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Why GAA Players Train Agility Completely Wrong: Speed and Agility Development for GAA (Part 1)

In this article, I teach you what you need to understand about the theory of speed and agility development for GAA. I will show you why, in my opinion, agility (and how to train it) is the most poorly understood concept in GAA. After this article I am confident you will view agility through a completely new lens. In part 2, I will show you how to develop an effective speed and agility program and integrate it into GAA specific training.

Length: »2000 Words

Reading Time: »5-7 Minutes

Target Audience: » Athletes & Coaches

Author: » David Nolan

Speed is one of the most sought-after attributes players wish to obtain. Every player wishes they were a little bit faster. Nothing strikes fear into a full-backs heart more than a lightning quick full-forward. Most of us commit a significant chunk of our precious team training time to “speed and agility” training; navigating various ladder and cone drills.

It’s safe to say that most of us want to be faster and more agile, and this desire is shared by coaches too. Yet, despite this strong appetite for improvement very few people truly understand the concepts of speed and agility. Because of this, most people tend to focus on training the wrong attributes and in fact, rarely train agility (at least knowingly).

If you are to understand how to train speed and agility as a player, you must first understand;

1) What is speed?

2) What is agility?

3) What is the difference between speed and agility?

What is Speed?

Speed is the layman term for velocity. Velocity is calculated by dividing the distance traveled by the time taken to travel that distance.

Put simply, an athlete with a high level of speed can cover ground at high pace.

When we discuss speed in a sporting context, we are generally referring to two types of speed:

>> Linear Speed

The ability to move quickly from point A to point B in a straight line

>> Multi-directional / Change of Direction Speed:

The ability to accelerate rapidly in one direction, and quickly change direction of movement once or multiple times

In GAA it is desirable to have high levels of both linear and multi-directional speed.

When it comes to sprint speed, it’s all about force.

In order to move, we must produce force, and transfer that force into the ground. It is basic Newtonian law. The more force we exert against the ground, the more force it exerts back against us and the further/faster we go.

Speed is determined by the amount of force a player can generate, and how quickly they can transfer this force into the ground.

To increase speed, our goal is to produce more force in less time.

What Determines How Fast We Can Sprint?

Linear speed & Multi-directional speed are influenced by many factors. Below is a non-exhaustive list of the common factors which we can influence to improve our sprint speed. It is true that some people are born faster than others and genetics play a significant role, but that is not something you can influence.


The better our sprinting mechanics (technique) are, the more efficient we are at transferring force into the ground. What “optimal” sprinting mechanics look like will vary slightly between players, but there are certain key characteristics you would aim to see in all sprinting techniques.

Body Composition:

A characteristic seen throughout research differentiating elite and sub-elite players is body composition. Elite players generally have more muscle mass and less body-fat than their sub-elite counterparts. Becoming leaner will generally improve sprint speed due to carrying less “baggage” and improving your relative strength (the ratio of your strength to bodyweight).

Explosive Strength & Power:

Sprint speed is ultimately a product of force transfer. You must transfer force into the ground in order to move. The more force capacity and ability to generate force rapidly you have, the faster you will be.

Muscle & Tendon Tension:

This refers to muscle and tendon tension. The stiffer they are, and the more active stiffness from the muscle, the more energy you get back from active recoil and the less your muscle must work. Think of this in the context of the foot and ankle when the foot strikes the ground during sprinting; would you think a floppy or rigid foot and ankle would be best for transferring force? Training can improve the stiffness capacity of the muscle-tendon complex.

Efficiency of the PCr & Anaerobic Systems:

An increased ability of these energy systems to produce enough energy to meet the demand of the working muscles, the slower a player will be to fatigue and the higher the pace they will be able to maintain. Repeated sprint ability will also be higher in those with higher conditioned energy systems.


What is Agility?

Speed is a relatively easy concept to wrap your head around. Agility however is a bit of a rabbit hole, but a rabbit hole worth exploring.

The very first thing to note is that although speed and agility are often used as interchangeable terms, they are not the same thing. In fact, when players express a desire to improve their “speed”, they are more than likely referring to agility, and in a GAA context agility is the goal rather than pure speed.

Speed ≠ Agility

To understand what agility is, let’s examine the definition offered by Professor Ian Jeffrey’s;

“Agility can be defined as a context specific movement, where an athlete maximizes their sports performance via the application of sport specific movement of optimal velocity, precision, efficiency and control; in anticipation of, and in response to, the key perceptual stimuli, and skill requirements of the game.”

If we understand this definition, we can begin to understand the differences between speed and agility. Agility is not the ability to move and change direction as fast as possible. Agility is an athlete’s ability to assess their environment, process incoming stimuli (information), make the appropriate decision and then react with the appropriate skill at the appropriate speed.

