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SAQ: A Developmental Perspective - Part 1


Speed, agility and quickness (SAQ) training is a subject that tends to become a topic of heated discussion. Many coaches feel the effort put forth while practicing a sport is sufficient to improve these types of motor skills. Their assertion is that athletes cannot get more sport specific than performing the actual sport itself. Therefore, by practicing that sport, athletes are optimally developing the set of motor skills specifically related to that sport and not wasting time on unnecessary activities. Therefore, by practicing a sport at game intensity, athletes will optimally learn and develop jumping and landing mechanics, acceleration, deceleration, cutting mechanics, increase foot speed and develop everything else that goes into well rounded athleticism.

The other school of coaching believes component training, or breaking down complex movement into “easily digestible” pieces, is the best way to go about optimizing the highly integrated complex motor skills associated with dynamic athletics. Complex movements are dissected, and deficient motor skills are corrected or improved. Simple skills are combined, cleaned and built upon, resulting in improved efficiency in the complex movement associated with sport.

Without question, human movement is extremely complex. The simple act of walking involves multi-faceted in depth motor programming that functions on a subconscious reflexive level. This reflexive motor programming starts to develop as an infant. You learn to do very basic skills with very basic motor programming. As you mature, the programming becomes more complicated as does the movement.

I like to compare our development to computers. Fresh off of the assembly line, computers are basically worthless. They have all of the hardware they need but no software to tell them what to do and how to act. The computer then gets a basic operating system. This system allows the computer to comprehend basic commands. Technically, the computer does not have any “problem solving” capabilities yet, just the ability to learn (accept new programs). With each new program added, the computer becomes more powerful. It can perform more tasks and solve problems at a faster and more efficient rate. However, any glitch in the programming can have a dramatically adverse effect on how well the computer runs. In most instances, it will still be able to perform most tasks and solve most problems. Nevertheless, it will get slower and slower as more is added to it.

With computers, a lot of people and a lot of money are usually dedicated to guarantee that programming is perfect. Hours upon hours are spent examining each line of code. Once the code has been cleaned up, the software has to undergo vigorous testing. Finally, once the software is thought to be glitch free, it is released.

However, this type of meticulous care is rarely given to our youth. Children are typically never guided through their most important stages of development. As infants, they learn to move by trial and error. Walking, standing, sitting, reaching, rolling over and all the other things that are being learned and developed are all self taught. This way of self learned development continues into preadolescences. Unfortunately, it is typical in North America to actually steer our youth away from programs that focus on appropriate physical development in an effort to focus more on specific sport skill.

In many instances, the programs that are available are watered down versions of adult programming and serve to further foster many of the developmental issues already surfacing. In either circumstance, children continue to build more erroneous complex programming on top of already faulty self instructed programming. From a developmental prospective, these children have reached the age where they are the most “plastic.” By definition, the state of being most plastic means they are at the peak of their capacity to be shaped, formed and influenced.

Consequently, their ability to develop skills such as coordination, balance, body control, movement mechanics and posture is at its greatest. In reality, missed opportunities for improvement and improper coaching at this age can lead to a lifetime of decelerated “learning” and progressive developmental problems.

Unfortunately, it is also at this age that our youth are introduced to structured practices that are typically coached by local parents. Although parental participation appears like a wonderful idea and is typically the only available option, it can result in more harm than good from a long term perspective. The common lack of appropriate education in youth conditioning and the fundamentals of motor development typically result in the repetitious ingraining of incorrect movement patterns and an inappropriate progression of skill advancement.

Motor learning research reveals that athletes go through progressive stages of learning as they acquire new skills. Some skills are similar to others, which allows an athlete to skip or quickly breeze through various initial stages along the way. When initial stages are faulty, inadequately developed or skipped altogether, later stages of development may be negatively affected. Therefore, it is critical to optimally develop each fundamental motor skill before moving on or combining multiple skills.

Conversely, it is common that this does not happen. Often, fundamentals of movement are neglected, and progressive issues develop with regards to motor skill development. The resultant effect is a host of issues woven throughout very complex dynamic athletic movement.

By nature, most motor skills are designed to function without cognitive control. Your body will instinctively operate from its ingrained programming, regardless of right or wrong.

Considering the former, my question becomes a) if your body is running off reflexive automated motor programming, b) no formal education has ever occurred to teach what is correct or optimal and c) no input is given to highlight what is incorrect, how can a young athlete be expected to fix these developmental issues by playing his or her sport?

The average human brain does not possess the capacity to efficiently refine or learn distinct foreign skills while performing complex multi-task oriented activities. Most individuals are not and can not think about improving a specific motor skill while engaging in a confrontation situation (which is truly the essence of most sport).

