At EBA we have always had a high focus on the reactive element of speed and agility training. The fact of the matter is for a majority of sports generalized speed is only relevant if the reactive ability of the athlete is at a competitive level. Reactive ability is also a key to injury prevention as the inability to react and control the bodies response to various stimuli (visual, audible, physical) can greatly increase an athletes risk of injury.
For those not familiar with the pods we are referring to, they are a mobile set of lights that can be programmed to various drills and activities that require the athletes to respond by touching (hand or foot) the intended light as quickly as possible. The system then records the touches, misses, and response times for each drill set which can all be predetermined by us coaches. There are several things we can work on with these drills; this is a break down of the main areas of focus:
The most obvious component to the pod training is the visual reactive response time; we are able to produce statistical analysis for reactive ability using this system. In any set up, if the pods are programed with only one unit flashing per repetition we can work on the athletes on isolated read and react skill sets. Many sports require a “head on a swivel” or wide range view of the court/field to catch players or objects in their peripheral vision to initiate a response as quickly as possible. In these drills the athlete is able to work on that wide lens and will quickly learn if they can make this response a two step process - see the light, get to the light- rather than a 3 step process - see the light, focus their vision on that light, get to the light- their reaction times will be much quicker. To put this into a game like scenario, think of a help side defender on the basketball court; in this position you have to both see the ball and see your man so they don’t cut into a scoring position. With a wide range of vision you can see your man cutting, bump them (cut them off) and simultaneously keep the ball in their field of vision, to be available for help to that teammate. This is best accomplished by not focusing on either target completely but continuing to see both peripherally. Peripheral reactions will always be quicker than focused ones.
Focused reactions can be trained with these pods as well. By adding in “distracting colors” we can force the athlete to not respond to just any light but a specific color light causing their cognitive reaction to be much more fine tuned. By doing the same drills with multiple flashing colors athletes must take the two step process and make it three steps by taking the time to focus on the intended color. Keeping this reaction time as close to the peripheral vision reaction time is the goal. For an example of a game like scenario using this skill, let’s take hockey. If you are defending that means watching both the puck and moving opponents with your peripheral vision. If you then spot the puck coming in an area that you could actually pick it up, you have to shift your focus from the wide range to narrow to focus in on the puck and react in a way that visually tracks it into your stick. The ability to quickly narrow your focus often comes to play when it comes to completing a fine motor control task.
In any of the dynamic drills the first step is always a major indicator of movement efficiency. Whether we have the drills programed to automatically move on to the next rep after the touch or if there is a delay in between, the athlete has to gather themselves from that position (completing a touch) and quickly reset in the right direction for the next touch. This is one of the biggest areas of improvement for every athlete in these drills. By taking out extra steps, negative steps, and creating sharper cuts we can decrease our times dramatically. This is also one of the biggest areas of improvement for athletes in live play. Spotting and determining an action to take is one thing, physically making that response in an efficient manner is another. Making the right first step is the key to beating a defender, cutting off the scorer, and getting into a position to help your teammates in time. The first step is a difference maker at nearly every level of every sport.
The competitive nature of the drills we do with these pods gets our athletes to work at a true game speed. Whether they are competing against themselves or teammates they are moving and thinking as fast as they can as the try to top their times. This is a crucial piece of both mental and physical preparation. Moving at game speed in practice is a key to preparing for the body to move at these speeds in games. By practicing at this speed, athletes are becoming more attuned to accelerating and decelerating from their max speeds. Cutting and maneuvering their center of gravity at these speeds is inherently preventing them from injuring themselves in game like situations that they may not have “practiced” before.
A handful of these drills can be done in partner or team settings. By working together, moving together, and competing together our athletes are working on communication and learning to find a rhythm with their teammates. This is something that is difficult to do outside of sport specific practice, but by learning to take on new challenges together they will learn to problem solve and work together to get it done.