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Reconsideration: Measuring, Evaluating, and Training of Agility! By Hiroshi Hasegawa (Part 1)

Agility was historically defined as a unique ability in strength and conditioning research. However, recent studies have shown that tests with predetermined movements, turns, and steps do not truly assess or improve agility; they merely measure change of direction skills. So, what exactly is agility, and what kind of ability does it represent? In this article, I aim to scientifically explore its true essence.


Female athlete doing agility training with new technology for agility  training.

1. Understanding Agility


Many readers might be surprised to hear the claims stating: “Pro Agility Test doesn't actually measure true agility”, and that “ladder training won't improve it”. However, based on research from the past decade, these conclusions are well-supported.


Male athlete doing agility drill. However, recent research has shown that these tests and training methods, which involve predetermined movements, turns, and steps, do not actually evaluate or improve true agility. Instead, they only measure changes of direction (COD).
Agility training in the past

In the past, tests like the Pro Agility Test, the Three-Cone Test, and the T-Test where cones, markers, or poles defined a set course were commonly used to measure agility.


Training that involved running these courses at maximum speed from various angles and distances, or quickly moving through ladders and mini-hurdles, was considered agility training.



However, recent research has shown that these tests and training methods, which involve predetermined movements, turns, and steps, do not actually evaluate or improve true agility. Instead, they only measure changes of direction (COD).


So, how can we truly measure, evaluate, and improve agility? To answer this, we first need to scientifically explore what agility really is, what kind of ability it represents, as well as the factors that define agility, and what it means to improve it.


Recent research shown that tests and training methods involving predetermined movements, do not evaluate or improve true agility. Instead, they only measure changes of direction (COD).

2. Evaluating Agility in Invasion Sports


In various sports, the importance of agility has long been pointed out and various studies have been conducted, particularly in ball games classified as invasion sports.


Invasion sports include team sports such as soccer, rugby, American football, basketball, and handball. In these sports, the objective is to score points by invading the opponent's territory while simultaneously defending and preventing them from scoring. To understand the significance of agility in these sports, it is necessary to first clarify the basic structure of these competitions.

Male athlete doing agility drill for soccer with new technology in agility training. In these sports, the objective is to score points by invading the opponent's territory while simultaneously defending and preventing them from scoring. To understand the significance of agility in these sports, it is necessary to first clarify the basic structure of these competitions.

The Duality of Offensive and Defensive Functions


In invasion sports, there is a theory by Inagaki known as the duality of offensive and defensive functions, which organizes these aspects from a tactical perspective.


Traditionally, it is believed that the team or player holding the ball is in the offensive phase, while the team or player not holding the ball is in the defensive phase. However, the duality theory suggests that each phase includes both offensive and defensive functions.


We typically see teams with the ball as offense and the others as defense. But the duality theory suggest each of these phases comprises of both offense and defense functions.

Duality theory explained

Figure 1 summarizes this theory. In the offensive phase, the main goal is to score by shooting or carrying the ball towards the opponent's goal or end zone. But defensive actions, such as preventing the ball from being taken away by tackles, blocks, or interceptions, are also necessary.


Conversely, in the defensive phase, while the main goal is to protect one's own goal, offensive actions, like trying to steal the opponent's ball, are also involved.


Male athletes doing soccer agility training.
Change between offense and defense

The phases of offense and defense naturally change as the ball possession changes. However, the purpose and actions in each phase also shifts depending on whether offensive or defensive functions are being executed.


For example, in the defensive phase, players might need to position to protect the goal or move for defense. But if an opportunity arises to steal the ball, they must change position or direction instantly. The same applies in the offensive phase; if a player is about to lose the ball, they must quickly change their play to prevent this.


This duality applies not only to one-on-one situations between the ball holder and the defender but also to the surrounding players. It shows that in invasion sports, players must constantly adjust their posture, steps, movement direction, and speed based on immediate responses to the complex and rapidly changing environment.


In invasion sports, players must continually adapt their movements and strategies to both offensive and defensive roles, responding quickly to the dynamic flow of the game.

