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Interview with Lee Taft on Coaching Agility, Speed and Athletic Movement

Not too long ago, I had speed expert Lee Taft on our podcast, which was one of the best, if not the best multi-directional speed chats I’ve had.  Lee is a true expert in the world of speed performance on the field of play.  I do a lot of podcasts now, as far as the information that comes through Just Fly Sports is seen, but I wanted to bring back Lee for a formal written Q&A about some things I’ve really been considering in the speed and agility side of performance lately.

Lee has been on fire with his wisdom on social media, and I wanted to bring some of that text to a Q&A session.  This one has a lot to do with coaching speed out of athletes, and knowing how to designate the right time to make movement corrections and changes.

Just Fly Sports: What are some movements and abilities that often get “coached out” of good athletes from improper coaching and cues?

Lee Taft: I love this question because it comes up often, Joel. The movements that we hear most about that are commonly discouraged are: The natural repositioning step to quickly accelerate forward. I call it a “Plyo Step- but it is commonly called a “False Step.

The “Directional Step” is another movement that coaches are constantly trying to prevent athletes from using. It is when the front foot turn and opens, rather than using the front foot to push off from initially. This occurs in base stealing.

Coaches also try to avoid any type of “crossover” or what I like to call Lateral Run Step.

The final movement I will mention that is common is the “Hip Turn”. This replaces what coaches (unfortunately) want, which is a pivot. Pivoting is too low, causes too much friction, and creates a vertical knee over the plant foot. We want none of these issues when trying to be explosive when opening the hips to retreat. The hip turn allows athletes to create a near exact angle of force application, take advantage of the SSC (stretch shortening cycle), and creates great stiffness in order to have stability.

Just Fly Sports: What proportion of athletes would you say “really get” sport and court movement naturally without a lot of coaching?  Is this number of athletes much less than it used to be?

Lee Taft: Really, all athletes move naturally due to our sympathetic nervous system and the fight or flight response, but what happens is, because athletes tend to be immobile or tight they appear to not react and move as efficiently. The initial reactive state is there, it is the actions after the reaction that make it look like they do not move well.

Now, to take this in a different direction, because athletes do not play or get put in random situations enough they don’t learn to read their environment very well. They don’t use the prediction model well. This means they have not been in situations enough where they can read what can potentially happen.

Years ago, athletes would play at the parks and be in sandlot situations. The ability to read and react/predict became strong. Now, kids only play in organized settings and are always coached. This, to me, has been the downfall of the development of the mid to lower level athletes that are not gifted with great vision and gamesmanship. This factor makes athletes appear like less athletic movers.

“Now, kids only play in organized settings and are always coached”

“Now, kids only play in organized settings and are always coached”

Just Fly Sports: What are just a few basic markers by which to know that an athlete’s speed-movement-agility patterns need correction?  Are there any “lynchpin” movements you are often looking at?

Lee Taft:  Another great question. I have always said what makes a coaches develop great eyes is knowing what movements should look like, so when they see an athlete not move well they can pick out the issues. In lateral movement, I look at a few things.

First, do they know how to control mass and momentum when changing directions. If they don’t I typically see a shoulder sway (the shoulder tip to the side the are stopping from going).

Secondly, athletes often don’t plant wide enough for the plant let to serve as the reacceleration angle. This means the foot plant to stop the body must also be the same angle to start the body in the new direction. So if they plant too close under the hips the athlete stumbles.

Thirdly, I look for athlete to “stay in the tunnel”. This means do they stay down and stay level. If an athlete, who is trying to move quickly laterally and change direction, rises up and down they are not going to be as effective in change of direction. The reason is they need to stay low so when the must plant they have enough leg length to extend wide to plant proper for reacceleration. If they are too tall and try to extend the leg out wide there simply isn’t enough leg length reaming and the plant is too close to being under the hips. Hopefully this makes sense; very important!

Another movement pattern that is easy to assess is linear acceleration. Athletes typically make one of these three mistakes.

First common mistake is they take short quick steps thinking it is the key to accelerating. What should occur is the athlete needs to push hard down and back and take as long of steps as possible without over-striding or stepping down with heel.

Another common mistake is they use short arm action, or keep arms at 90 degrees during the initial few steps. What should occur is the back stroke arm needs to open at the elbow joint to roughly 120 degrees. This allows for greater and longer leg drive, which is needed to move the athletes mass forward. The front arm will typically bent much more in preparation for an aggressive down and back stroke.

