The New Rules of Agility Training

It's time to totally re-think traditional 'agility' drills and their role in building better athletes.

When I say the words "agility drill," what comes to mind?

For most people, it's an athlete moving through a diagram of carefully arranged bright orange cones with military precision. Or perhaps it's a group of athletes all working through the same drill, perfectly tracing each other's footsteps. A coach lurks nearby, ready to go ballistic should an athlete commit the ultimate sin of knocking over a cone.

To the casual observer, these drills look athletic. But stop to consider how athletes move in sport, and the facade begins to crack.


When I say the words "agility drill," what comes to mind?

For most people, it's an athlete moving through a diagram of carefully arranged bright orange cones with military precision. Or perhaps it's a group of athletes all working through the same drill, perfectly tracing each other's footsteps. A coach lurks nearby, ready to go ballistic should an athlete commit the ultimate sin of knocking over a cone.

To the casual observer, these drills look athletic. But stop to consider how athletes move in sport, and the facade begins to crack.

When is a team sport athlete actually faced with this sort of task during a game? A task where they know exactly where they need to go and exactly how they'll get there before they need to do it?

Almost never. However, traditional "agility" drills used by most coaches almost exclusively fit this model. That's because said drills don't actually train agility—they simply train change of direction.

Change of direction drills are closed and involve pre-planned movements. The athlete knows exactly what they're going to do before they start the drill—when they'll speed up, when they'll slow down, where they'll cut, what cones or lines they'll navigate, etc. There are no surprises.

This repeatability makes change of direction drills a convenient form of testing, and they're a staple of combines everywhere. Examples include the 5-10-5 Drill, the 3-Cone Drill, the T-Drill, etc. If you can fly through a 5-10-5, you've got great change of direction speed. However, it says little about your agility.

"There are a lot of fast 5-10-5 guys who aren't good football players," says Nick DiMarco, Director of Sports Performance at Elon University.

"It's rote learning. You can learn how to run a 5-10-5, but it doesn't carry over to many other things."

DiMarco and his staff, along with experts like Michael Zweifel, Korey Van Wyk, and Shawn Myszka, are changing the conversation around agility training and calling out the overuse of pre-planned, closed drills that contain little to no elements of perception, cognition and reaction.

"The biggest mistake made is the continued misuse of the terms agility and change of direction (COD). They're often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. The belief that they're interchangeable has resulted in a disservice to our athletes and how we evaluate them for a long time," Zweifel wrote in an article for Simplifaster.

"COD involves changing direction or speed without a stimulus. It is closed and pre-programmed. Agility, on the other hand, involves a stimulus; it is open, random and chaotic."

Equating the two is an easy mistake, and one STACK's admittedly made in some previous articles. However, it's a critical distinction.

An appropriate working definition for agility is "a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus."

Sports, particularly "invasion" sports where teams are responsible for guarding one area while attacking another (football, soccer, rugby, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, hockey, etc.), demand constant agility. In change of direction drills, athletes typically keep their eyes trained on fixed objects like cones or lines. Since agility drills require them to identify and react to a stimulus, they often force their eyes up. True agility drills can utilize cones, but when and how an athlete navigates them will depend on a stimulus—most often another person.

"Agility has to involve the perceptual action component of it. OODA loop—observe, orient, decide, act. If it doesn't involve that, it's not actually an agility drill," says DiMarco.

"There's not very many people who are very good at open agility drills but can't play football."

Pure change of direction skill/speed absent of agility is rarely required in team sports. While a football wide receiver running a route would seem to fit the bill, very rarely are they going to run a pattern exactly as it looks on paper—the defense will almost always impede or influence them.

"Correlations between agility test and CODS (change-of-direction speed) tests indicate that they represent independent skills. Agility tests discriminate higher from lower-standard athletes better than CODS tests, indicating that the cognitive element of agility is important to performance. Training studies have shown that the development of strength qualities can transfer to gains in CODS, but this has never been shown for agility," reads the abstract of a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching.

So if almost all traditional "agility" drills are misclassified, how do we train this essential skill?

For DiMarco, who mainly works with Elon's football and basketball teams, agility drills are categorized into three "buckets":

  • Mirror/Dodge Drills
  • Chaser Drills
  • Score Drills

They all involve the most important stimulus in any invasion sport—an opponent.

"Everything stems from the fact the offense's goal is to evade defenders and potentially score. Defensively, you want to maintain position and close proximity to the offensive player trying to evade you, and you don't want to let them score," says DiMarco.

The most basic example of the Mirror/Dodge category is the Mirror-Dodge Drill. Between two boundaries, one athlete moves laterally to create as much separation as possible, while the opposite "mirrors" them as closely as possible:

"I'm on offense, you're on defense. I'm just trying to create space and not have you be in front of me. As the defender, you're just trying to keep me in front of you the entire time. That's a ton of sports and a lot of different field sports—the ability to maintain position and keep somebody in front of you (and) as close as possible," DiMarco says.

