By Kimber Rozier CSCS, Pn1 – Rugby is a multi-faceted game of skill, speed, strength, power and agility. It doesn’t matter if you have the speed to out run the other players if you can’t move laterally to break into space.
Agile body control – the ability to coordinate your movements, accelerate, decelerate, change direction and accelerate again – is a massive determinant of athleticism. Stopping on a dime and exploding past someone defines the root of a side-step.
If you want to run around like the Fiji men or Aussie women’s 7s teams – train your agility. Grab yourself some agility poles and try out these drills.
What Is Agility?
The ability to change direction quickly comes first from the decision. Whether it’s a visual cue (as in a pole) or auditory cue (cut left), something tells your central nervous system that action needs to happen.
Your brain sends a new signal to your muscles – contract or relax – to change direction. Your muscles and tendons send feedback to your brain about the length change, applied force or direction you’re going. And finally, your brain receives this new information and makes adjustments. Maybe a change in ankle positioning or hamstring contraction to change direction, speed up or slow down.
As you can see, a lot has to happen in the body before movement even occurs. The faster these signals are transmitted, the faster you move. This is why we train agility – to make these messages and the body’s response to them closer to automatic. One issue, however, is that most ‘agility’ training neglects one thing. An external stimulus.
According to the NSCA, ‘agility training can be more effective if the athlete has to respond to a directional order.’ Without an unexpected visual or auditory cue, we can begin to predict and anticipate our movements before they happen. Although it may be necessary to simplify the footwork the first time you do it, there’s an upward ceiling to how much this actually transfers.
During a game, you can’t predict what will happen beforehand. If you’ve only practiced moving around static poles (which are very predictable as they don’t move) in a prescribed pattern, it’s going to do little for you in a match situation.
A simple drill to help register external cues is the Y-drill. Set up agility poles in the shape of a Y (hence the name). Place the first pole about 10 m from the second pole, followed by two more poles each at a 45 degree angle in opposite directions.
Stand at the first cone in a two-point stance opposite a coach or teammate. On ‘go’, accelerate to the first cone and have your coach point in a direction just before you reach the second pole. Immediately cut to that side and finish your sprint through the next pole.
Change it up by having your coach call a direction rather than point, assign numbers to each pole, or cut opposite the way they point. Different variations will force you to react accordingly and enhance your ability to do so in a game.
Y-Drill to Turn and Sprint
Complete the original Y-drill with a slight twist designed to build more body control. After the first change of direction, sprint to the next pole and immediately breakdown, using your footwork and a low body height to turn around the pole. Accelerate hard and sprint back to the starting line. Be sure to drop the hips, break down with short steps and drive hard in the first three steps of acceleration.
This is a good way to train footwork. Focus on bending the knee, engaging the core and pushing off the outside leg. The need for ankle stability and redirecting force through velocity comes quickly as you duck in and out of poles. After practicing cutting in and out of a poles in a straight line, try these variations to make them more game-like.
Sprint In Sprint Out
Set up 4-6 poles about 2m apart from each other in a straight line. Start 10 m out from the first pole, slightly to one side, and accelerate to the first pole. Shorten your steps, drop your body height and plant the outside foot to cut in between the first two poles. Take two short steps, drop your hips slightly and plant the outside foot again to cut through the next gap. Weave through all poles in this manner, and then accelerate again through 10 meters.
Contact with the ground should be quick and light on the balls of your feet. Be sure to start on both sides to work on stepping off both feet. Challenge yourself to be more efficient and quicker out of the gates as you get good at it.
Slalom to Catch Pass
Add a ball and it mimics a match – needing to catch a pass, weave through defenses and sprint to the try line. Everything remains the same as a sprint in, sprint out slalom, but with a ball. Now you have to receive a pass before the first pole, run through with ball in hand, and make a pass to a supporting player at speed. Obviously, this requires friends, so bring your teammates and take turns.
Swerve to One-On-One
Finally, my favorite drill for agility poles: the swerve to one-one-one. To set up, place 6 poles about 5 m apart at a 45 degree angle from each other. Have an extra agility pole or cone 10-15 meters directly parallel to the first pole. The whole drill should mimic an “L” with a weird zig-zag for one side.
Have one player start at the bottom corner of the “L” with a ball and the other start at the top without a ball. On go, both players swerve diagonally in and out of the poles, side-stepping each along the way as well as avoiding running into each other. As each athlete approaches the end of the zig-zag, they’ll prepare to turn and sprint at each other.
The ball carrier is now at the top of the “L” and trying to beat the defender across the line (bottom of the L) The defender, on the other hand, works to close off the space as quickly as possible and track into the tackle to make a shoulder hit.
Rest after each rep. You can choose to have one athlete be on offense for 3-4 reps and change, or change roles after each time through. Work until each athlete has a few reps through as both the attacker and defender, and then switch the try line to the other side. This way you ensure tracking and attacking from both the left and right.
Now all you need is a good set of agility poles, and you’re off to the races.
Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union and as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C. She is currently training with Harlequins in England.