The Relationship Between Predators and Prey in Wild Animals


IUSCA (International University Strength & Conditioning Association) made a statement in 2022 regarding agility in invasive sports, particularly focusing the 1-on-1 situations between attacking and defending players. They drew parallels from the animal kingdom, referring to the relationship between predators and prey (3).


The statement suggests that predators like cheetahs correspond to defending players in invasive sports, while prey animals like gazelles or wild rabbits correspond to attacking players. As explained, the attacking player aims to escape the defending player by moving into space and seeking safer locations. Meanwhile, the defending player obstructs the path of the attacking player, tracks them down, and ultimately captures them.


What can we learn from the predator-prey relationships in the wild? Theory by Inagaki

Figure 1: What can we learn from the predator-prey relationships in the wild? (Table created by the author based on Inagaki 1,2)


IUSCA statement highlights insights drawn from behavioral studies in the animal kingdom of predator-prey relationships. It reveals several key points:


1) Cheetahs, for example, possess not only top speed and significant acceleration but also substantial deceleration to sharply corner their prey, before pursuing it.


Prey animals that are smaller or slower than their predators survive by moving quickly in different directions and at unpredictable times. This helps them secure space and time to flee. Leopard chasing his pray. Relationship between predator and praxy.

2) In animal behaviour, there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. As animals escape or pursue faster, they are more likely to make mistakes in foot placement and posture. This shows the importance of finding an optimal speed rather than always moving at maximum speed or making quick direction changes.


3) Prey animals that are smaller or slower than their predators survive by moving quickly in different directions and at unpredictable times. This helps them secure space and time to flee.


4) The reaction and movement times of prey animals during the chase are faster than the predators.



Evaluating and Understanding Agility in Invasion Sports


The above points seem to provide some reference perspectives for considering agility in invasion sports. For example, in both the offensive and defensive phases, the dual nature of functions - offense and defense - exists, making the actions and movements to be executed by offensive and defensive players change instantaneously and complexly, differing with each situation.


Importance of feints

It is necessary to assume response actions to stimuli that include feints when measuring and training agility.

But it is not just about the switch between ball possession and non-possession phases; obtaining clues about which function each player is demonstrating or attempting to demonstrate at that moment - prediction - may significantly influence following reactions.


Since various deceptive actions, such as feints, are frequently performed based on the premise of the dual nature of offensive and defensive functions, it may be necessary to assume response actions to stimuli that include feints when measuring and training agility. Furthermore, these actions and movements are likely performed not at maximum speed but under optimal speed control.


If so, rather than pursuing the highest possible speed in changes of direction or movement, it is crucial to improve the ability to control the accuracy and quickness of responses at optimal speeds.

Measurement and training should be conducted in situations that respond to stimuli arising from various possibilities, rather than single, predetermined directions or angles of movement, such as turning right or left by a certain degree.


If instantaneous changes in movement speed and direction in response to the opponent's actions are important in the life-and-death struggles of animal attacks and defenses, then merely pursuing the improvement of speed in voluntary movements initiated without perception or response to external stimuli may be far from the essence of agility.


Considering this, it becomes clear that not only in invasion sports but also in net sports like volleyball, tennis, badminton, and table tennis, as well as in alternating offense and defense sports like baseball and softball, there are almost no situations where direction changes are made according to predetermined movements without any response involved.


Reactive movements are faster than voluntary movements


An interesting research theme to consider when thinking about the difference between movements initiated voluntarily, as in typical agility tests, and those initiated in response to external stimuli is Bohr's law (also known as the quick-draw gunman effect).


This law is named after a series of experiments inspired by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, who was intrigued by the idea that in Western movie shootout scenes, the hero always wins despite the villain reaching for their gun first. These experiments confirmed that movements initiated in response to a stimulus have shorter execution times than voluntary movements.


Reactive agility training with Sportreact reactive agility system. Athlete is training their reactions as he is touching the pod.

In a study examining whether this law applies to whole-body movements, it was found that side-stepping movements initiated in response to a light stimulus were significantly shorter (by 57 milliseconds) from start to completion than voluntary side-stepping movements (4). The study also showed clear differences in the sequence of ground reaction forces exerted by the feet and the peak velocity and time to reach that velocity in relation to movement direction.


