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Why Learning Change Of Direction Skills Is Critical For Kids Playing Sport

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 12 March 2018
Hits: 14724

What often separates good athletes from great athletes in field and court sports is the ability to change direction explosively fast. At the highest level, the skills are pretty close to as good as it gets, the only way to go from being good to great is to find that "one thing" that no body else has. And in sports if you can change direction in a split second and seem to maintain or even increase speed, it gives you a huge advantage over your opponent. In tennis it gives you extra time to get to the next shot and control the point, in basketball it allows you to evade your defender and get open for a layup or jump shot. But how do some people learn this better than others? Is it just natural ability? Or is it a skill that can be learned? Well, just like skills of hitting a forehand in tennis or shooting a three point shot in basketball the art of change of direction is a skill that can be learned. And just like learning the skills of the game, the earlier you do this the better for it becomes a permanent patter of movement. Unfortunately this is not something that is taught well, if at all, which is a real shame to those who do not have a natural ability to move like this. Even worse is the potential danger that awaits from not learning the perfect technique of cutting and change of direction. This article we are going to explain why ALL kids must be taught the ability to change direction if they play sports and exactly how to do it.

What Is The Change Of Direction (Cutting) Movement?

Take a look at the pictures below as these are all examples of cutting movements used in sports.

The cutting movement can be defined as:
"An explosive change of direction and nearing top-end speed in the shortest amount of time often using a stiff leg with the foot planted out wide."
There are three critical factors in determining the success of an athlete when changing direction.
  1. First, is the to control good shoulder position and not fall over sideways at the trunk. This is important for being able to maintain balance. If the athlete plants the foot quickly to change direction but is unable to control the upper body, the shoulders will fall out to the side and the body will have too much weight heading the wrong direction. As a result, the change of direction action will be slower. Many would say this is a weakness in the core, but I have found that this is not true or can be corrected from doing more ab work. I have found this is more of a timing problem, or a coordination problem by simply failing to engage core stiffness during leg plant.
  2. The next big factor is being able to stay low during the movement. This is more common with female athletes and is where we see the danger of ACL injuries first come to light. If the person stands too upright during the cut, then braking forces and strength is compromised. The body cannot explode well into a change of direction from a tall position. Again a poor timing and body positioning mistake that must be taught and learned through thousands of perfect repetitions.
  3. Lastly, this is possibly the most important factor - correct plant foot angle. This is a common mistake we see made with adults, and again in people we work with for ACL rehabilitation this foot angle is almost always present when we get to cutting drills. Stutter steps or poor balance often stem from this error. The plant foot angle is intended to provide an optimal base for braking and instantly changing to acceleration during the push-off movement. If the foot plant is correct, this split second movement is smooth and effortless. If not well risk of injury is not far away!

Why Kids Must Be Taught Strength Skills If They Want To Play Sports

Whenever I mention kids and strength training in the same sentence many people look at me like I have gone crazy. The perception of what strength training really is, is where the problem lies. Most people think of some massive guy doing bicep curls and bench pressing to get big bulky muscles. This is body building, and definitely not what strength training for sports looks like for adults, yet alone for kids.

When we talk about strength training for kids we are talking about MOVEMENT DEVELOPMENT. We are teaching kids as young as 8 and 9 how to move correctly using mainly their own body weight, but at times resistance bands, medicine balls and even dumbbells and barbells. But the focus here is not on muscle size, but efficient movement skills. This is where skills like cutting can be taught and if taught and practiced well the kids will be able to retain this as an automatic movement for life! As cutting is an advanced skill we have to teach fundamental movements first like squat, lunge, single leg stance. Without the fundamentals the advanced skills used in sports can never be correctly learned.

The kids will learn early on how to compensate and this unfortunately is where future careers can be over before they even begin! And even if they did not want to be a professional sportsperson when they were older the enjoyment of the game can be lost too! I have seen several kids in the past few years come and train at our studio for they were picked on for being too slow, uncoordinated and the worst player in their team. This can ruin a kid's confidence not just in sport, but in life. After only a few months of adopting strength training skills these kids transformed from slow, uncoordinated and low confidence to "beast mode" on the sporting field. All we did was teach them how to move better.

Read more about this in our article Kids & Strength Training The Facts You Need To Know

The Potential Danger Of ACL Injuries In Kids Playing Sports

We mentioned earlier there is a real danger with cutting and change of direction movements with anyone who plays sports. But this risk is much higher with kids, in particular females. Watch the video below for explanation of this and I highly suggest reading our article ACL Injuries In Female Athletes.

