Developing speed and agility in young athletes doesn't have to be complicated.
While there are enormous amounts of drills and exercises designed to improve these skills, a simple game trumps almost all of them when it comes to effectiveness and carryover to sport.
That game? Tag.
Tag is universal. For centuries, kids around the globe have grown up playing tag. Although the game can have endless variations, the basic premise is the player who is "it" must run down a player who is not "it" and tag them, typically with a touch of the hand. Once a person is tagged, they become "it." No matter how old you are or what your athletic background is, it takes about three seconds to learn the rules and understand the goal of the game.
That simplicity is a vital reason why tag and tag-style games can play a role in long-term athletic development. Young children shouldn't be concerned with mastering their sprinting form or clocking a killer time in the 3-Cone Drill. They need exposure to a diverse array of movements and learn how to master their body in space. They need to learn how it feels to run fast, dynamically change directions and engage in exercise.
A game of tag organically incorporates all of these things. Free from the complexity of more convoluted drills, the participants are concerned with just one simple objective. You want a kid to feel what form helps them run fast? Have someone chase them, or have them pursue someone fleeing away from them. You want them to learn how to change directions and improve their improvisational and reactive agility? Put them in threat of being tagged, or wait until they're nearly in reach of tagging someone. And the competitive nature of the game ensures these skills are being developed at the type of speed and intensity they'll encounter in sport.
"Besides play wrestling, tag is one of the oldest games ever created. Many small children play it without even knowing what it is, it's almost innate. It requires no equipment, just open space. We play some form of tag almost every day in my facility with (small kids) up through college-aged athletes," says Jeremy Frisch, owner of Achieve Performance in Clinton, Massachusetts.
With the right boundaries and number of participants, tag also encourages near-constant movement. Though many drills see children stand around as they wait for their turn or listen to the coach try to explain strategy or fundamentals, tag is just pure activity. It's exactly what our young people need more of, as a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that children only spend about 30 percent of their organized sport practice time engaged in moderate-to-vigorous exercise. Tag is also just flat-out fun. There's a reason it's been played for hundreds of years in cultures all around the world. Chasing and fleeing from your friends, classmates, siblings, etc., is an exhilarating experience, and you'll often hear plenty of good-hearted yelling and laughing during a game of tag.
So you've got a fun game that organically trains the type of speed, reactive agility and spatial awareness that's inherent in almost every sport. That's awesome. What makes tag even more awesome, though, is the endless ways you can modify and progress the game to fit the athletes involved and the goals they're working for.
From young children all the way up to elite athletes, tag-style games can be a great way to develop skills and ensure participants train with intensity. Let's run through a few of the trillion ways the game can be intelligently varied.
Want to develop balance and single-leg strength? How about a game of One-Leg Hop Tag, as utilized by Frisch:
How about mental processing, reaction time and acceleration? Rock, Paper, Scissors tag—a variation where the participants play a game of rock, paper, scissors and the loser must flee the winner—is perfect. It's utilized by Micah Kurtz, Director of Strength and Conditioning at AC Flora High School in Columbia, South Carolina:
— Micah J Kurtz (@KurtzM3) July 18, 2018
These variations from Alex Simone, founder of Simone Baseball Performance, focus on everything from first-step acceleration to efficient crossover steps:
Reacting to visual stimuli is a great way to improve on-field agility and game speed!
In the video below HS baseball athletes work through multiple multi-directional cat and mouse tag drills to simulate them in a chaotic (unpredictable) environment. pic.twitter.com/VdHNectayY
— Alex Simone (@SimoneBaseball) November 11, 2017
Does it look the same as most playground games of tag? Not exactly, but the heart of the game is the same. Someone's trying to tag a person while the other person is trying to avoid being tagged. No one moves slow when they're being chased, nor do they do it when they're chasing someone.
How about improving reactive soccer foot skills and ball-handling ability? You can place a soccer ball at the feet of the pursuer(s) or runaway(s), as utilized by Sanjeev Parmar of Future Soccer Academy in Ottawa, Canada:
Tag game: player with the ball has 10 seconds to catch partner. Player with ball: close control, spatial awareness, change of direction and change of pace. Player without ball: change of direction, acceleration, change of pace and deception @PhysLitGuy @AthleteByDesign pic.twitter.com/ny8lG3Qjwr
— sanjeev parmar (@parmarsports) April 2, 2018
Want to focus on lateral movement? You can introduce an object into the game that promotes such movement, as utilized here in the weight room at Pelican Rapids High School in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota:
— PRHS Weight Room (@PRHSWeightRoom) July 12, 2018
Or how about curvilinear speed, as Michael Zweifel of Building Better Athletes has done here:
Curvelinear work is often forgot about. Sports aren't played in straight lines - gotta be able to maintain speed while running a bend pic.twitter.com/NxL9ZWX9wq
— BBA Performance (@BBAPerformance) November 25, 2017
Or even the ability to sort through traffic and identify a target before giving chase, also utilized by Zweifel:
Scan, layer, recognize, react pic.twitter.com/8AW7LimDGd
— BBA Performance (@BBAPerformance) November 7, 2017
Really, the only limit is your imagination. You can also keep many tag-style games interesting regardless of any discrepancy in speed or skill levels by adjusting the starting positions of the athletes.
This certainly isn't to say tag-style games should be the only speed and agility work athletes perform, but they're an excellent way to introduce novice athletes to these concepts and to gauge whether more advanced athletes can execute practiced movements and mechanics in high-speed, chaotic environments.
Due to a handful of injuries sustained while playing the game, tag has come under-fire in certain schools. Some districts have even gone as far as banning it. That seems like an overreaction, as any type of physical activity is going to have some inherent risk, but teaching the right way to tag can remove much of the risk. Tags should be applied with an open hand, and there should never be a pushing or shoving motion while applying a tag. You can also use implements that allow participants to be "tagged" without actually getting touched, such as pool noodles or batons. Frisch often utilizes flag football flags during the tag-style games at his facility.
Are you a coach who utilizes tag or tag-style games with your athletes? If so, we'd love to see and share your programming. Tag us on social at @StackSports.
Photo Credit: JohnnyGreig/iStock
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