This suggests that the brain's motor planning differs in complexity and execution speed between movements initiated at one's own timing and those in response to external stimuli.


Therefore, agility tests and training should always be conducted under conditions where the movements are initiated in response to external stimuli, rather than voluntarily starting and changing direction as predetermined.


A study found that side-stepping movements in response to a light stimulus were 57 milliseconds shorter than voluntary side-steps.

However, considering that whole-body reaction time is generally around 200 milliseconds, a 57 millisecond difference would not be sufficient to win if one starts moving after the opponent. This highlights the importance of perception and decision-making factors, such as prediction and pattern recognition, in explaining how defenders can sometimes win in invasion sports and martial arts.


This concept aligns with the idea in kendo of "Go no sen" (responding later but with advantage) being able to defeat "Sen sen no sen" (taking the initiative before the opponent's move) (5). It serves as a perspective to consider the importance of reaction in agility.


Evaluating: Definition and Model of Agility


20 years ago it is generally accepted that agility was defined and positioned as a unique ability in the world of strength and conditioning research and training, in a literature review published in 2006 (Figure 2) (6). The definition presented there states that agility is "a rapid whole-body movement with a change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus."


The key point in this definition is that agility involves changing speed or direction in response to a stimulus; merely changing speed or direction according to a predetermined plan is not considered agility, but rather just change of direction (COD).


Agility model proposed by Shepherd & Young (2006), revised from the model by Young et. al (2002)

Figure 2: Agility model proposed by Shepherd & Young (2006), revised from the model by Young et. al (2002)



The proposed model is shown in Figure 3. This model, initially presented in a paper (7) that examined the relationship between reactive strength assessed by a drop jump and COD speed at various angles, was revised and republished in the aforementioned review. Subsequently, this definition and model of agility have been widely cited and disseminated in various literature and materials.



Measuring, Evaluating, and Training of Agility


How About Agility Now?


However, Warren B. Young, who proposed this original model in 2002, published a paper (8) in 2021, twenty years later, with the provocative title "It is Time to Change Direction on Agility Research: A Call to Action."


In this paper, Young reflects that, according to the 2002 model, agility consists of two major factors: perceptual and decision-making factors, and change of direction (COD) speed. This led to the belief that improving COD speed supports agility performance. Consequently, the model was widely cited in many literature sources, and the idea that researching COD individually would help understand agility performance became justified.


During 2000s, in COD tests and training the main goal was to reduce movement time.

In COD tests and training, which involve initiating movements voluntarily and changing direction at predetermined positions, the sole purpose becomes reducing the time taken for these movements. The foot placement and timing is self-determined, with no external stimuli to respond to, no need for identification, and no decision-making processes involved.


However, considering COD as a component of agility, it is understandable that improving COD speed was seen as foundational to agility.


Athlete doing an agility drill with Sportreact timing gates

There is another reason why COD has been considered an important ability supporting agility and used as a criterion for evaluating athletes and their return to sport during rehabilitation. The representative COD tests (Pro Agility Test, 505 Test, T-Test, Three-Cone Test, Arrowhead Test, etc.) are easy to set up, have standardized protocols, allow reliable data collection from many participants in a short time, and facilitate the establishment of benchmark values.


As a result, many studies on COD were conducted, analyzing its relationship with various strength characteristics and COD phases. However, these studies focused solely on COD, expending energy on research unrelated to agility.


Currently, supported by numerous studies as described in the next section, agility is defined as "a rapid and accurate whole-body movement in response to a stimulus, involving changes in speed, direction, or movement pattern" (9).


2016 definition differs from the 2002 definition with the addition of "movement pattern" and "accurately." This emphasizes not just speed and direction but also the importance of selecting and performing movements accurately based on correct decision-making.


The latest 2022 and newest agility model based on temporal determinism

Figure 3: The latest agility model based on temporal determinism (10)


Now, agility is defined as "a rapid and accurate whole-body movement in response to a stimulus, involving changes in speed, direction, or movement pattern."

Furthermore, the 2022 model is not a parallel structure of components as before (10). Instead, it is structured with a deterministic relationship where factors influence each other over time, from external perception to decision-making and then movement execution, as shown in Figure 3. This allows for a more accurate understanding of the essence of agility (11).