The third common mistake I see is athletes pop up too soon and miss-manage their acceleration posture. If they pop up, they start cycling (stepping over the opposite knee) the legs too soon and therefore miss-out on the benefits of acceleration with a low leg swing. The low leg swing allows the foot to be close to the ground the keep moving the mass forwards quickly. A longer foot contact is needed to change inertia.

“Christian Coleman is a great example of correct acceleration paradigms”

Just Fly Sports:  What are the basic tools you use to train athlete’s speed-agility patterning and why?  If you had to choose only 1 tool by which to improve agility and change of direction in young athletes, what would it be?

Lee Taft:  The four basic tools I use (not including cones, which I use all the time) are

  1. Tennis balls.
  2. Light resistance bands.
  3. Low 4in box.
  4. Medicine ball.

The tennis balls allow me to create a competitive situation for the athletes so I can tap into the fight or flight. When I do ball drops for acceleration the athletes compete to catch the ball before it bounces 2x. I can have them accelerate out of many stances and positions. These drills also allow me to assess how they drive through acceleration.

Light resistance bands allow me to artificially increase mass and momentum to improve change of direction ability. I can have athletes work on change of direction mechanics, acceleration mechanics, and so on while applying light resistance. This resistance increases force output and proper angles of force application.

The low box allows me to teach my athletes how to reposition their feet during lateral planting. The box requires a picking up and replacing of the foot angle. I have use the low box strategy since the early 90’s with tremendous results.

Finally, the medicine ball allows me to create a mass and momentum overload and forces the athlete to learn to create stiffness to control the body in all three planes. So if the athlete does a lateral shuffle, and change of direction, holding the medicine ball out in front of the body, the athlete must learn to “stiffen” to create stability in all three planes. If they can do so, the change of direction ability doesn’t become an issue. But if they can’t stabilize due to the medicine ball it will cause a slower change of direction. Great tool!

The one tool I would choose is the light resistance band, simply because I can use it for virtually all movement patterns and to increase force production and reduction.

Tennis ball acceleration drill

“The tennis balls allow me to create a competitive situation for the athletes so I can tap into the fight or flight”

Just Fly Sports:  What are some ways which you overload the speed and specifically change of direction ability in athletes who are more advanced, and have fairly good movement patterning in place?

Lee Taft:  This question goes back to the last question. I like to use the light resistance band, but also add it to the low box. So, I will use the band to force the athlete to learn how to manage their artificial mass and momentum while working on lateral change of direction. This grouping of low box with resistance band force the athlete to stay in good posture to fight the additional forces. The athlete learns to manage the body position based on the external forces.

I also like to use what I call “Fake Throws” which I kind of talked about with the medicine ball in the last question. A fake throw is done when an athlete moves the medicine ball either side to side, up to down, down to up, or diagonal very aggressively but never lets the ball go. This requires tremendous stability of the major joints to control the body in all 3 dimensions. It is the ultimate in mass and momentum control for athletes.

Just Fly Sports:  I feel that galloping is a lost skill in many coaching circles, especially with young athletes?  Can you explain this skill and how it is important?

Lee Taft:  Oh yeah! I think many general locomotion patterns are lost. Galloping is non-cyclical pattern in which one foot/leg always remains in front or back. When performed with fairly straight legs the athlete learns to absorb and release energy quickly and efficiently (elastic release). By keeping the legs fairly rigid the athlete can generate great glute/hamstring forces. This is a great progression for stiff leg bounding and sprinting.

I like to perform the gallop both linearly and laterally. When facing forward the athlete attack more posterior chain, but when galloping laterally the adductors and abductors become more engage and prime movers. When youngster learn to gallop, and are challenged with different patterns and lead legs, they are building an important foundation of general strength, stability, power, and elasticity that will serve them well later in their development as an athlete.

About Lee Taft

Coach Lee TaftLee Taft, known to most simply as “The Speed Guy”, is highly respected as one of the top athletic movement specialists in the world. He has taught his multi-directional speed methods to top performance coaches and fitness professionals all over the world.

Since 1989, Lee Taft has taught foundation movement to beginning youngsters and helped young amateur athletes to professional athletes become quicker, faster and stronger. Lee’s entire philosophy is based off one of his most notable quote, “Learning athletic movement correctly from the start is the foundation for
athletic success.”

With the release of Ground Breaking Athletic Movement in 2003, Lee revolutionized the fitness industry with his movement techniques for multi-directional speed. His innovated approach to training has impacted how athletic movement speed is taught. Lee Taft brought to light the importance and fine points of the “Plyo Step”, “Hip Turn”, “Directional Crossover Step” and athletic stance. According to Lee Taft, “Speed and agility done right is about making sure we marry the natural movements athletes have with effective and efficient body control to maximize speed and quickness”.

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