by Team Snapbac
Agility has been a key term in athletic training from the beginning, however it is often misunderstood and highly undervalued particularly in athletes outside of the pro-levels. Agility studies have shown that NFL players have much higher agility than college and even high-school American football players. This is partly due to the actual definition of agility, which we will get into and in part because many newer athletes misplace their training emphasis, focusing on strength, size and speed instead. Though agility and speed are closely intertwined in regards to training drills and exercises, they are in fact two entirely separate athletic qualities. Both are equally important to include in an effective training program, but agility has its own set of benefits and game enhancements that are entirely unique to its modality.
Agility training is required in every sport and athletic interest from team sports to individual competitions at every level. The most common misunderstanding around agility is that it is simply the speed and controlled fluidity at which a direction change is made. Current sport science has actually begun to redefine the term and delineate between agility and change of direction speed as two different skill sets requiring separate training drills and testing. This in turn redefines agility and attributes an entirely new set of requirements to the skill. Though it still refers to a movement that changes either speed or direction, the specific definition now stipulates that this change is a direct response to a sudden and unanticipated stimulus.
This caveat is changing how we train and how we test for agility, but for the sake of this article, we are going to look at both agility and change of direction speed, why they are important in athletics, how to train for them and the tests that are now being given. Change of direction speed (COD) may be the response to a stimulus or it may be a planned maneuver by the athlete for a desired outcome, whereas agility refers to that same change of direction speed when unplanned as a response to the action of an external factor, i.e. other player, ball, wind, etc. As they both require a rapid action and adept body movement when changing direction or velocity, they are close enough to analyze their benefits simultaneously.
It is easily arguable that these athletic virtues should be part of every human’s fitness routine as they are what allow us to move, assess and react efficiently, smoothly and with less injury when a situation requires a quick response or we choose to do a physical task with a planned outcome, such as take our stairs two at a time to get to the top quicker. These skills are necessary in sports and in life.
If you are a skier or snowboarder, your COD is what gets you through the course or down the mountain in record time and in flawless form. Your agility is what allows you to navigate snow and ice conditions, debris on the slope, other skiers or snowboarders who have drifted in your path or any obstacle that was not anticipated. With keen agility, you can get yourself out of the way responding quickly, expertly and hopefully without injury.
If you are in a team sport on a field, on ice or any other conditions, the same applies. You have a play in your head, you see the run, the pass or pitch, the expected defensive moves and it all goes according to plan. In this scenario, your COD helped you cut past the defensive line, go low, jump for the pass or whatever movements that required acceleration, deceleration and flexibility. When the ball doesn’t go where it is intended, the defense runs with a different strategy or makes an unexpected play or an environmental factor changes your planned course of action, yet you are able to instantly assess the situation and in a fraction of a second rely on your body to make the right adjustment in speed, direction or planned reaction, this is the truest test of your agility.
Whether responding to a stimulus or moving with pre-planned awareness, the body needs to be limber. That’s right a basic and often overlooked training component, stretching. When you train for agility and COD, the first step is getting the elasticity and length increased in your primary muscles used for your position or athletic pursuit. If you’re a pitcher, you’ll focus on your arms and shoulders. If you’re a lineman, you’ll want to pay special attention to your legs and hips. Do a slow motion recall of the ten most common movements you make in your sport and note the muscle groups you use. These should be your focus when you plan stretches and strength training.
That brings us into the next training component for agility and COD, strength! If you are relying on particular muscles to support rapid changes in speed and direction, then they must be strong enough to take the impact of the movement. Strength is what gives our muscles power, and power is what drives a movement. If you want to be faster than the stimulus, you will need to be more powerful, so train harder than the competition! If you don’t have the strength to complete the necessary movement, then you will either fail at your task or worse become injured. When your muscles are not able to do what you demand, you end up torqueing or throwing weight onto a part of your skeletal system and this is when you can seriously hurt yourself.
Another key aspect to training for agility and COD, is form and posture. When you go low, do you bend at your knees and hips or do you bend at your waist putting the strain on your back? As your feet move, how do they land? At an angle or flat? Where is the line from your ankle, up to your knee and then to the hip? This is where game or sport simulation drills and current COD drills are effective at neuromuscular training. How you move in a split-second reaction or play needs to be engrained in your muscle memory, so you can be sure to not put undo strain or pressure on sensitive parts of the body. By maintaining proper form and composure from start to finish, you drastically reduce your risk of injury.
