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Skilled Agility

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February 3, 2012 by peakcentre

Ed McNeely

The term agility is often used synonymously with change of direction speed, athleticism, and sport speed.  While the ability to change direction is definitely part of the equation agility is much more; encompassing perceptual factors such as the ability to anticipate and react to a stimulus, select the appropriate movement and direction, and make necessary body adjustments to optimize stride rate and frequency for the movement (Young et al. 2002).

 Over the past few years agility training has become an important part of athletic conditioning programs. Many strength coaches now specialize in teaching body mechanics and movements associated with agility training. Virtually every strength and conditioning conference includes at least one lecture on some aspect of developing agility and yet there is little evidence that agility training as it is typically practiced is important to sport performance or enhances sport performance. In fact there have been a few studies that suggest that agility may not be related to performance.

Hoffman et al. (1996) examined the relationship between basketball playing time over a four year period and athletic performance tests. Testing vertical jump, 1RM squat, 1RM bench press, 27m sprint, Agility T-test, and 2414m run they found the 1RM squat to be most consistently correlated to playing time. Agility was not significantly correlated to playing time (r= -0.26 year 1; r=-0.30 year 2; r=-0.33 year 3 and r=-0.30 year 4). This suggests that either a players athleticism is not accurately measured through traditional agility testing or that it plays very little role in a coaches impression of the players ability.

In a recent examination of skating ability in hockey players Farlinger et al (2007) found very low correlations between on ice cornering ability and performance on a hexagon agility test (r= 0.19).  Lateral shuffle was correlated to skating cornering ability (r=0.53). These results are similar to what we have seen in our work with NCAA, Professional, and Youth hockey players. It has been our experience that changes in off ice agility test and drill performance does not translate to performances in on ice agility and change of direction ability.

Roetert et al. (1996) examined the relationship between tennis performance level and selected performance tests. They found a significant contribution by side shuffle, vertical jump, push ups and sit and reach to their prediction equation. The hexagon agility test did not contribute to the accuracy of their prediction. 

Empirical evidence suggests that higher level athletes who are typically getting more playing time are more agile than lower level athletes. So, one has to wonder why there is no research showing the relationship between agility and sport specific performances. The answer to that may lie in the way that agility is measured. Performance tests like the hexagon test, T-test and Pro -Agility test are among the most commonly used agility measures in both practice and research.  All of these tests measure only the change of direction aspect of agility and they do so using a predictable predetermined pattern. There is considerable research suggesting that better athletes produce faster, more accurate responses because of their ability to anticipate what their opponent is about to do based on body angles and other behavioral and visual cues (Young and Farrow, 2007).

In a novel approach to agility testing in netball Farrow, Young, and Bruce (2005) used a life sized video image of an attacking player about to pass a ball. The subjects were required to side shuffle, move forward and then break left or right depending on the direction the ball was passed in the video. They found that more highly skilled players had faster overall test times than lower skilled players due in large part to faster decision times in assessing the direction of the pass.

If we accept that agility, as it is performed in a game situation, is more than just the ability to change direction we need to reexamine the way we do agility training.

Skilled Agility Training

Sport specific skills are the most important factor in sporting success. There are plenty of examples from all professional sport leagues of athletes who did very little conditioning yet excelled because of their superior skills. There are far fewer stories of athletes who had long successful careers based solely on physical conditioning. Skilled agility training links sport specific skills to physical conditioning, creating a better transfer of physical conditioning to game situations.

Gabbett (2006) compared traditional a conditioning program that consisted of vary duration sprints of 10-40m with skill based conditioning games that were designed to develop passing, catching tackling and other skills needed for Rugby. Overall training time was similar between the two groups and both groups participated in team skill sessions. At the end of the 9 week program the traditional conditioning group had improved both their 10m sprint time and their aerobic fitness scores. The skill based conditioning group improved their 10m, 20m, and 40m time and aerobic fitness and vertical jump scores. The 20m, 40m and vertical jump scores were significantly different between the groups after training with the skilled conditioning group outperforming the traditional group. Of greater significance was the performance in actual game play. Both teams played eight league games during the study with each team compiling a 6 win 2 loss record. The traditional conditioning team had an average score of 28-18 while the skill based training team had an average score of 45-12. While there are a variety of factors that can effect the final score of a game this study clearly shows that skill based conditioning is at least if not more effective than traditional conditioning programs at producing not only fitness improvements but on game performance improvements.

It has been our experience that skill based agility training has several advantages over traditional training.

  • Skilled agility training is time efficient allowing both skill and fitness to be trained simultaneously. This can be a big advantage in sport programs that only have limited gym, field or ice time. Coaches do not feel like they have to choose one over the other.
  • Skills can be practiced under fatigued conditions similar to those experienced late in games.
  • The conditioning coach has more control over the athlete’s total training volume. Very often the work done in practice is not counted in the overall training volume when conditioning programs are designed. Traditionally the conditioning coach has no control over the type and intensity of work done in practice so in many instances athletes show up for speed and power sessions already fatigued from a practice, making the conditioning session less effective
  • Intensity is higher. Skilled agility training makes use of games and game like situations to create a competitive environment that forces the athletes to train at a higher level of intensity than normal. We saw this quite clearly when we conducted a practice evaluation and analysis of a Professional hockey team. Using video analysis of the practice we found that on average during drill players were skating at about 75% of the peak velocity that was found during testing in training camp. At the end of practice when a competitive drill was introduced average velocities increased to 83% of peak velocity even though it was the last drill of the practice and the players were fatigued.
  • Athletes learn to use perceptual cues to make their reactions and agility performances better.

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