Preparing the body to change direction

The purpose of this article is to give any readers an insight into how I think about and prepare people for change of direction tasks. These change of direction tasks are simply that, not agility tasks. We want athletes to be able to change direction powerfully, quickly and efficiently in competition. In preparation, I like to look at these qualities in reverse: efficiency, speed and power. Change of direction all starts with promoting efficiency by understanding the attractors of the movement.

Key attractors in changing direction

I like to think of change of direction in a similar manner to how I think about lunging: it is about management and interaction of our center of mass and our base of support. The direction, amplitude or complexity might change, but this interaction is always there and, as a result, common shapes (or attractors) emerge from athletes that can do this efficiently. They find an efficient shape that speed and power can be layered on top of.

» Learn more: Frans Bosch explains the attractors of agility in his new book Anatomy of Agility available for preorder in the HMMR Store

I like to refer to these positions as a loaded position we are aiming for after the deceleration phase and just before the acceleration phase in change of direction tasks. I’m going to describe these in brief below.

  • Triple flexion (ankle/knee/hip) to drop the centre of mass.
  • Relative internal rotation and adduction at the hip – pelvis moving on a “fixed hip”
  • Counter rotation of the thorax
  • Contralateral arm reaching across midline in front
  • Ipsilateral arm extension

One point to make here is that this information is mainly to inform the physio or the coach by using a set of parameters to look for. Having an athlete think about hip adduction or ipsilateral arm reach would detract from the fluidity of the movement and the learning taking place. It is up to us to design tasks that draw these positions out of the athlete, rather than explicitly impose them.

The pre-requisites

Now that we know what we are looking for we can start to think about how to get there, especially when re-introducing change of direction to a recovering athlete. As a prerequisite I will screen a couple of things before diving into too much change of direction work. If an athlete has major functional deficits, those need to be addressed before progressing too far. The majority of the qualities below should be ironed out in the earlier parts of the training or reconditioning process, or at least given some attention before proceeding:

  • Adequate hip internal rotation and extension mobility
  • Adequate thoracic spine rotation mobility
  • Adequate foot pronation and supination ability
  • Adequate hip to shoulder (core) control and coordination
  • Adequate literacy with regards to squat (bilateral, unilateral, asymmetrical) and lunge (multidirectional)

Starting with change of direction training

The following elements are the building blocks I use to prepare athletes for changing direction. In order to ensure a smooth progression to this level of reconditioning or coaching I start off by taking an athlete through each item to ensure they have very good competency and understanding of each one:

These core building blocks are then put into a training plan, either as a warm up for agility work or even as part of a general athletic development session. How they are used is simply about combining and progressing each item.

» Related Content: Jimmy Radcliffe breaks down the Oregon Sway Drill and other change of direction fundamentals in his member video.

Here are some examples of how I might prepare an athlete for further change of direction or agility tasks. These sequences can be done as circuits in one session. Or individual sequences could be used as part of a warm up for a higher level agility or change of direction session. The specificity increased from sequence 1 to sequence 4. These sequences are not plug and play programs, more like a starting point to progress and regress from. The video after the table also demonstrates each exercise.

Exercise 1 Exercise 2 Exercise 3
Sequence 1 Lateral lunge and cross body reach Skater squat Hip lock hold against wall
Sequence 2 Oregon Sway Drill (narrow, wide, step) Skater bound and cross body reach
Sequence 3 Oregon Sway Drill (crossover, turn & run) Triangle bound and cross body reach
Sequence 4 Diagonal bound, backward diagonal hop 3 cone approach and exit dictated

Understand the positions and then look for them in change of direction and agility tasks. For adequate learning I would repeat a sequence 2-5 times, depending on the goal. The organization of the sequences here is simply to provide some interleaving in the learning process. Leaving a task for a few minutes before coming back to it again. Each sequence offers opportunity for teaching and differentiation for the athlete, not simply repetition for repetition’s sake.

Moving from change of direction to agility

While agility and change of direction are inherently related it is unclear whether training one transfers to the other. Particularly to the sports arena when context shifts massively towards perception-action. One can debate how much transfer there is between the two, but I find it hard to argue about the benefits of change of direction training in preparing the body to tolerate sports-related agility training. This is especially important in reconditioning: we need to know the parts can tolerate the positions, amplitudes and directions of bounding, cutting and landing before we introduce any noise to the process.

Once we know an athlete can tolerate those positions, we can begin to loosen constraints on change of direction tasks and allow the individual to find her/his own resolution. One other way we can add stress to the controlled environment of change of direction tasks is by adding time pressure until we see a breakdown in quality. Assessing the change or stability in technique under time pressure gives us valuable information about whether this athlete is safe to progress.

There are also some other factors we can utilize to dial up or down the intensity:

  • Timed reps can pretty readily increase the intent of the athlete – faster times with maintenance of technique and quality is what we are looking for here – not just faster
  • Simpler tasks allow for greater expressions of power and speed
  • Appropriate high friction surfaces and footwear with good stability (or barefoot for some) helps keep the environment safer.

Overall, change of direction tasks provide great foundational work for athletes, and also can develop special strength for certain sports. But they work most effectively when you know what parameters you are looking for so that training can be built around them. In my environment this is a critical point in the return to play process. We are aiming to use the infrastructure we have built and temper it to the sporting environment before introducing the chaos of true agility training.