How’s his feet? How’s her feet?
If I had a nickel for every time I have gotten that question. This isn’t about shoe size. At every level, coaches and scouts want to know how good an athlete’s footwork is. It’s about foot speed.
The goal of having fast feet is for it to translate into overall quickness and the ability to transition well in athletic situations. Quickness is valuable in sports like football, basketball, soccer, and anything that requires reacting to an opponent or reacting to a ball in play.
Quickness relates to a recurring theme we have in speed training: the first step. An important objective in training quickness is that I want my athletes to have a good first step in any direction. You don’t want your kids to only be good going forward. Being quick laterally as well as backward and diagonally is vital.
This is why the ladder has a valuable place in agility training.
The ladder, like the hurdles, is a great tool for speed training. It’s a staple everywhere. Even when I consulted with schools that had small budgets and couldn’t afford the equipment, they had tape on the ground to create the boxes for their two-dimensional ladders.
It’s popular for good reason. Kids love it. Just throw a ladder down with a group of kids and tell them to play with it and they’ll line up with eagerness.
From time to time I’ve had a coach tell me, “The only thing you get from doing the ladder is getting good at doing the ladder.”
The main purpose of the ladder is to teach the feet. It’s why some people even refer to it as a “quick-foot” ladder, “agility” ladder or “speed” ladder. We use speed ladder drills for teaching the feet through the nervous system. I want to get the synapses firing at full speed and make sure my athletes feet go so fast they set the ground on fire. With repetition, this is accomplished. I add variation to keep it spontaneous and fun, but their brains adapt to these movement patterns, which is a good thing.
Another component of agility ladder training is to teach the athlete two important things:
The ladder, like the mini hurdles, restricts the stride. We don’t need high knees in the ladder. Smaller steps mean smaller arm swing and a smaller body lean. Too much and they risk tripping and getting their feet tangled up in the apparatus. Speed without control leads to train wrecks. The ladder is a great place to teach beginners this coordination and balance.
The ideal daily use of the ladder is in the extended warm up after you’ve stretched and as you lead up into your primary speed training. Depending on the level of your athletes, add complexity at your discretion. It’s easy to avoid redundancy with the ladder, even if that’s just using a script of the same patterns in a different order.
Another benefit of the ladder is that it will carry over into every season so that you can keep in touch with the gains you have made without doing high intensity. Even if it’s just for five minutes, you can easily insert the ladder into the training program and cover the fundamentals.
There is also another huge element to the ladder that I want to get into.
We need to always keep in mind the intangible elements of training. I know you like to track progress and have quantifiable data to measure. So do I.
However, confidence can’t be measured and yet is something we need our kids to have. So how do we do it?
Athletes gain confidence by experiencing progress and success. It’s one thing to have an objective number like the 40-yard dash time that speaks for itself. When an athlete shaves off a tenth of a second, they will not only feel faster when they’re running, but they’ll see the time.
Mastering the ladder is an incredibly simple way for you to help a youth athlete improve his or her confidence. Self improvement can be seen as you master the footwork.
Even with the pro athletes I have trained, I know how much they enjoy dominating a device like the ladder. They like to look down and see their feet moving fast. It’s entertaining at how even the best athletes in the world can get so competitive over something so basic.
Use this to your advantage in a controlled environment where the results can only be positive.
There is a long list of patterns for the ladders. We stick with a few as our bread and butter.
I’ve seen some wild and crazy stuff on social media with this particular piece of equipment. I’m sure you have, too. I believe in being creative and I agree that there is more than one way to get a desired result.
We have some examples of variations on our website. Yes, we use medicine balls or combine hurdles with ladders or hook up with cables.
→ Check out this hurdle-ladder alley drill for example.
For today, I want to relegate it to the ladder by itself with just bodyweight and the patterns that we do consistently that produce results. At the end of the day, I believe that keeping it simple for the masses is the most effective strategy.
In order to get the most out of the ladder, there are four main rules your athletes need to follow to make for a good session.
1. Go fast. We canceled slow class. The caveat is going as fast as they can under control. You don’t want the athletes losing control.
2. Don’t stop. Stopping is bad. Even if they need to slow down to get it-- keep going.
3. Never skip a box. Never repeat a box. It’s one and done then onto the next. Lord have mercy if you go backward. That’s worse than stopping.
4. Lead with the foot the direction you are going. Leading with the left foot or right foot matters for most patterns.
The first two apply to the hurdles as well. Now, it’s time to get into the drills.
Here are the patterns that should be the pillars of your ladder work so you can develop insanely quick feet. Click the links to see them in action.
There are three things you need to do for this pattern:
It’s all in the hips. Swivel with good rotation in the torso and get those feet down. The hardest part of this pattern is that it’s the only one listed that is both lateral and contained within the apparatus. The athlete needs to turn the front foot as they crossover their feet for optimal mobility in such a tight space. Hip mobility is crucial for quickness.
2. Back & Forth
A cousin to the shorter pattern of In & Out, this extends all the way out the front then all the way out the back of the apparatus. The multi-planar movement of traveling laterally while going back and forth creates a quick change of direction that trains the feet to be good in every direction like I alluded to in the beginning.
3. Ickey Shuffle
This is maybe the g.o.a.t. of patterns. It belongs in the ladder hall of fame. When is the last time you did a ladder session without doing Ickey shuffle? It would be like going to karaoke and not hearing Don’t Stop Believing.
The key to this drill is keeping the center of gravity over the ladder. If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, don’t let the athlete sway too much on the side of the ladder as they travel forward. Stay tight to the ladder. This keeps the focus on the feet.
A fun nuance to this drill is that it is one of the few patterns you can have the kids try in reverse. The first time they do this they might miss the first box. It’s tricky for sure.
4. Side Straddle Hop
I love the practical application of this drill. This is great for court sports that utilize split steps like tennis and volleyball. As with all hopping, quickness comes by being light. That is the main coaching cue: quick and light.
The key to this drill is keeping the arms coordinated with the legs. One thing you’ll notice is when kids start getting top-heavy and off-balance they get out of control with their arms. Coach them to keep the elbows tight and stay on the balls of your feet.
Transitions are essential for training quickness and overall athleticism. It’s why I like ladder variations with a second piece of equipment. Make athletes adapt to a change.
However, don’t do transitions for the sake of doing transitions. For example, I’ve seen videos of coachings having kids doing three patterns within one rep or randomly pivoting to the opposite side mid-ladder. This is counterproductive in my opinion.
Five hops into a one step (the “run”) is a practical transition from one pattern to another that works seamlessly. It can of course be as few hops as you want, but the base pattern for me is five hops. At the change, you’ll notice some athletes accelerate so fast that they miss boxes. Once again, tell them to stay in control.
Give these a try and see if your athletes burn holes through their shoes.