Intelligent Training: Developing speed, quickness and agility for football

By Jace Derwin | Posted 5/2/2017

Football is a dynamic and explosive game. Players must be able to sprint full speed, stop on a dime, and rapidly change direction at any moment.

While every coach recognizes the need for speed, agility, and quickness ("SAQ") development in their strength and conditioning program, the proper training methods are tricky to implement correctly. Understanding the objectives behind each SAQ movement skill is the first step to a well-executed SAQ/conditioning plan that prepares players to accelerate, decelerate, and change direction quickly and effectively.


Whether it’s a receiver driving off the line or a kick returner hitting the hole, acceleration is a crucial movement skill in football. An athlete’s ability to accelerate (change speed and/or direction) often matters more than their actual top speed.

Football players rarely reach top speed during a game—instead, they are usually accelerating (or decelerating) to avoid tacklers or track ball carriers. Thus, an athlete with better acceleration ability can be vastly more effective on the field than an athlete with greater top speed potential.

It comes as no surprise then that acceleration is as much a skill as throwing or catching the football, and should be practiced regularly. Like other high-demand motor skills, acceleration technique requires proper instruction and correction early in the learning process, to prevent bad early habits from taking hold.

Incorporating acceleration work into a progressive conditioning program helps athletes grow accustomed to the movements while slowly acclimating to higher volumes and stresses.

Coaches, make sure your athletes are maintaining the correct body positions during acceleration drills: full extension at the hip, positive shin angles (i.e., leaning forward, not vertical) and propulsive arm action.


While the ability to increase speed over a distance is important, the ability to decrease speed with control may be equally—or more—important. Rapid deceleration requires significant muscular effort and can be very stressful on the soft tissue of the lower limbs.

Fatigue can heavily influence an athlete’s ability to decelerate safely and effectively and is one of the most persuasive reasons to not overburden your athletes with conditioning work. Every time your athletes speed up, they must also slow down—so developing good motor control during deceleration is essential.

Poor technique and body awareness can create compensatory motor patterns that utilize small muscle groups instead of the larger prime movers. Practicing proper form and technical control over foot, knee, and hip position during deceleration—in all planes of movement—should be a regular skill practice.

Specific jumping and landing drills can also be helpful in reinforcing good landing mechanics, especially at the ankle and knee, that can carry over into deceleration technique. And while practicing deceleration is necessary for skill development, make sure you don’t increase volume more rapidly than your athletes can adapt, to help them avoid overuse injury.

Change of Direction

Within the context of football, change of direction ("COD") can be defined as the use of acceleration and deceleration motor skills to maneuver around an obstacle or evade an opponent. In short, it encompasses both acceleration and deceleration skills—anything from running a simple slant route to returning a punt. Athletes with better control over their rate of speed change will have a definite advantage over their opponents.

COD ability is one of the hardest to coach because it is multi-faceted and highly reliant on many different motor skills and physical qualities being used simultaneously. Similarly, it has to be performed at a speed where reflexive action takes over and little cognition is required to complete the task.

Adding reactive or decision-based tasks to COD drills is a great way to challenge athletes to process information and make movement choices on the fly. Giving athletes a visual or auditory cue to indicate which direction they need to cut during a COD drill can help simulate game-time decisions. Get creative!

The Takeaway

A couple key pointers when designing a proper speed and agility program for football players:

  • Clarify your training objective. Each SAQ drill should have its own objective. Whether the primary goal of the drill is to develop an athlete’s ability to accelerate over a short distance, transition smoothly between different running speeds, or change direction based on auditory cues, coaches should be very clear on the training objective for each drill. Approaching SAQs with intention will improve the quality of each rep and the effectiveness of each drill.
  • Implement a properly progressed conditioning plan. It’s no longer good enough to simply have your kids run gassers or 300-yard shuttles after practice and call it “conditioning.” If you want your players to develop the necessary work capacity and movement skills to perform on the field without suffering hamstring strains and shin splints, you must program your SAQ/conditioning sessions like you do your strength training work: increasing volume and work demands progressively, to allow adaptations to be fully realized without overtraining.
  • Incorporate SAQs into your regular conditioning sessions. There doesn’t have to be a disconnect between SAQ training and conditioning—they can easily be worked into the same progressive plan. Repeat COD cone drills with proper rest between sets can develop COD movement skills and alactic energy pathways—much like extensive (submaximal) aerobic repeats can develop deceleration skills while improving aerobic capacity. Recognizing the relative movement and energy system demands of each conditioning protocol, and scheduling them accordingly, can help save time, while combining drills with conditioning sessions can help prevent unnecessary overuse.
  • “Filet mignon reps.” When the goal of an exercise is to develop a specific skill—whether that skill is running a specific route or accelerating effectively over 20 yards—it’s all about aiming for the highest quality execution on each rep. We call these “filet mignon reps.” To produce perfect reps, you will often have to lower the overall quantity of reps and ensure your athletes are resting long enough between reps and sets to execute each drill with 100 percent focus and precision. Executing sub-par reps during practice or conditioning will only help your athletes get better at sub-par efforts—so make each and every rep about game-winning quality, and you’ll see the results on the field (and the scoreboard) all season.

Free Resource for Football Coaches
Want to learn more about Volt’s football position-specific programs? Check out Volt’s step-by-step guide to designing safe and effective football programs: “The Ultimate Guide to Football Strength Training.” Written by Volt’s Sport Performance department in collaboration with our Strength Coach Advisory Board, chaired by legendary hall of fame strength coach Boyd Epley of Nebraska, this free resource is great for any coach looking to expand their knowledge about strength and conditioning for football.

About the Author

Jace Derwin, CSCS, RSCC, is the lead sport performance specialist at Volt Athletics, the official strength and conditioning provider of USA Football and the U.S. National Team. Volt provides individualized sport-specific training programs to athletes and teams, built by certified strength coaches, through cloud-based technology. To learn more about Volt Athletics, visit and like on Facebook and follow on Twitter.