3. Agility and COD are Different Abilities


Are change of direction and agility the same thing?


Recent research (12-16) has concluded that COD speed and agility, which involves responding to external stimuli, are not the same abilities. This conclusion is based on the low correlation between the test results for each, indicating that they are independent abilities.


Furthermore, it has been reported (17) that while agility tests involving responses to external stimuli can distinguish between higher and lower skill levels, COD speed tests cannot make such distinctions.



Figure 4: Comparing the execution of the standard T-test and the T-test that includes a reactive stimulus


Significant correlations have been confirmed between COD speed and various lower body strength characteristics (7), but these strength characteristics showed no correlation with agility tests (18). Additionally, while there was a significant high correlation between reactive strength in a drop jump or acceleration ability in a 10m sprint and COD, no such correlation was observed with agility (19).


A review (20) noted that while it is difficult to improve COD speed using vertical exercises such as Olympic lifts, squats, deadlifts, and vertical jumps, jump training in horizontal or lateral directions may improve COD speed. However, no studies have shown that such training, even if it improves COD, translates to improvements in agility.


Agility tests that include responses to external stimuli can differentiate athletes between their skill levels, while COD speed tests cannot.

4. How Do Agility and COD Differ?


As discussed, agility is distinct from COD (Change of Direction), which is the ability to shorten the time required for predetermined directional movements. The idea that COD supports agility or is the foundation of agility is incorrect. Agility involves more than just reacting and moving quickly; it includes processes like perception, cognition, reaction, and decision-making before initiating movement.


For example, in the Y-agility test (which involves changing direction left or right during a straight run), university male soccer players were told in advance which direction to turn and where. When instructed beforehand, they all used the same technique: stepping with the foot opposite the direction they need to go, placing it outside their body's center of gravity at the instructed spot.


However, in the agility test where a directional arrow appeared after the start (prompting players to move as quickly as possible in the correct direction) players performed quite differently. Four distinct characteristic steps, previously not seen in COD, emerged. The reactive variation of the test identified 19 different steps in total (21).


Figure 5: Execution of Y-agility test with a reactive component (light stimulus)


Furthermore, a 3D motion analysis study (22) on university male soccer players in an agility test involving quick backward direction changes in response to light stimuli revealed that top performers adjusted their knee, hip, and upper body angles to be ready for both left and right direction changes until the light stimulus was presented.


A meta-analysis (23) of the biomechanics of side-stepping found that, in responsive side-steps, the knee extension, abduction, and internal rotation angles, as well as knee flexion, adduction, and internal rotation moments, were significantly larger than those in predetermined side-steps.


This trend is similar to the risk factors observed for ACL injuries in field sports, indicating that appropriate training to prevent ACL injuries under game conditions, which require even shorter reaction times than laboratory conditions, is necessary (23).


Thus, agility and COD differ not only because the perception-reaction process is added before initiating COD, but also because the resulting movements are fundamentally different.

A study (24) comparing an agility test, where athletes respond to stimuli from six LEDs placed around them and quickly move to turn them off, with a COD test involving the same movement patterns in a predetermined order, found no significant correlation between the results of agility and COD. Although the study did not detail the differences in movement patterns, it showed that as the complexity of the movement patterns increased, the difference between agility and COD became more pronounced, highlighting the impact of cognitive complexity on agility performance.



 


Part 2 of the article by Hiroshi Hasegawa "Reconsideration: Measurement, Evaluation, and Training of Agility" that continues on the topics of measuring and evaluating agility, available technology and the future of agility testing can be found here.



*This article was originally written by the author in Japanese and published in  

JATI Express No.101, June 2024. It is translated by Sportreact.


Hiroshi Hasegawa. Professor of Sports Science at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan and serves as the Honorary President of JATI (Japan Association of Training Instructors).

HIROSHI

HASEGAWA


Professor Hiroshi Hasegawa's research focuses on biomechanical aspects of sports performance. His work focuses on enhancing training efficiency and understanding movement patterns through advanced technological and physiological analyses. He is employed as a Professor of Sports Science at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan and serves as the Honorary President of JATI (Japan Association of Training Instructors).




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