Agility is a flashy word thrown around in sports. We hear it from commentators, coaches, and athletes when describing someone's skills on the field. We see it when we play or watch our favorite stars take the field. But what is agility, and what is it not?
Often times, there is a confusion that lies around agility training, and the multiple components of what agility is. When many people think of agility training they see pictures of ladder drills or hurdle step-overs with crazy foot maneuvers performed between each one. They see athletes with fast feet tap dancing around cones holding a ball or kicking a ball back and forth. However, when we truly seek to understand agility we start to unpack how it is more than just fast feet.
Agility, in the sporting sense, is the ability to change direction based on a reaction to a game scenario.
This definition can then help us break down training into two main components: change of direction and reaction.
Change of direction is a major component of agility. By definition, it is "the ability to decelerate, stabilize, and re-accelerate in a different direction without losing speed or balance." This aspect of agility is mostly reliant of physical characteristics such as strength and power, and optimized by skill and technique (hence why we teach it here at Parisi Speed School). To decelerate without losing balance or stability an athlete must possess a high level of eccentric strength, the type of strength that comes from muscles producing force as they get longer. The ability of those muscles to re-accelerate is then influenced by an athletes ability to produce concentric strength, the type of strength that comes from muscles producing force as they shorten. These are qualities that are developed by using training implements that focus on those abilities such as jumping, landing, and weight training.
The other component of agility would then be a matter of reaction speed or timing. There are primarily two ways in which this is developed:
Through time spent in sports requiring an individual or an object
Through the implementation of reactive change of direction drills involving individuals or objects
These two developmental components of reaction can play a major role in an athlete's ability to display agility! Especially for field sports, the ability to react based on game scenarios is primarily based on playing the sport in an uncontrolled or a play environment (such as free play, not necessarily a structured practice or drill). While structured environments can be great for skill development, the chaos of a game or free play session contributes greatly in athletes ability to be agile. This can be highlighted by diving into author David Epstein's work on athletics in his books The Sport's Gene and Range (which I think should be required reading for the parents/coaches of youth athletes). In The Sport's Gene Epstein breaks down the case of baseball players have superior reaction time for being able to hit, noting that most individuals have almost the exact same reaction time and pointing to elite hitting skills in baseball being on visual acuity and the ability to predict a ball's location based on a pitcher's body movements. But when you take the experience of watching a pitcher for hundreds (or thousands) of at bats away from him, say by replacing the baseball pitcher out for a softball pitcher, then the ability to hit is taken away. (Epstein even details a story of softball pitching legend Jennie Finch striking out legendary MLB hitters such as Albert Pujols due to taking away this leveling of the playing field.)
Epstein also highlights in Range, how experience across broad array of disciplines allows one to display high levels of skill in other domains. Especially for athletes in team sport environments sampling several different sports, even if recreationally, can help develop the ability to track opponents or objects and develop an awareness of different patterns that can predict outcomes. Such an example would be a soccer player picking up recreational flag football for a spring or summer season, or a basketball player picking up soccer, or any combination of sports that is outside the primary domain. The ability to predict an opponents movement patterns based on a wide exposure to the patterns an opponent may display gives an athlete a better "reaction time" and therefore a higher capability of agility. These abilities can also be implemented in training through various small sided games, reactive drills that require tracking another athlete, or reacting to a stimulus.
Ultimately, however, we must understand the two main components that make up agility and find ways to develop both qualities. Agility, in its purest form, allows athletes to pull of on field maneuvers that shock crowds and win games. And while for some it seems innate, it is a trainable and achievable quality.