Essentially the difference between speed & agility training is the element of context specific decision making in reaction to sport specific stimuli.

You have more than likely seen the difference between speed and agility before. How many times have you seen players who have blistering speed? They are always the first in the sprints, yet when it comes to a game, they aren’t much of a player.

Conversely, how many times have you seen players who are middle of the road when it comes to sprint speed, but when they take to the pitch, they move effortlessly, time runs perfectly and always seem to be in the right place at the right time?

This is the difference between speed and agility. You can be fast, but have poor agility. Conversely, you can be relatively slow, but be a very intelligent, agile player.

To illustrate this, consider the scenario below, which is arguably the most common scenario in GAA where high levels of agility are required; a one-on-one game situation.

Let’s breakdown exactly what is happening here at a fundamental level.

Athlete A must process stimuli provided by athlete B and the surrounding environment.

These stimuli include:

  • Body position of athlete B (feet, hips, torso etc.)

  • Movement of athlete B; are they static? Are they moving towards/away from them?

  • Where are the closest opposition players and teammates? What are they doing?

Athlete A must then decide whether to:

  • Attempt a pass/shot

  • Take the player on directly

  • Faint / attempt a side-step or;

  • Turn back


Athlete B must process stimuli provided by athlete A and the surrounding environment.

These stimuli include:

  • Body position of athlete A (feet, hips, torso etc.)

  • Movement of athlete A; are they slowing down? Increasing velocity?

  • Where are the closest opposition players and teammates? What are they doing?

Athlete B must then:

  • Anticipate movement and tackle / stand-up

  • Anticipate a side-step and move accordingly

  • Anticipate a faint / pass and move accordingly


All this mental processing and decision making occurs very rapidly both consciously and unconsciously.

In this scenario, what attributes do we want to have as a player?

Which type of players win in this scenario?

Is it the fastest player?

The one who can change direction the fastest?

Are all movements performed at maximal speed?

Does the accuracy of movement play a role?

A player who has a high level of agility is not necessarily the player that can move the quickest. An agile player is one who can rapidly process their opposition and environment, make a decision and move in the appropriate way at the appropriate speed.

Skills that require high levels of agility i.e. side-step or one on one tackling, are not about maximal speed, but rather varying the pace and reading the situation correctly in order to move the right way, at the right time, at the right speed.

How Do We Test Agility?

Below are some of the most common “agility” tests used by coaches in GAA and other sports.

Let’s reflect on these tests for a moment. Let’s visualize how they are performed;

Do these tests evaluate the agility of a player?

Do these drills have game specific stimuli?

Or an element of decision making?

This leads us to the uncomfortable realization that there may not be a way to test agility in a valid or reliable way. As players and coaches, this makes us anxious. If we can’t measure or test it, how do we know if we are improving? How do I know if my training is working?

I wish I had an easy answer for you, but I don’t. This is where you must use your eyes and your own best judgement. You can only assess agility in the context of the sport itself. When I work with someone to improve their speed and agility, I determine the success/failure of our agility training based on some of the following questions I ask the player;

Do you feel you are moving better on the pitch?

Do you feel faster on the pitch?

Are you getting to balls easier than before?

Are you landing more accurate and effective tackles than before?

Are you finding yourself being in better positions than before?

Based on the feedback from the player and what I observe watching them play, we can determine whether the agility training has been effective or not.


You should now have a clearer understanding of what the terms speed and agility mean and the components which influence both. I hope you now understand why the majority of “agility” training in GAA is fundamentally flawed. In part 2, I will show you how to develop an effective speed and agility program and integrate it into GAA specific training.

Key Takeaways

  • Speed & agility are critical elements in GAA performance

  • Speed & agility are not the same thing

  • Simply put, speed refers to how quickly one can move from point A to point B or in multiple directions. Speed can be easily tested.

  • Simply put, agility is the ability of an athletes to process the stimuli provided by their sport and make the appropriate decision about how to respond and choose the appropriate movement at the appropriate speed. Agility cannot be easily tested.

  • If a drill or test doesn’t involve either reacting to a stimulus or an element of decision making, it is likely not training or testing agility.

If you want to be notified when we release part 2, make sure to join our email list.


About the author:

David Nolan is the founder and head of coaching & education at Synapse Performance. He is an experienced sports scientist and S&C coach. David is the current head of performance at Rugby Academy Ireland. David is also an experienced researcher and is currently completing his PhD in applied sports science at DCU under the supervision of Dr. Brendan Egan.

David offers individualized coaching to athletes and consultation / public speaking services to teams and coaches. If you are interested in more information please contact us via email at:


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