In field based team sports, a significant change in direction or velocity can decide the most important moments in a match.
If an athlete can rapidly change direction at any given moment, it could decide if they are first to a bouncing ball in dispute, able to evade their opponent to shoot, pass or receive the ball, or able to quickly transition to pressing an opponent in possession to block or disrupt their pass or shot on goal.
It is important to note that agility is the combination of a number of elements and largely shaped by perceptual-cognitive speed. The below graphic outlines the components of agility.
"True" agility, defined as a rapid change of direction or velocity in reaction to a stimulus (i.e. opponent, bounce of ball), is a highly unique attribute in sport. As such, agility not only requires physical competencies like strength and power, but also, because the change of direction (COD) is not pre planned, it requires perceptual-cognitive abilities including reaction time and pattern recognition.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that agility tests have been found to distinguish between elite and non-elite athletes due to elite athletes’ enhanced physical and perceptual-cognitive abilities.
Although COD ability and true agility are not as closely related as one would think, measuring COD via dedicated testing can still be useful, as it can help determine which specific components need improvement.
Traditional COD tests have recently been classified into three distinct categories:
- COD at speed: tests that require one or two CODs at low or high speeds;
- Manoeuvrability tests: tests that require three or more CODs with more gradual curves (vs sharp turns and cuts);
- Reactive agility tests: COD in response to a stimulus.
Once testing has helped determine the specific change of direction and/or agility components needing improvement, exercises should be designed accordingly.
For example, to improve agility, exercises must include perceptual-cognitive components such as visual scanning, anticipation and reaction time. Without these components, the exercise is merely training change of direction ability and not agility.
Reacting to a non-specific stimulus (i.e. a flashing light, audible cue from a coach, etc.) can be useful in that it is slow and controlled, the more sport-specific the stimulus, the better.
Picture an evasion exercise, where an athlete moving at speed in possession of the ball is required to evade his teammate depending on which way they move first. The specific, unpredictable chaos of the exercise should help improve perceptual-cognitive abilities of the athlete.
Gabbett et al., 2005; Young, 2015