In team sports like basketball, football and soccer, speed may be considered the ultimate weapon. It’s not uncommon to see undersized teams prevail over bigger, stronger opponents simply because of speed. Scouts and recruiters are constantly evaluating players, and speed is a huge factor that they consider. It’s important to understand however that blazing linear speed doesn’t always carry over to the sports field where frequent cuts and changes in direction are required. This requires powerful acceleration, deceleration and lightening fast decision making in response to the opposition. Team sports are chaotic, and unpredictable. For this reason, many controlled and predictable drills and assessments may not necessarily be effective at reflecting or predicting game performance.
“Closed-loop” agility drills have pre-determined actions and changes of direction. These can be rehearsed, practiced and improved with familiarity. Examples include the 5-10-5 shuttle, the T-Test, etc.
“Open-loop” agility drills will have unpredictable actions and changes of direction where the athlete will have to react to some form of stimuli. The stimuli can be the snap of a football to get the Defensive Line firing out of their stance. It can also be a direction step by a coach or player, or some other form of auditory or visual cue that the athlete must respond to in the middle of the drill.
A recent study from the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance by Lockie et al. (2013) sought to determine if open or closed-loop agility drills were able to differentiate amateur from professional athletes. Ten amateur and ten professional basketball players performed a closed-loop version of the Y agility test where directions were predetermined, and an open-looped version of the Y agility test where athletes had to react to a stimuli. In addition, the athletes acceleration was assessed with a 10 meter dash. The open-looped (reactive) tests were 6% faster in the professional players compared to the amateurs. The 10 meter sprint times correlated best with the planned agility tests.
This study provides further evidence that both training and assessment of performance should be as specific to the sporting demands as possible. Just because an athlete can light it up on the traditional agility and speed drills, does not necessarily mean that they will be that fast on the field. The ability to react to a stimuli is a fundamental part to team sports. Therefore, it would be wise to expose the athletes to drills that are unpredictable and reactive. Closed-loop drills certainly have their place, but should be used as a progression for technical development. There is “speed” and there is “game speed”. The latter is more important.
Lockie, R. G., Jeffriess, M. D., McGann, T. S., Callaghan, S. J., & Schultz, A. B. (2013). Planned and Reactive Agility Performance in Semi-Professional and Amateur Basketball Players. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. Ahead of Print.