When training for both agility and COD, you will need balance, strength, speed, dexterity and coordination. Rapid changes in speed, direction or mental process, will require heightened body control which comes from an intact mind/body connection and a high level of strategic thinking in reference to your athletic challenge. You will need cognitive training that encompasses visual processing within your sport, timing of movements, speed of reaction times, perception in play and anticipation.
This is why pro-level athletes consistently rank higher in agility. It is all about muscle memory and having a profoundly deep understanding of your body and your sport, so the more you play, the more agile you become. Interestingly, COD tests are about equal in all dedicated athletes. You can train your body to achieve calculated movements at varied speeds rather easily, but true agility goes deeper in its connection of mental preparedness and game or course strategy and how the body interprets the immediate reactions of the mind.
Your hips should power most of your changes in direction and speed. Your hip flexors and adductors are key in many reactionary movements, so keeping them limber and strong - like through mobility training exercises - is necessary to protecting your back and joints in your legs.
Get on your knees with your body erect and hands reaching to the sky. Bend one knee at a 90-degree angle and begin to lean forward from your hips, keeping your back straight. The back knee should stay planted on the ground, and you should feel the stretch of the hip flexor. Continue bending that front, 90-degree knee, closing the gap between the thigh and calf muscles and lengthening the back thigh and hip flexor. Sit back up and reverse.
While still on one knee with the other knee raised and bent at a 90-degree angle in front of you, work out your front hip pocket with side stretches. Drop your arm down by your hip for the knee that is upright. Extend your other arm, on the same side as your knee which rests on the ground, and begin to stretch it as far sideways as you can over your head. You should feel this in your intercostal muscles up your rib cage, through the back of the shoulder and as you drop in at that front/side pocket of your hip. Sit up and reverse.
When working your hip adductor muscles, you will remain on one knee with the other raised at a 90-degree angle, but this time open the leg so that your knee goes as far out to your side as possible. Place your hand on the inside of the knee gently supporting it from collapsing forward but not applying pressure for a wider stance. Now slide your hips from side to side. You should feel this in the lower part of the thigh for the leg you have up and open. Next, move your hips to the front and to the back without bending at your lower back. Keep the bend only in your hips, and you will feel this on this inside of the raised leg. When complete, reverse legs.
Keeping that same position, rotate your hips in circles, first one way, then the other. The movement can be small as it stays in your hips only. Try to stabilize your legs.
Collision sports rarely think of zen movements as fitness, yet yoga continues to be one of the top exercise formats for flexibility, balance and the mind/body connection. It also naturally lends itself to coordination, strength and when practicing any type of flow yoga, it builds change of direction speed. When choosing what yoga practice to attend, pay special attention to the practice name like hatha, vinyasa, ashtanga, etc. For a repetitive flow that focuses on the same 26 postures and two breath work cycles, Bikram or hot yoga is a fantastic choice for athletes who are unsure about a class in tights.
HIIT drills are one of your best friends when it comes to change of direction speed, body alignment, strength building, cardio endurance and some serious coordination. HIIT works on both acceleration and deceleration as it is a rapid succession of high speed movement with short recovery intervals. When you throw in an agility ladder, you’ve just made the perfect COD, agility training method. If you constantly switch up routine, you can even build in reaction to stimulus. Do you have someone willing to call out high knees, drop squat hops, lateral plank walk, etc?
We talked about plyo training in our discussion on speed, yet it is a powerful tool to add to your training schedule! Plyometrics are jumps, hops, skips and hits. To not put too fine a point on it, plyo is when the body meets a surface and applies force, like medicine ball wall slams, clap push-ups, box jumps, jump rope, burpees with a squat jump, forward-backward ladder jumps, skier jumps, wall chest pass with a medicine ball. Plyometric agility drills build strength, COD, agility, muscle memory, coordination and posture.
Agility tests have become common place in professional athletics with popular choices like the Illinois Agility test, SPARQ ratings, Pro-agility test, T-test and others, but as the science of sports advances, these tests are being separated and labeled as change of direction speed tests. They are set drills that an athlete expects and can train for.
New agility testing is on the horizon integrating video imaging, sound and light stimuli and other reactive stimulus, but it is yet certain if these are accurate for determining true agility. It is difficult to simulate real-life game play and all the varied stimuli and athlete may experience. Numerous tests would have to be developed individually to precisely measure an athlete’s ability to react to a sport-specific stimulus.