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  • Josh Gray

Speed ladder and Cone Drills. Are they really effective? Pt. 1

This is part 1 of a three part series in which I will explain the effectiveness of cone drills and the speed ladder for improving athleticism.

Speed and agility training has turned into a catch phrase among many coaches, trainers, and athletes (their faithful followers), and usually connotates activities involving the foot ladder, cones, hula hoops, and various other unique pieces of equipment for athletes to maneuver through. Usually these drills are accompanied by a coach/trainer giving misguided cues/slogans such as “slow feet don’t eat” (or anything similar), or attributing success or the lack of success in these drills to athletic performance. It seems like many coaches forget about the speed and agility component with drills that make a good viral social media video but do very little for athletic performance. So, what is the origin of these pieces of equipment and how effective are they for improving speed and agility?

First, I’ll give the definitions of speed and agility as they relate to sports.

Speed is defined by the maximum rate a person can perform a movement or cover a distance in a certain period of time. As far as sprinting goes, rate of force development and the direction that force is applied are the main factors in sprint speed. In general, to increase speed, exercises that increase the rate at which an athlete applies force, as well as horizontal (acceleration), and vertical directed strength/plyometric exercises would be most practical (I will go into more detail about all aspects of speed training in a later article).

Agility is defined as a change in direction, and/or velocity in response to a stimulus. The stimulus can come from the environment, another opponent, and/or an object, and will force the athlete to read and react to what they see or hear. The major difference between agility and change of direction is that agility drills require a stimulus in which the athlete reacts and make a decision. Change of direction drills are preprogrammed where agility drills are more chaotic and reactive. Now that you have an idea of what speed and agility are, I will discuss the origins of the ladder and various cone drills.

The ladder was originally used with track and field sprinters to regulate their stride length. Coaches would either set up the ladder with each rung getting progressively longer to mimic early acceleration, or set them at a constant length to imitate max velocity sprinting. When track and field athletes used the ladder, they would try to step on the rungs, instead of the boxes between them as is common today among many athletes today. I don’t know why or when the transition happened from the ladder being a tool to improve stride length to now being used for different “footwork” drills.

Cone drills or “change of direction” drills were originally used to teach the technique of deceleration and reacceleration, or change of direction ability from different angles and speeds. Cone drills are rudimentary change of direction exercises that are meant to be introduced during the beginning or relearning stages of an athletic development program with the hopes of eventually progressing into more open ended or sport specific agility drills. They are a means to an end, not an endpoint in training. They were never meant to be used as a measure of athletic ability, to increase agility, or to transfer to athletic performance (outside of improved technique).

In Part 2 of this series, I will go into more depth on the speed ladder and how effective it is for improving speed, agility, and/or change of direction.


Owner of Gray’s Academy

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