Footwork drills using ladders, hurdles, and cones should be simple, effective, and purposeful. They can be great tools for building fundamental qualities like rhythm and balance, both very important for speed and agility. When setting up your program, it's very important to remember two key facts that are indisputable.
Fact #1 - There are no ladders, hurdles, or cones on the field
The overall goal for any athlete is to improve performance on the field. These tools should be treated like training wheels for a bicycle. They can help an athlete learn the basic footwork, rhythm, and balance, which translates into overall agility and speed, but the overall goal is to execute movement patterns without anything present. The proper progression is to remove the training devices, not add more. Going back to the bicycle, how silly would it be to add more training wheels for someone who wants to take the next step? Once an athlete demonstrates a grasp of the drill, it's important to translate movement patterns into applicable movement skills. In a game, players don’t execute random patterns of movements, they have to be able to see the game, recognize situations, and move their bodies accordingly. Agility isn’t pre-programmed or pre-determined. Setting up random, endless drills, will only make your athlete better at random, endless drills. Your athlete will look amazing, showing off incredible footwork during warmups, but once the game starts, they’ll be sitting right next to you.
Fact #2 - Speed = Distance / Time
Fancy footwork drills do not make athletes faster. The only way to increase speed is to increase the amount of distance covered in a given amount of time. In an all out sprint, athletes should cover about 10 yards in their first 5-6 steps. Imagine a long run made on a thru ball in soccer, or a deep pass in football. If the player on offense and the player on defense are side by side, who pulls ahead after 6 steps? If you can increase your stride by just 2” inches each step, you're a whole foot ahead! Now take a look at a typical ladder drill where you will only cover about 1 yard in 6 steps. Is that really teaching speed?
Why, When, How
There is still a ton of value to using these tools. Novice athletes and general population clients will gain the most from drills using ladders, hurdles, and cones. The training devices essentially serve as external cues. Athletes know exactly what they are going to do and when they are going to do it. The use of external cues has been proven to be far more effective than the use of internal cues which can abstract or hard to understand. Weaving thru cones, or executing a specific pattern thru a ladder is a lot easier to visualize and understand for a novice athlete. It can also be a fun and competitive environment which is much more motivating and can make for a great speed and agility session. For the general population, this can be a great form of cardio because clients are asked to move in ways they don't normally move, increasing energy expenditure and decreasing BOREDOM!
For elite athletes, I like to use the drills as a movement prep, reminding them of a few simple coaching points before advancing them into drills that translate into sport. I keep the drills very short (4-6 seconds) and give them a few reps to ramp up the intensity. Elite athletes are extremely competitive so to pin them in an obstacle course of ladders, cones, hurdles, etc. would be a waste of their competitive energy. They would quickly learn how to the “cheat” the drill to win, which pretty much nullifies the purpose of the drill in the first place. It's important to use these tools as a reminder of 1 or 2 simple coaching points, then quickly bridge that into an applicable skills like..
Good balance isn’t static it's dynamic. When executing drills thru the ladder, it's important to assess balance and readiness. The athlete should always be in a position to move in any direction at anytime. This is a precursor for..
A steady rhythm comes before a fast tempo
Each hurdle/cone represents a specific point in space. It's up to the athlete to get to that point with the proper posture, flexion/extension, body lean, etc. They also have to be aware of where they are in and what is surrounding them.