The answer, in a nutshell is training the nerves involved…they’re called proprioceptors, and they tell the muscles what, when, how fast and how far to move the bones. Athletically, it doesn’t matter how big muscles are if their proprioceptors aren’t properly trained to tell them to send the right signals! But before we explain how that’s done, let’s sort out some terms first.
Coordination, Agility, Speed and Reaction all center around a person’s “Movement Vocabulary”. Precisely like expanding your vocabulary of words, you expand your body’s “movement vocabulary” by being exposed to a wide array of biomechanical actions, using them in multiple planes of motion and under different stresses (such as against resistance and at different speeds of motion). The three components of “moving” the body are the nerves that convey what to do, the muscles that respond to the nerves and the bones that the muscles move. As someone becomes more proficient in a motor pattern, the nerves, muscles and bones become better “coordinated”.
Agility is “coordination” that’s used spontaneously or under chaotic situations like a basketball game or perhaps tripping and avoiding a fall. It’s unplanned “coordination”. More clearly, a lacrosse player needs coordination when he uses his stick to toss and catch rhythmically against a wall and agility to the same basic scenario in a game in an unbalanced position after spinning away from a surprise defender.
Speed is often simplified to describe how fast someone can move straight ahead. While that is important, speed more often needs to be applied in multiple directions, particularly laterally and rotationally. In fact, in the vast majority of sports, an athlete averages sprints of between 5-15 yards before she/he must decelerate and somehow alter directions. In those situations, you can only accelerate in a new direction as fast as you can put the brakes on first. Certainly, speed can be applied similarly to all movements beyond running as well.
Lastly, Reaction is speed applied in response to an outside stimulus like defending an opponent in a game or how efficiently and quickly you gather your balance in avoiding the earlier mentioned fall.
Someone’s Movement Vocabulary is very much like their vocabulary of words. Some people don’t know many words but use what they have effectively. Others know an incredible number of them but can’t speak well spontaneously or under duress. Likewise with athletics and movement, a person could be coordinated in a movement but not agile and could be could be “fast” but not have great coordination or reaction time.
To optimally expand, and more importantly be able to use your verbal vocabulary, you would expose yourself to words through reading, writing, listening, conversing, speaking, taking quizzes, and even debating or arguing (as a verbal equivalent to movement under pressure in sports). In doing so, you would be training all of the different nerves and wiring in the brain that are involved in the process. If you only used one of those mediums to learn, you would shortchange the nerves involved only in the other processes and your results would be limited.
The exercise equivalent would be trying to improve your movement vocabulary and how well you use by only doing yoga or limiting your training to bench press and squats. You may get some benefits but nothing close to your potential if your training was more complete and effective!
So, to improve coordination, agility, speed, and reaction in any and all movements, you must train all of the different nerves or “propriceptors” that orchestrate movement. There are some that only respond to changes in speed of a limb (Pacinian Corpuscles), some that only get trained near the very end range of a motion (Ruffini Endings), some that skip the brain and speak directly to muscles to move (Golgi Ligament Endings), and some that respond only to tension in the muscle tendon (Golgi Tendon Organs). Some proprioceptors are in the capsule surrounding each joint, some are in the ligaments, and of course certain ones are in the muscles themselves. Now your can see how only doing a limited scope of movements or training styles could dramatically restrict your improvements! It would physiologically be boring to your body (and probably your mind too!!).
Proper training should improve your coordination by exposing your proprioceptors, the muscles they command, and the bones and joints that get moved, to a wide variety of motor patterns. To get more agile, you would do those patterns under different circumstances…sometimes against resistance, sometimes at faster and slower speeds, sometimes when you’re fresh and strong, and sometimes when you’re tired. To get faster, you’ll train in a multitude of directions and improve your “brakes” as well as your “gas pedal”. And you’ll get more reactive because your proprioceptors and their muscles will trained predictably at first and progressed to spontaneous, chaotic drills and exercises that more closely resemble how you have respond in athletic contests.
The best resource that we’ve found for more background and applications of these concepts for the fitness professional and for the average exerciser is the educational information available online and dvds from the Gray Institute in Adrian, Michigan (www.grayinstitute.com).