Agility is an extremely important skill for field and court sport athletes. The ability to change direction quickly and safely in response to stimuli is crucial for high level performance and limiting injury potential. How to develop this skill requires a multi-faceted approach to training. Lower body strength and power enable an athlete to change direction rapidly. This involves the high eccentric component of planting the foot, absorbing forces and the utilization of the stretch-shortening cycle in rapidly redirecting forces away from the ground in the desired direction. Developing technique for efficient change of direction mechanics will also contribute to increased agility. Knowing how to achieve optimal positions can improve efficiency and result in less decrements in speed after deceleration.
An often overlooked component in training to develop this quality however, is the cognitive aspect in which an athlete must react to a stimulus. In a recent study from the Journal of Sports Sciences, Scanlan and colleagues (2013) set out to explore the influence of both physical and cognitive measures on reactive agility in male basketball players. The researchers wanted to see what variables were most predictive of reactive agility. The tested variables included height, weight, body composition, 5m, 10m and 20m sprint times, peak speed, closed skill agility time, response time and decision making time. The results showed that response time and decision making time had the highest correlations with reactive agility time. Cognitive measures therefore had the biggest influence on reactive agility times in the studied sample of male athletes.
The findings of this study support the implementation of open-loop agility drills within training to enhance reactive agility. Too often, coaches rely solely on closed-loop agility drills which fail to develop “on the spot” decision making. Closed-loop agility drills would be any drill that has a pre-determined assignment in a stable setting. For example, specific ladder drills or cone drills that an athlete knows exactly what to do and when to do it. Open-loop drills have a more chaotic and random component and less stable environment. These drills require the athlete to respond to a stimulus which forces prompt decision making. Examples include the lateral mirror drill where an athlete has to shadow or mirror the movements of another athlete as he constantly changes direction laterally for a given amount of time. Closed-loop drills provide a good environment for skill development, but the open-loop drills provide a more specific stimulus that corresponds to the demands of competition. If you’re not currently including open-loop drills with your athletes, it might be time to consider it.
Scanlan, A., Humphries, B., Tucker, P.S. & Dalbo, V. (2013) The influence of physical and cognitive factors on reactive agility performance in men basketball players. Journal of Sports Sciences, Ahead of Print, 1-8.