Testing For Agility With Good Results Not A Simple Task.

Dr. Don Kirkendall

By Dr. Don Kirkendall

The concept of agility has always fascinated me. In a college class called ‘Tests and Measurements” we did all kinds of physical tests, including agility. A number of athletes from many teams were sprinkled in amongst the rest of the students. And guess who just nailed the agility tests? The soccer team’s right back in their flat back four.

Agility is always listed as a component of physical fitness. And by being included under that umbrella, it should be both measurable and trainable. Most fans and spectators define it not with some detailed construct. They define it by name: Messi, Chris Paul, Barry Sanders. They define it by a position: NFL defensive backs, NBA point guards, strikers in soccer.

When teams are tested for their fitness, an agility test is included. While I had tested teams in the past, my first chance at ‘the big time’ was the 1996 women’s Olympic team. We did a couple agility tests and I was blown away by the team’s athleticism. Using standard norms, everyone tested out at above the 95th percentile.

Back in the old NASL heyday was a paper on fitness of the Dallas Tornado club; 99th percentile for agility. In general, the team’s fitness was fairly average for athletes. Agility, however, was extraordinary.

I wondered about whether agility tests could discriminate between teams or level of play. A common test (favored by the NFL) is called the Pro Agility Run, or the 5-10-5. Three parallel lines on the floor, five (5) yards apart. Straddle the middle line. On command, shuffle five (5) yards to the right line, 10 yards to the far left line, five (5) yards back to the centerline.

The U.S. WNT was spectacular at this. The UNC women’s team was, too. But when some U16 travel team girls scored within 10ths of a second from the women’s national team or UNC, I started to wonder. Were the young girls that good?

Had the less agile players fallen by the wayside during the cutthroat selection process? Then I thought maybe the test was simply too short to be able to discriminate players, so a longer test, the Illinois Agility test was used. This one takes 15+ seconds to complete. Now there was some separation between levels of play.

Not unexpectedly, others have thought longer and harder about this than had I. Some consider agility as the ability to change direction rapidly. Makes sense. Other think is the ability to change direction rapidly AND accurately; a measure of success is added to the change of direction. Don’t want to change direction directly into the path of an opponent do you?

Another group took things a bit further by defining it as whole body change of direction as well as rapid movement and direction change of limbs. On the surface this seems a bit odd; not like the trunk is going to go one-way and the limbs another.

But this also brings up the concept of “quickness” that gets used almost synonymously with agility but is a bit different. To some, quickness is a cognitive and physical reaction that involves explosiveness and acceleration, but doesn’t necessarily involve deceleration or change of direction. Looks to me like quickness and agility are as different from each other as are agility and speed. To quote a fiction author/friend of mine; “oy vey.”

Now add a hot topic in ACL prevention research – cutting. This is directed almost entirely at the skill of planting the foot and resulting push-off in a different direction.

It gets worse. Nothing really addresses perception and decision-making required for agility – something triggered the need to do something “agile” so it makes sense to consider this as part of the process. And if part of the process, shouldn’t it also be addressed in training and testing?

Of course it should. But look at agility tests. Practically every test out there times the player’s ability to negotiate a defined route to or around fixed objects. There is little cognition involved when the course, required tasks, and changes of direction are laid out right there in plain sight.

And training. Look at any book on “strength and conditioning” and find activities that randomly place the player in a situation that requires a decision.

Let’s take this one more step further. We teach our players more advanced tactics and place more fitness demands on players as they advance in age and ability. But all those ‘footwork’ drills using ladders or poles or hoops done by players around puberty sure look the same as those done by the pros. No real progression, no increasing demands of randomness and uncertainty. Makes one wonder how effective these tasks are in more mature players. I can just read the thoughts of some pros during training, “why are we doing this?”

Research has made inroads to the trainability of agility if coaches haven’t. They’ve outlined various variables of agility. They define two high level constructs: change of direction speed and perceptual decision-making factors.

Factors that affect change of direction speed include technique, straight running speed, body build, and leg muscle factors (reactive strength, basic strength and power, right-left leg imbalances). Factors that impact decision-making are visual scanning, anticipation, pattern recognition, and knowledge of situations.

Looking at that list, it seems like coaching drills address change of direction factors (mostly technique) and “let the game be the best teacher” of the decision-making factors. How much teaching do we see regarding straight running speed or correcting imbalances in the limbs? I don’t see much.

I recall an old drill called the Brazilian Policeman; the only drill said to cause Pele to lose the ball. A dribbler faces a line of opponents. When the dribbler approaches a player, the opponent signals right or left or spreads their legs and the dribbler would have to go where directed, right, left, or through the legs. The better the player, the faster they would do the drill and the later the opponent would force a decision. Don’t see much of that kind of training.

I think coaches need to think hard about what’s being done, at what age and ability, and what’s to be expected when it comes to agility training. A lot of documented improvements can be attributed to just learning the test course, but greater advances can be achieved when activities are designed to address the various factors that make up agility.

Guessing there will be more to come in the not too distant future.
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