Agility training for Alpine Skiers (and all sports!) involves “Reactive Work”

If you’re not familiar with the sport of Alpine Skiing, it is essentially a race down a snowy mountain with continuous changes of direction around poles and on skis of course.  From technical to speed disciplines (SL, GS, SG & DH), gates get further apart, skis get longer and speeds get much faster.  In my opinion, this makes it an agility-based sport.  As recent definitions of agility seem to include the “response to an external stimulus” aspect alongside the “whole body change of direction” I’d understand if you were to argue against me.  (Again if you’re not familiar with the sport, athletes do inspect the course before the race so they have the opportunity to memorise and visualize each turn, thus you’d think most movements are preplanned.)  However as athletes speed toward each gate, I’d argue they are still adjusting to what’s in front of them, it’s unlikely that every turn will be perfect, snow moves, you can lose balance for a split second or make a mistake and thus reaction speed is also a huge key to their change of direction ability when competing or even training for that matter.

marc oliveras slalom

In the gym my priorities until now have been to get the guys to move great, get strong & powerful and build an aerobic foundation.  Now that some of the more elite athletes have a great general foundation, they are really starting to focus on energy system development and improving their lactate threshold.  That being said we run a very concurrent programme, of which speed and agility training plays a very important role.

At an end of season coaches’ review one year, one of our technical coaches raised an important topic around agility.  He explained that the athletes need to be able to adjust quickly on the skis when they make a small mistake.  And we need to work on this in our physical training.  His idea (being a World-Class skier in his own right) was around fast footwork drills, ladders, multi-directional plyometrics, “agility courses” etc.  So that’s where my line of thought started, although we already did that kind of training and the athletes especially had a large history of jumping through hoops and quick footwork before I came along.  Having recently criticized some fancy footwork that’s circulating the internet for advertising itself as “agility training” I couldn’t help but think there’s more to the puzzle.  Personally I’ve always been very interested in agility training for rugby and field based sports but skiing is rather different.  So I got to reading, chatted to a few other coaches and looked at other sports like motorsports, badminton and others.

Basically my conclusions weren’t anything new.  Once you’ve got a decent preplanned technique and can apply enough force in a short time:

  • Additional strength & speed training have little transfer to agility.
  • Change of direction training has little transfer to agility.
  • What counts is your body’s ability to react to an external stimulus and reorganize itself accordingly.
  • What counts further to sport specific conditions is the context in which that external stimulus occurs.

So I’m not saying strength & power aren’t important for skiing, they definitely are, I’m just saying once there’s a good foundation this ability won’t have a great deal of transfer to reacting to an external stimulus and reorganizing the body accordingly.

The most trainable quality becomes obvious when you have a clear definition of what AGILITY is: “The SPEED in which you can REACT to an external stimulus and REORGANISE your body in order to CHANGE DIRECTION most effectively.  The context in which this is applied is then very specific to the sport.” (That’s not taken from a text book, just how I define it in my own words).  Perhaps most aligned to Sheppard and Young (2006), who defined agility as a “rapid whole body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus”.  More or less the same I know.

Anyway, to me this throws up 2 areas where we can work, general training & specific training.  Simply put: “General Training” is everything done off the snow and “Specific Training” is what’s done on the snow.

General Agility Training:

To start with, a simple secondary objective of mine is to expose athletes to a greater variety of multidirectional movement patterns during warm ups.  I’ve found the best way to do this is by playing a huge variety of games.  These can be anything from ball based games such as end ball or dodgeball (definitely an athlete favourite), to tag based games such as simple tag or stuck in the mud.  They can be played in teams or as individuals and are a really fun way to start training.  Rather than standing still when they’re caught or hit, they can do dynamic movements as part of their warm up (squats, lunges etc.).  Playing games can also introduce a bit of competition amongst athletes and in line with this article they’ll initiate loads of unplanned quick changes of direction in response to an external stimulus (ball, frisbee, another athlete etc.).  Perfect right?

Then we’ll move on to continue the warm up to include some basic technical change of direction work, as it’s still vital to have solid movement patterns (Frans Bosch would call them constants or technical markers) as the foundation.  Alongside the remaining principles of mobilisation, activation and potentiation of course.

