Developing Foot Speed and Agility for Sports Performance


Here’s a link to an updated article that wrote from on using speed ladders for developing speed in sports performance athletes.

Speed Ladders for Speed?

The comments below were written by Mike Boyle who is owner of the #1 rated private training facility/gym in the country according to Men’s Health Magazine.  I’ve talked with Mike several times over the past few years about several issues and I have traveled to one of his facilities in Boston.  Mike is constantly pushing issues about the way things are done in the Strength and Performance Field. He changed my thinking on various aspects of training my sports performance athletes to not only make them better but do it in a safer manner.  He’s also a fan of “getting guys strong”.  Lets face it, football, ice hockey, and lacrosse are violent games.  You’ll soon find out how important the weight room is if you face a stronger opponent even in less physical sports like basketball and soccer.  With this post, I’ll let Mike handle the performance end which I’ve spoke tirelessly about throughout this blog.  Jumping on Swiss balls and Bosu balls doesn’t make you stronger.  Doing Crossfit and a ton of circuit training doesn’t make you stronger.  Sure they help with General Physical Preparedness which is an essential part of training, not playing the specific sport.  Mike’s thoughts are below and my comments will be in red.

Developing Foot Speed and Agility

Michael Boyle

A couple of threads on the forum got me thinking about the question of foot speed and athletes. I can’t tell you how often I hear a parent or a coach ask, “How can I improve my son’s/daughter’s/ athlete’s foot speed or agility?” It seems everyone always wants the shortcut and the quick fix. The better question might be “Do you think you can improve foot speed?” or maybe even the larger question, “Does foot speed even matter?”

That begs the larger question, “Does foot speed have anything to do with agility?” I know coaches or parents reading this are asking, “Is this guy crazy?” How many times have we heard that speed kills? I think the problem is that coaches and parents equate fast feet with fast and quick feet with agile. However, fast feet don’t equal fast any more than quick feet equal agile. In some cases, fast feet might actually make an athlete slow–often I see fast feet as a detriment to speed. In fact, some of our quick turnover guys, those who would be described as having fast feet, are very slow off the start. (Gregory Hines is one of the greatest tap dancers of our time. I can’t imagine him or any other tap dancer dominating any sports based on their speed.)

The problem is fast feet doesn’t use the ground well to produce force. Fast feet might be good on hot coals, but not on hard ground. Think of the ground as the well from which we draw speed. It is not how fast the feet move, but rather how much force goes into the ground. This is basic actioneaction physics. Force into the ground equals forward motion. This is why the athletes with the best vertical jumps are most often the fastest. It comes down to force production. Often coaches will argue the vertical vs. horizontal argument and say the vertical jump doesn’t correspond to horizontal speed, but years of data from the NFL Combine begs to differ. Force into the ground is force into the ground. In spite of what Brett Contreras may say, vectors don’t seem to matter here. The truth is parents should be asking about vertical jump improvement, not about fast feet. My standard line is “Michael Flatley has fast feet, but he doesn’t really go anywhere. If you move your feet fast and don’t go anywhere, does it matter? It’s the old “tree falling in the woods” thing .(Same goes with skating..  5-6 useless quick choppy steps verse 3 powerful strides?  I’m not comparing a 10 year-old and Hal Gill strides here. 3 well placed and effective strides will beat a “tap dance” any day.)

The best solution to slow feet is to get stronger legs. Feet doesn’t matter. Legs matter. Think about it this way: If you stand at the starting line and take a quick first step but fail to push with the back leg, you don’t go anywhere. The reality is that a quick first step is actually the result of a powerful first push. We should change the buzzwords and start to say “that kid has a great first push.” Lower body strength is the real cure for slow feet and the real key to speed and to agility. The essence of developing quick feet lies in single-leg strength and single-leg stability work… landing skills. If you cannot decelerate, you cannot accelerate, at least not more than once. (This is why I spend so much time teaching decelerating techniques.)

One of the things I love is the magic drill idea. This is the theory that developing foot speed and agility is not a process of gaining strength and power, but rather the lack of a specific drill. I tell everyone I know that if I believed there was a magic drill we would do it every day. The reality is it comes down to horsepower and the nervous system, two areas that change slowly over time. (Rome wasn’t build in a day.  Several training sessions a week over years = an athlete closing in on their genetic potential.)

How do we develop speed, quickness and agility? Unfortunately, we need to do it the slow, old-fashioned way. You can play with ladders and bungee cords all you want, but that is like putting mag wheels on an Escort. The key is to increase the horsepower, the brakes and the accelerator. I think the answer for me is always the same. I wrote an article last year called “Is ACL Prevention Just Good Training?” In much the same way, development of speed, agility and quickness simply comes down to good training. We need to work on lower body strength and lower body power and we need to do it on one leg.  (When an athlete’s knees collapse as they jump or squat it’s because they are weak.  This is an ACL tear waiting to happen.   I correct this by coaching technique and through simply good training habits.  Exercises to fix this issue are the same that are used with all of our athletes.  I haven’t found an athlete whose glutes or hamstrings  are too strong.)

Speed ladder drills… They provide excellent multi-planar dynamic warm-up. They develop brain-to-muscle connection and are excellent for eccentric strength and stability. We do less than five minutes of ladder drills, one or two times a week. I don’t believe for a minute that the ladder is a magic tool that will make anyone faster or more agile, however I do believe it is a piece of the puzzle from the neural perspective. People waste more than five minutes on biceps curls, but we have long debates about ladder drills. (I like using a 3-4 inch box performing similar drills.  I’ve found that athletes better position themselves when using a box over the ladder)

These are also a great tool to show to coaches who want “foot speed.” Sometime it’s easier to “yes” them than to argue with them. Give a guy with “bad feet” a jump rope and you get a guy with bad feet and patella tendinitis. (Jumping rope gets an athletes better at jumping rope and increasing heart rate.  That’s about it)

PS- I have never used the term “speed ladder.” We always call it an agility ladder if we call it more than the ladder?

Speed ladders are being used at “Speed Camps”  by coaches who want to collect a quick pay check. Sure a coach might use some of the other drills that are used in the camps- like bungee cords and parachutes.  As a former D1 sprinter, I know track and I know speed. Charging parents $5-10 a head is cheap and kids sweat.  Value and apparent hard work should equal results.  Maybe some parents are happy with results for a “World Class Video Game Junkie” but don’t expect drastic improvement for an athlete.

Training for top speed is a waste of time anyway.  99% of sports require acceleration over top speed.  Athletes very very rarely run for 30-40+ yards in a straight line.

An athlete over the age of 13-14 simply need horse power. I train several 13-14 years who have slow feet.  Why?  They just grew 5+ inches and they look like a Praying Mantis (just not green).  Their limbs are long and their center of gravity isn’t were it was 6 months ago.  Combine that with the fact that they are weak, and you have slow feet.  I’ve cut their slowness down by about 50% this past summer.  If they continue to maintain their strength levels through the ice hockey season, they will no longer be slow by the end of next summer.  In a “quick results society”, that’s a slap of reality in the face.  I guess that’s why so few receive Division 1 scholarships and even fewer become professionals.  Is it any different in life?