A Case For Cone Drills

In the last few years I’ve noticed a number of strength and conditioning coaches move away from utilizing cone drills in their training. The arguments from these coaches against cone drills are typically the following: there is a difference in change of direction (COD) training and agility training and cone drills improve COD, not sport-specific agility. COD training doesn’t have a reactionary component (perception-action coupling) and therefore doesn’t transfer to competition success.

I think these arguments have some merit and I can see where these coaches are coming from, however I still see value in COD drills. I’ll explain why in a bit but first I want to outline the most common problems I see with cone drill application.

First, I often see cone drills performed with very little rest between drills. That or the drills themselves are like miniature obstacle courses with cones, hurdles, and ladders all thrown together. This is a problem because athletes are hardly if ever sprinting and changing direction at full speed so they’re physical demands are slower and more cardio based which doesn’t meet the athletes’ training needs.

Another problem I typically see is drills are not programmed well. In fact I would say they are almost never included within an intelligently designed training program. The drills are often performed by themselves with no other supporting drills. They are drills done or the sake of doing drills.

Lastly, to go off my last point, most cone drills that I see performed are not programmed with any sort of periodization. There is no periodization of volume and no progressions of drill complexity. Things are common sense when it comes to strength training are suddenly none existent when it comes to speed/agility training.

There are multiple reasons why I include cone drills in my program but I want to begin with what I believe is the biggest reason: increased tissue tolerance. As a strength and conditioning coach my primary role is improving my athletes’ physical preparedness. Specifically, their strength, power, speed, quickness, balance, mobility, etc. By nature these qualities are very general.

I look at cone drills the same way I look at strength training. Strength training is not necessarily implemented to increase the athlete’s skill, it’s designed to increase their physical capacities which leads to them getting the most out of their skill. As I mentioned earlier, many coaches have thrown out cone drills because of the lack of skill development. By that rationale should we throw out weight lifting as well?

Instead, if we shift our focus to cone drills increasing physical preparedness we can design training programs that build a more effective foundation of athleticism.

So what exactly do I mean when I say “increased tissue tolerance?” Well, from my observations (which are limited to what I see on social media, so I fully admit that these observations can not possibly offer me a completely accurate picture of these coaches and athletes training environment) a lot of the skill acquisition drills I see are not performed with the athletes 100% full speed capabilities. Which is totally expected. The athletes know they have to react to whatever the stimulus of the drill is so they are anticipating the reaction. This addresses the athletes perception-action coupling abilities, which are absolutely important, don’t get me wrong, but they are often (not always) moving slower.

When I get an athlete doing a simple pro agility drill and they are competing against another athlete I am ensuring that they are running to their full-speed capabilities and I can see how they decelerate and accelerate out of that. Again, it’s like strength training. When I have an athlete increase the load on their squat I’m observing how they handle the load on the eccentric (deceleration) part. Are they able to keep their trunk stiff? Are they able to stabilize their pelvis throughout? Are they able to control the position of their knees and ankles? Are they able to eccentrically control this heavier load so that they get into a good position to concentrically accelerate out of the bottom.

I’m looking at all of the same stuff during a pro agility drill. Can these athletes stabilize their trunk, pelvis, knees, and ankles while they plant in the ground? Can they control their center of mass and weight shift throughout the deceleration to acceleration transition? Can they decelerate to effectively put them in position to accelerate with efficient biomechanics. Can they do all of the above when they as they increase the speed of their movement? A good way to observe the last one is to see what turn they are better on. Most kids are better at the first turn simply because they have less speed entering the turn (5 yards vs 10 yards).

I understand that all of these questions I asked can be observed during “skill acquisition” based drills, but my main point is more controlled drills such as the pro agility can eliminate the reaction component which can allow the athletes to focus on simply sprinting full speed, stopping, and sprinting the other direction. It’s simply teaching proper deceleration to set up into the best position to accelerate. It’s building the foundation of full speed force absorption and force application.

I think about physical activity as a spectrum, with one end represented by game competition, and the other end represented by general physical preparation. Strength training obviously falls under the GPP side of the spectrum but I think COD drills should be emphasized in that category as well. With the rise of early sport specialization and with the current youth athletics landscape we are seeing youth athletes playing one sport year round and playing more games than they are spending time practicing. Most of their time is spent in the uncontrolled environment of game competition which is why I think training should shift to a more controlled environment that structurally exposes athletes to a wide variety of athletic movements (with a foundation built through exercises like cone drills) in a periodized and intelligent way.

As I stated above one problem I see in speed/agility programs is a lack of periodization. Implementing cone drills as part of a physical preparedness program can allow for better periodized movement training. This periodization scheme doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Most of my movement training follows a simple linear periodization model that matches with the athletes’ lifting lifting volume. Every week the number of reps change and the total distance covered changes (I like to think in “yards covered”). This means the reps and sometimes the distance of each drill changes, for example the cones being places 3 yards, 5 yards, 10 yards apart.

The other problem addressed the fact that most cone drills are performed by themselves, drills done for the sake of doing drills. If this is how cone drills are being programmed then I agree they probably won’t be very effective.

I see cone drills as puzzle pieces. In order for the final puzzle to be complete the surrounding puzzle pieces need to fit together. Before any of my athletes get to the cone drill portion of their session they’ve already gone through mobility work, multi-directional stability work (usually trunk and single leg emphasis), CNS activation work, and lateral/multi-directional plyometric work. The cues I use on all these sections remain consistent, which is huge. My goal is to coach the heck out of all these simple “puzzle pieces” so that when we get to more complex and physically demanding cone drills and the final puzzle begins to take shape I can just let the athletes be athletic. When the training programs and coaching cues are aligned in this way I’ve found the puzzle pieces tend to just fall where they’re supposed to, with the end result being athletes moving faster and more efficiently.

Again, this is building the foundation. Arguably the most important step is once the foundation is built how are athletes progressed from cone drills to completely reactive drills in their training. Can y’all go ahead and read that last sentence again? I feel like I have to emphasize that just because I like and use cone drills doesn’t mean my athletes only use cone drills in their movement training. Everything can be productive in the right context if it’s part of a comprehensive program and it’s effectively communicated to the athlete creating buy-in.

First, I like to start adding reactive aspects to the cone drills themselves. They still have a fixed path they are taking, so they can still get the benefit of the increased tissue tolerance aspect of cone drills, but I might add a verbal starting cue to begin the drill. I might add a visual starting cue where they have to react to the athlete their competing against.

I have also found success in supersetting cone drills in with purely reactive drills. This gives the athlete the opportunity to reflect on what they did unsuccessfully in the reactive drill, and then emphasize that in the cone drill and work to fix that particular issue.

In conclusion, cone drills can be great if they’re included in a movement program that follows periodization principles, is surrounded by other drills that help athletes build a solid foundation of deceleration and acceleration capabilities, and is coached effectively. If you want more information on how I program and coach cone drills be on the lookout for more content in the future, as I plan on writing more about this topic, but you can always reach out to me with specific questions.