Then a large proportion of the forthcoming agility work must involve some form of “reaction to an external stimulus”.  This can be anything from working in pairs and copying the other’s movement to catching a ball thrown against the wall from behind you.  Sometimes we’ll even go back to playing games in pairs such as  “wall ball” (like squash using the hand and a tennis ball).

Then most of the skiers here still love an “agility course” that involves running through cones and poles etc.  So the main difference now is that I won’t let them see the course before it’s laid out, all the changes of direction will be of different lengths and I’ll change it for each rep so they’re always being exposed to something new.  Check out this short video for a couple of examples:

Specific Agility Training:

Remember that the context in which these exercises take place is extremely important.  As the above drills don’t involve skis, ski boots, snow/ice or a mountain, their transfer to the specific movements and situations we’re after is still somewhat limited.  So the question becomes, what can they do to train this ability on the snow?  Well I’m sure this is nothing revolutionary and I’ve definitely seen other teams using similar techniques, but here’s a few ideas we’re introducing on the snow:

The first is my favourite.  It’s a really easy one for the guys to do before any technical session or even before a race as part of their warm up, it’s basically a game of “cat & mouse” where one athlete closely follows the line of the other and the one in front tries to lose the one behind.  As well as training reaction speed and rapid change of direction on skis, it also requires huge focus and as they’re so competitive is a great way of raising intensity.  Plus it’s a lot of fun and they really enjoy it!

Another idea is one we’re going to steal from a Belgium team I saw training this week where they were passing a rugby ball between them as they skied.  Great use of an external focus whilst maintaining technique and they can make it progressively more challenging by where they throw the ball (I’ve no doubt they will).  They can even do it following one another, where the guy in front throws the ball up to one side and the guy behind must react and change direction in order to catch it.

Then some methods will require parts of training sessions to be dedicated to training agility as well as setting up equipment by technical coaches.  Normally skiers will have an opportunity to inspect the course before they race and until now this is always done in training too.  Being able to map out, memorize and visualize the whole course is another extremely important skill required of the sport.  However if we’re going to train reactive agility specific to the sport, then what better way to do the run than without knowing the course in advance?  It’s definitely a challenge anyway!

Progressing from this will be to make the spacing of the gates more and more irregular. Where normally the distance between single turns, doubles, triples and bananas are usually set to strict distances with a nice rhythm, now to fit the desired objective of agility training, coaches can set what our athletes would call a “horrible course”. Gates can be shorter/longer apart than they should be, turn more with no rhythm but with the purpose of training the ability to react to what’s in front of them and change direction accordingly.

Another commonly used method for various reasons is to use different types of gates in the same course.  So rather than your regular slalom poles, a combination of these with short knee-high poles/“flumes” are used.  This changes the athlete’s feeling and balance when they hit the gate.

Lastly an idea that an athlete actually told me about when I explained why we’re doing this training is to have gates set randomly on the piste and they choose the course as they ski down. Space on the slope is often restricted when we’re away on camps as many teams need to use limited space but this could certainly be more possible when we’re at home in Andorra and have priority.

Like I said, I’m sure none of these methods are revolutionary in the world of skiing, just a few examples of exercises that I see really fit the purpose of “agility training” for skiers away from their usual technical work.

Finally I’ll just mention that around 2 years ago when I’d just started working in skiing, I was really starting to learn about Dynamic Systems Theory, segmental interaction and such motor learning principles that a lot of Frans Bosch’s work is based upon.  Naturally eager to share my new found knowledge with our coaches I suggested some exercises and examples that we could try.  They were a bit different to the ones listed above, athletes tried skiing holding a MB, a long resistance band between 2 of them or held slalom poles upside down, among other examples, all of which challenged their coordination and balance.  One afternoon in November at the end of a training session, we gave it a go.  The exercises went down really well with the athletes and I thought we were onto something.  Unfortunately they didn’t stick as a regular part of training.  There were several reasons to this, mainly because we soon got stuck into the season and also because in hindsight I was in no position to go influencing what was done in technical sessions.  I’d only learnt how to ski 3 months prior to that!  In a future post I’d like to go through how I managed to come at this from a different angle and successfully introduce this training principle to technical development.  As for now, I hope you found these ideas interesting and if you’ve got any of your own, even if they’re for a different sport that you work with, please feel free to share them in the comments below.  I recently saw this video from Tackle Tubes working with young kids playing American Football, I think it’s absolutely brilliant:


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Filed under Development, Performance, Strength & Conditioning, The Internship

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