Updated: Feb 5, 2019

Most sports, from rugby, to tennis, football, netball, hockey and so on, all have an underpinning skill in common. Effective movement and agility skills. Specifically, agility requires athletes to draw upon motor skills which will allow them to complete a movement task with the greatest precision and outcome. In this mini-series, I will be considering how we train agility in athletes, and how we might plan our agility skill practice to close the biggest gap we see between professional and amateur athletes.… decision making!

What is agility?

Agility is traditionally defined as direction change and/or decelerations ability. Typically, as coaches, we view agility as a series of closed movement drills. I.E, drills where we give a set of coaching cues and the athlete performs the movement in the same way every time. This could include agility drills, training pitch drills or gym-based drills. Whilst this may allow our athletes to build effective movement patterns, this is unlikely to lead to improved sports performance. To think of that another way, in live play, the athlete will never be presented with a static movement requirement and only being able to move in that one, predetermined way, is likely to lead to poor performance.

The problem with defining agility as noted above, it that we fail to consider the context of movement. Live play agility consists of perceptual influences that help us decide which movement needs to occur and when this movement needs to occur. To put simply, our athletes are required to make a decision and select an appropriate response to the stimulus in front of them.

How can we define agility in modern sports?

A better definition of agility in sports can be given as “A rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or directionin response to a stimulus” (5).The stimulus in these cases require two things of our athletes.

1. Effective decision making ability

2. Change of direction skills.

A study of elite vs non- elite rugby league players (4) found that Elite players were significantly better at making decisions, reacting and moving compared to amateur players. Specifically, decision making and reactions where considered the largest predictor of elite performance. So how do we train our athletes to develop this ability? Answer, Reactive Agility.

Reactive Agility

Reactive agility (RA) drills ask the athlete to respond to an unpredictable stimulus. The stimulus may come from a visual cue such as another player’s movement or from an auditory cue such as the blowing of a whistle that the athlete is required to respond to. Reactive agility drills add a level of unpredictability and randomness, which better replicate a true stimulus-response experience, preparing the athletes for actual competition. Better still, this allows the athlete to practice decision making, reducing cognitive load (brain power requirement) in games and freeing up the ability to make quick sharp movements.

Repetition without repetition (1)needs a mention here. A lot of coaches do use some kind of RA drill. For example, having your athlete make a cut for example on the coaches’ movement is a RA drill. However, there are inherent issues with this type of approach. Human nature dictates that the coach is very likely to throw 50-50 to each side. If they are not really concentrating, this might be in an easily readable pattern to the athlete. Is this reactive or predictive? Are we facilitating the athlete to develop their cognitive skills? Does this replicate a true game situation?

Repetition without repetition is the idea that the same drill is ran over and over, however, every rep will be a little different from the last one. This develops a vast network of possible movements the athlete can make to achieve the end goal. Part 2 of this series will discuss some practical ideas for implementing true reactive drills into coaching practice.

Evidence for Reactive Agility Approaches

Whilst there is no direct research which has used American Football, there are many research studies which have used Football (Soccer) and Rugby players (2,3,6) to access the differences between traditional agility and RA on performance. The general findings amongst these studies are that RA drills and traditional agility (TA) drills lead to equally improved closed change of direction drill times. However, RA drills allowed for a significant improvement in decision making ability and reaction times over TA drill groups.


RA drills are an effective way of improving an athlete’s ability to efficiently change his or her body’s position in reaction to a live stimulus. Unlike planned agility drills, reactive exercises force athletes to respond to real-time cues just like they do during competition. Effectively closing the gap between elite and amateur level players.

In part 2 of this miniseries, I will be looking at ways that RA can be implemented into session warm ups, individuals and team sections.


1. Bernshteĭn, N. (1967). The co-ordination and regulation of movements. Oxford, New York: Pergamon Press.

2. Chaouachi, A., Chtara, M., Hammami, R., Chtara, H., Turki, O. and Castagna, C. (2014). Multidirectional Sprints and Small-Sided Games Training Effect on Agility and Change of Direction Abilities in Youth Soccer. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(11), pp.3121-3127.

3. Davies, M., Young, W., Farrow, D. and Bahnert, A. (2013). Comparison of Agility Demands of Small-Sided Games in Elite Australian Football. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 8(2), pp.139-147.

4. Gabbett, T. and Benton, D. (2009). Reactive agility of rugby league players. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 12(1), pp.212-214.

5. Sheppard, J. and Young, W. (2006). Agility literature review: Classifications, training and testing. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(9), pp.919-932.

6. Young, W. and Rogers, N. (2013). Effects of small-sided game and change-of-direction training on reactive agility and change-of-direction speed. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32(4), pp.307-314.

#agility #strengthandconditioning #reactiveagility

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