left to start. Always lead with foot next to the ladder. Step in with the right, follow with the left, then out to the right with the right foot, then into the next space with the left, follow with the right, then out with the left, etc. Do it yourself, looks like the Icky Shuffle, if you remember Cincinnati Bengals running back Icky Woods' touchdown dance. Try this going backwards, too.
- How about one foot landing in the space, hopping to two feet out, then back in, landing on the other foot, and so on.
- Back to No. 6. Now do the jumps turning 90 degrees, and back to the front, then 180 degrees and back, then 270 degrees, finally 360 degrees. Do this in both directions.
There are literally hundreds of drills one can do to improve agility. Basketball and football coaches are good resources, as are numerous books on conditioning. Check you local library or bookstore.