If you asked most athletes what they were thinking during a confrontational activity (as being guarded during a lay up), they would more than likely say, "I don’t really remember thinking of anything. I just did what was natural."

They functioned on pre-programmed information. They functioned reflexively, maybe not efficiently, but definitely reflexively. Did this athlete actually develop or correct any specific motor skill during this situation?

They may have learned how to cope more effectively with the psychological stresses involved in confrontation. They may have developed a greater efficiency in coordinating multiple motor skills, which is important if the components are sound, but they undoubtedly did not improve an individual motor skill.

If the athlete depended on trial and error as a process of learning movement motor skills throughout life, he or she probably didn’t know that a problem existed. If this is the case, then there was definitely no effort made for correction.

By using SAQ drills, we can isolate problems and try to fine tune erroneous pre-programmed information while increasing an athlete's overall warehouse of skills. We can break down gross movement skills into components that allow an athlete to cognitively address issues that tend to be combined into complex reflexive compound skills.

Each motor skill should then be optimized before athletes progress. If they lack the coordination or ability to perform certain motor skills as an isolated component, which is many times the case, they lack the ability to perform them when they are integrated into chaotic confrontational sporting situations.

Fixing these erroneous motor skills may require one correct repetition or 1,000 correct repetitions depending on the skill, overall quality of the athlete's current motor programming, the quality of instruction and the athlete's intelligence. Once an athlete demonstrates proficiency for each individual motor skill, the skills can then be combined into motor skill clusters or small subsets of motor skills.

When the athlete demonstrates proficiency for coordination of skills within a subset, subsets can be combined and the process continued. At this point, you should start incorporating drills to develop quickness in your workouts. All of the following quickness components should not be utilized in the same workout, but rather, they should be cycled into several different sessions. If you find that certain components do not fit into your program yet others do, focus on the ones that work best for you.

Box Drills

Start with a three to four inch tall box. The taller the box, the more plyometric in nature the drill becomes. The shorter the box, the quicker the motions become. More experienced athletes can utilize a little taller box.

Maintain a tall spine during all drills. Good posture is always important. Sustain a constant rhythm throughout the entire drill and push for maximal speed. Stay relaxed from head to toe. Any tension within the body will waist energy and slow the potential maximal speed. Tap the box lightly and react quickly off the ground during all drills.

Figure 1 -
Alt Tap Box w/Foot
Figure 2 -
Quickly Move Side to Side
Figure 3 -
Down Up Both Feet Together
Figure 4 -
Down Up Both Feet Together

Linear (Figure 1 above)

Start with one foot on a three to four inch tall box and the other directly behind on the floor. Moving both feet at the same time, rapidly switch so the floor side foot is on the box and the box side foot is on the floor. Repeat using a rhythmically constant tempo. Stay loose and use an opposing arm action.

Lateral (Figure 2 above)

Start with one foot on the box and the other beside it on the ground. Moving laterally with both feet at the same time, replace the foot that is on the box with the foot that is on the ground. Take the foot that was on the box to the ground on the opposite side. Repeat using a rhythmically constant tempo.

Down Ups (Figure 3 above)

Start with both feet on the box. Drop down (with both feet) and rapidly rebound to the top. Keep a slight static bend at the knee and use the ankle joint as the primary joint of action. React quickly upon contact to minimize contact time. Repeat using a rhythmically constant tempo.

Down Up Split (Figure 4 above)

Start with both feet on the box, split and drop down to the sides of the box and rebound back onto the box. Utilize the same technique as the Down Ups.

Quick Feet

Assume an athletic stance. Rapidly “chop” your feet in place during all drills. Try to keep your stance width consistent (many times, individuals will narrow their stance. Keep your head up, breath normally and your upper body relaxed.

Ladder Drills

Ladders can be purchased or made using tape. Your typical ladder is made up of 18 inch squares that cover a 16 foot distance. You can make you ladder any length you like. I prefer to use ladders that present a little more physical presence than tape. I find that athletes tend to be a little more accurate when using something that creates a physical barrier. Often, athletes will cheat and step directly on the tape, which minimizes movement distance. With a ladder, they can feel when they are not accurately stepping and adjust accordingly.

I try to incorporate three different types of drills. The first type of drills are steady state drills. These drills focus on quickness endurance and utilize a constant rhythm throughout the ladder. The second type of drills are burst drills. These drills focus on the ability to turn on rapid burst of foot movement. The third type of drills are elastic response drills. These drills focus on improving the reactive speed components of the lower leg.

As with all movement drills, stay relaxed and focused during each drill. Try to use a normal arm action (which will change according to the nature of the drill) and avoid the frozen arm syndrome that often times accompany these drills. Minimize foot contact time (do not let your feet squeak on the floor as this is a sign of increased contact time). Start slow, work on accuracy and learn the drills before you speed them up.