There has been countless studies put together to track the rate of injuries with kids in sports, with one study in 2003 showing that 3.5 million children under the age of 15 accounted for sports related injuries. (Reference: "The ACL Solution" by Rober G Marx. And when it comes to ACL injuries many surgeons often report they perform most surgeries on females aged between 12 and 18 years of age.

But why?

As with most things it is not one factor, but several. We encourage kids to take up sports knowing they are not yet fully developed and this is a good thing. Children are still learning what risks are good to take and what are not, how to effectively train and compete, plus they will experience many rapid growth changes when they hit puberty. Just playing sports, whether you are an adult or a kids instantly places you at risk of injury as there is always the chance of collisions and the "wrong place at the wrong time" situation.

But when it comes to ACL injuries, statistics show that 70% of these injuries are from non contact situations. Meaning they were caused from a poor cutting move or pivot or landing poorly from a jump. This is not bad luck but something that could have been avoided if a correct training program was employed early enough that addressed the bio-mechanical warnings of this upcoming injury.

Understand that an ACL injury will require 9-12 months of rehabilitation and 90% of people are never the same after this injury. Many will suffer with arthritis and instability later in life as a result. If you can avoid this injury by adopting simple movement and strength training drills then you should do everything you can to make sure you do this.

We have just released our ultimate program for prevention of ACL injuries called "Strength Training Secrets For ACL Knee Injury". This is perfect for both kids and adults and includes specific exercises with rehabilitation and injury prevention. A must have program for any kids playing ball sports right now. Click here to see more about what is included.

How Do You Learn How To Change Direction Correctly?

We already discussed the 3 key factors for cutting correctly, but where you do you start trying to learn this skill? As mentioned earlier you must learn how to execute fundamental patterns first before moving to explosive exercises like cutting drills. The fundamental patterns are squat, lunge, bend, push, pull, twist and lastly gait which refers to single leg stance.

In the ACL program above we go into great detail how to do this, but you will find a stack of information also in our Free Report on Functional Training below as this will provide you with a complete breakdown of all the key movements you need. I really want you to spend the time to learn how to move correctly for this is paramount of importance for all of us.


With relation to cutting the movements of SQUAT, SINGLE LEG STANCE and the LATERAL LUNGE are critical which I will explain.

These three movements all possess the required body positioning, joint angles and core control in order to execute a strong change of direction move in sport.

  1. The squat demands good hip control, but most importantly the dorsi flexion of the ankle joint that is paramount to finding the right foot position needed in cutting.
  2. The single leg stance is where you find most people's greatest weakness. This exposes any instability at the trunk that will produce the shoulder sway we discussed earlier, as well as poor leg alignment and hip control.
  3. Lastly the lateral lunge is really a slowed down version of the cutting move. It makes sense that if there is a problem here, the problem will be 10 times greater at high speed.

So before doing any cutting work I make sure you can complete all of these fundamental patterns as close to good form as possible.

Good articles to read on this with stacks of videos and picture examples of how to do this are in the links below

Now we will look at how to progress to more explosive cutting drills.

Single Leg Stability Cutting Drills

These two videos are two of the more advanced cutting drills we would use after completing the single leg stability and strength drills. These are a transitional exercise to the more explosive lateral change of direction exercises and have a stronger focus on maintaining optimal body positioning and stability.

Lateral Change Of Direction Drills

These two videos show the more explosive cutting movement in action. It is very important to have a strong focus on QUALITY over quantity when it comes to learning these drills. The length of time to complete these exercises should not exceed 6 seconds! It does not sound like much, but if you go too long you make the timing slower and as a result the movement is compromised. Remember this is a one time explosive movement, not a fitness drill. It must be learned in the way it is used.

Adding Reactivity To The Drills

This is where we take the drills up a level to mimic the exact timing and nature of sport. Sport is unpredictable and chaotic, yet people rarely train like this to be fully prepared for that moment. This is where once we are confident the athlete's technique is perfect we take them to this level to learn how to react and adapt to unpredictable situations during a cutting move.

Other great articles to read on this topic are below


I hope this article gives you a better understanding of the importance of teaching our kids how to move correctly. All of the information discussed in this article applies to adults too, my main point is if we were teaching these skills to our kids, we would not need to teach them to adults as they would already have these skills encoded permanently into their nervous system to move like this. We would be able to prevent so many of the dreaded ACL injuries we see in sports today, in particular female sports like football and basketball, but we would at the same time be teaching our kids how to really excel at their sport whether that is for competition or just good fun.

I would like to see more sports coaches really take the time to learn these movement skills and make these drills a part of the team's training session.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to know more about our Personal Training programs for sports or kids click the image below to request a Free Consultation and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a time.