This basic premise can be progressed ad infinitum. Possibilities include a run-up entry into the drill,
the mirroring athlete having their back to the dodger, the athletes facing forward instead of sideways, or adding multiple athletes to the same space so the mirroring man must visually sort through traffic, as shown here:

Elon Sports Performance's YouTube page is loaded with over 100 agility drills, and the variations are truly endless. But the goal always should come back to this—what are athletes being asked to do during competition, and how can we better equip them for that?

Different sports and different positions within each sport will be best-served by different doses from each agility "bucket." For example, a football lineman's job centers around either mirroring or dodging their opponent, so a lot of their agility work will focus around that concept. Yet an offensive lineman will do very little of this next category, which is dubbed Chaser, during a game, so they do very little of it in their training.

The Chaser category is somewhat similar to Mirror-Dodge, but usually involves more linear acceleration and higher speeds. These drills often closely relate to a defensive back trailing a wide receiver:

"The Mirror is just a lot more, 'truly stay in front.' Our Chaser is generally, 'You're behind in this situation, and you're trying to maintain back hip position. You're working a trail," DiMarco says.

"One example is you set up a 20-yard area, and we'll throw five or six pop-up dummies in the area, or you just have kids go out there and stand stationary. One guy sprints through as fast as he can, while the other guy is just trying to trail him and stay on his hip."

Generally, DiMarco looks to make the duration of the agility drills similar to that of a football play. "Everything's in that 3- to 6- or 7-second window of competition," DiMarco says.

The final bucket is the Score category. These drills involve one athlete being tasked with getting somewhere, and the opposing athlete attempting to stop them via a two-handed touch below the waist. The exact dimensions/location of the "end zone(s)" is one variable which can be easily altered. For example, different sets of scoring "gates" can be spread across an area, and the attacker can go for whichever one they choose:

Stationary athletes/objects can be placed inside the area to add elements of traffic. Further progression can be added by putting them in motion:

Not only do these drills carry over to sport much better than say, a T-Drill, but athletes tend to be far more invested in them.

"It's so much more competitive. It's actually fun to do," says DiMarco.

While quantifying performance in these type of drills isn't as simple as clicking a stopwatch, the feedback the player receives from their environment should not be underrated. You know when you got left in the dust, and you know when you juked someone out of their shoes. That type of learning is essential, as those results inform how you approach similar situations moving forward.

Elon athletes fill out regular surveys that allow them to rate their own ability/improvement in skills like open agility. While the results of those have been overwhelmingly positive, if the athletes didn't actually believe they were improving, that'd be a huge red flag. Additionally, Elon's sports performance staff looks at in-game performance to help quantify increases in agility.

"Everything we do is broken down within the game. For basketball, we look at blow-bys, offensively and defensively. If you're getting more blow-bys as an offensive player and you're allowing fewer blow-bys on defense, your agility has improved," DiMarco says. "For football, we look at broken tackles. Those aren't generally attributed just to running through people. Most of the time, it's because you were able to deceive the guy just enough that he's off-balance and you can get away from him. As a defender, same thing, most of the time you don't miss a tackle because you got run over—you were deceived, you were off-balance, etc."

There's very little coaching going on during the full-speed agility reps, but half-speed versions of foundational drills are integrated into the athletes' performance prep warm-up. During this time, coaches will emphasize keys to staying in better positions, such as keeping your eyes on the opponent's hip, or avoiding sitting back on your heels.

This isn't to say change of direction drills are a total waste of time. Instructing young athletes on keys to efficient acceleration, deceleration, cutting, backpedaling, etc.—and giving them time to focus on those things in a more closed environment—has value. There's also reason to believe they can be a potent form of injury prevention when programmed correctly.

However, spending many training hours chasing perfection in these closed environments while almost totally ignoring true agility drills is misguided.

"The technique used during a COD action is not the same as technique used in an agility movement or game situation. Coaches somehow think doing something predictable over and over again and with 'perfect' technique will somehow make an athlete better at doing something that is unpredictable—it just doesn't happen," Zweifel told Love the Grind.

"This is why coaches should always strive to have a stimulus or decision-making present. You can't make better movers/thinkers if these are absent."

Once the athlete gets into their competitive season, they'll be getting the most specific form of agility training possible in the form of practice and games. But if you're doing nothing to increase those attributes during their off-season, it's unrealistic to expect much improvement from season to season.

Agility is an essential component of sport, but there's a big disconnect between the drills we've long associated with it and the skill itself. Young athletes are now growing up in an era where free play is at an all-time low and early specialization is the new normal. Their movement toolset often suffers as a result, and ordering them to perform rep after rep of closed drills during training doesn't do much good.

"Almost everyone just does the pre-planned change of direction work, and that's basically all they do," says DiMarco.

"The majority, probably 85 percent of what we do, is truly open agility stuff…(Ask yourself), What's the goal? What skill am I trying to replicate? Then work backwards from there."

Change of direction drills tend to be clean and pretty. Agility drills are messier and more chaotic—but so are sports. There aren't any cones on the field or court on game day, but there are certainly opponents. Many athletes could benefit from spending more time training how they move in relation to the latter.

Photo Credit: Junce/iStock