Figure 5 Figure 6
Figure 7 Figure 8

One Foot in Each (Figure 5 above)

Start behind the ladder facing down it. Lead with either foot stepping one foot per square. 

Lateral One In Ladder  (Figure 6 above)

Start by facing to the side with one foot in and one foot out. Lead with the foot that is in the ladder and step into the next square. Follow with the trail leg by placing that foot into the first square. Repeat the exercise leading with the other foot.

Two Feet In Each (Figure 7 above)

Start behind the ladder facing down it. Step with either foot into the first square, followed by the second foot into the same square. Repeat the drill leading with the other foot.

Two in Lateral (Figure 8 above)

Start by facing to the side with both feet outside the ladder. Step into the first square with the closest foot, followed by the second foot. Repeat the exercise leading with the other foot.

Figure 9 Figure 10
Figure 11 Figure 12

Across Drill (Figure 9 above)

Start beside the ladder with your shoulders and hips perpendicular to it long axis. Step into the first square with the closest foot (lead) followed by the other foot (trail). Step out to the opposite side of the ladder with the lead foot followed by the trail. Tap the trail foot (front half of the foot) on the ground outside of the ladder and step it back into the second square (The trail leg is now going to become the lead and the lead the trail). Now step into the second square with the trail foot. Step out to the same side of the ladder where you began the drill but beside the third square. Repeat this pattern down the ladder. Focus on maximal bursts of rapid foot action as you cross the ladder. Each burst should start and stop with the foot tap. Do not allow your shoes to squeak on the floor (this means you are increasing contact time and not efficiently applying force to the ground).

Carioca in Each (Figure 10 above)

Start at the end of the ladder facing to the side. Begin with the outside foot slightly in front of the inside foot. Step across the front into the first square with your outside foot. Trail with your inside foot into the same square. Step behind into the next square with your lead foot followed by your right foot.

Icky Shuffle (Figure 11 above)

Start by facing down ladder and to the side. Using a one-two-three rhythm, step into the first square with the inside foot, followed by the outside foot. Next, step to the outside of the second square with the lead foot. Now step into the second square with the trail foot. Step with the lead foot into square two. Repeat the exercise leading with the other foot.

In In Out Out Lateral (Figure 12 above)

Stand beside the ladder facing the side of the first square. Step in with the lead foot (this will be the foot on the long side of the ladder) followed by the trail foot. Step backwards out of the first square with the lead foot followed by the trail foot. Repeat this action down the ladder. Maintain a constant rhythm throughout the drill.

Figure 13 Figure 14
Figure 15 Figure 16

In In Out Out Linear (Figure 13 above)

Face down the ladder and straddle the first square. Step into the first square with the lead foot immediately followed by the trail foot. (Perform this entire drill with the right foot leading and another time with the left foot leading). Step back out so you are straddling the second square. Step back into the second square with both feet. Repeat this pattern down the ladder. Maintain a constant rhythm down the ladder.

In Out Out (Figure 14 above)

Start by facing the ladder from the side. Step with the outside foot into the first square. Step to the side of square two with the inside foot. Step back out of square one with the outside foot to the outside of square two. Step with the inside foot into square two. Repeat the exercise leading with the other foot.

Lateral Scissors (Figure 15 above)

Start at the end of the ladder with your shoulders and hips running parallel to the long axis of the ladder and the closest foot in the first square. Jump laterally and cross the outside foot across the front so the lead foot stays in the first square and the trail foot lands in the second. Jump laterally again so the lead foot lands in the third square and the trail foot lands in the second square. Continue down the ladder. Repeat facing the other direction.

Rotational Twist  (Figure 16 above)

Start in front of the ladder. Jump and turn a 180 and land in A. Jump and turn a 180 and land in B. Continue down the ladder.

Figure 17 Figure 18
Figure 19

Skiers (Figure 17 above)

Using an athletic stance face down the ladder and straddle the side (one foot in one foot out). Jump forward and across the ladder so you are straddling the opposite side of the second square. Continue the pattern down the ladder. Maintain a constant stance width and rhythm during the entire drill.

X-Over Lateral (Figure 18 above)

Start at the end of the ladder facing to the side. Begin with the outside foot slightly in front of the inside foot. Cross the outside foot over in front and into the first square. Next step the inside foot into the first square. Repeat the exercise leading with the other foot.

X-Over Zig Zag (Figure 19 above)

Start by facing down ladder and to the side. Step into the first square with the outside foot (across the front of the body). Step to the outside of the first square with the trail foot followed by the lead foot. Step across the body into the second square with the lead foot. Step to the outside of the second square with the trail foot followed by the lead foot.

By incorporating the above drills into your workouts, your clients will realize increased speed, improved agility and enhanced quickness, sure to give them a winning advantage over any and all competition.