To some extent, speed kills and quicks are lethal. Success in all sports and at all positions relies heavily on an athlete’s ability to move fast and change direction quickly. But without reaction, speed can be misguided and quickness can come up short on the playing field.
During competition, most cuts and changes of direction occur when an athlete adjusts to another athlete, the flow of play or the movement of the ball. An athlete rarely has the luxury of knowing exactly where or when he’ll run, stop, start or cut. “Almost all motion in sports comes down to the instantaneous reactions that take place,” says Andreu Swasey, University of Miami head strength and conditioning coach and master trainer of the ’Cane football squad.
At first glance, it seems an athlete needs to react only to what he sees, such as a line drive’s trajectory, a defender’s position or a ball carrier’s cut. However, there are other types of stimuli to which an athlete must be able to react. “You need to be proficient in not only working off of visual cues, but also to things you hear and things you need to mentally process on the go,” Swasey says.
For sports that depend on athletes executing pre-determined plays, reaction to all three types of stimuli is critical. When a wide receiver steps up to the line, he knows that to run a perfect post route, he’s going to sprint 12 yards, then cut at a 45-degree angle toward the goalpost. However, he must first react to the QB’s cadence to quickly get off the line (audible reaction); adjust his route on the fly based on the defensive coverage (cognitive reaction); and finally react to the path of the ball to make the catch on the run (visual reaction).
Although running and cutting through a programmed course (starting on your own command, sprinting to a cone, cutting, sprinting to another cone, etc.) can reinforce the proper mechanics of changing direction, it does little to mimic the actual reactionary change of direction and quickness necessary to dominate competitive sport. Therefore, a proper change-of-direction training program should include drills that require an athlete to make cuts based on visual cues (partner pointing), audible cues (partner calling out directions) and cognitive cues (partner calling out a color associated with a particular direction).