Sports Coach Logo Sports Coach Training Principles Fitness Components


Agility Training to meet the demands of field and court games

Vern Gambetta explores the components of agility training and how they may be developed.

Agility training is speed training; it is not conditioning work. That simple statement speaks volumes and has incredibly complex implications. The principles of speed development are well known but have not been systematically applied to the improvement of agility. The principles of motor learning are defined; they must be observed for the optimum development of agility. Agility in game situations takes place in a time of 2 to 5 seconds. This is high neural demand work that must be consistently reproduced in a climate of fatigue. That is where most of the problems start. Do not begin by incorporating fatigue, start with teaching the skill, then master the skill, add a reaction, master that, and then and only then include fatigue.

The components of agility

The multi-dimensional movement demands of field and court games dictate a revaluation of the traditional approach to the development of agility. This demands a systematic multi-factored approach that results in significant improvement in game speed. Possibly we have put the cart before the horse by training agility in isolation without considering the underlying coordinative abilities and strength. Full development of coordinative abilities provides a repertoire of motor skills that can be adapted to deal with sport-specific movement demands. According to Drabik (1996)[1], the coordinative abilities are:

  • Balance - Maintenance of the centre of gravity over the base of support. It has a static and dynamic quality
  • Kinaesthetic Differentiation - Ability to feel the tension in a movement to achieve the desired movement
  • Spatial Orientation - The control of the body in space
  • Reaction to Signals - The ability to respond quickly to auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic cues
  • Sense of Rhythm - The ability to match movement to time
  • Synchronization of movements in time - Unrelated limb movements completed in a synchronized manner
  • Movement Adequacy - Ability to choose movements appropriate to the task

The coordinative abilities never work in isolation; they are all closely related. They are the underlying foundation for agility and the prerequisite for technical skills.

Strength is fundamental

Agility requires good fundamental strength. Without adequate leg strength, there is a limit to the quality of the movement, which will significantly affect the ability to train. Leg strength must be developed in parallel with agility work. The forces involved in multiple planes also demand that we take a less traditional approach to the development of leg strength that will transfer to the movement skills. Begin with body awareness and control in conjunction with strength training. It is not an overnight affair, but part of a longer-term systematic development program, based on fundamental movements and the subsequent refinement of those movements. Build progressively into sports skills. Carefully understand the movement patterns of the sport and their position within the sport. Each sport has certain movement commonalities with other sports. Look for those commonalities. Each sport will also have movements that are unique to that sport, so understand those and prepare for them. Equipment will often dictate movement patterns and positions, i.e. the glove in baseball, the stick in field hockey and ice hockey, and the ball in rugby and football. Therefore, train and test agility incorporating the game equipment to get a more accurate picture.

Is playing the sport enough to develop agility?

There is one school of thought that feels it is unnecessary to do any significant agility work outside the practice of the actual sport. The thought process is that practicing the movements outside the sport is non-specific work that will not transfer and that it is impossible to duplicate the intensity of the actual practice or a game. I do not share that viewpoint. It is necessary to carefully design drills that tap into the repertoire of motor skills developed through the development of the coordinative abilities that make up the components of the movements required in the specific sport. The overload should be progressive and based on sound motor learning principles, and proper biomechanics and adapted to each athlete.

Developing appropriate exercises

The approach is to design a hierarchy of exercises that lead seamlessly into the sport's skills. That hierarchy is:

  • First Derivative - The actual movement done at game speed
  • Second Derivative - The movements broken into parts
  • Third Derivative - Basic movements (coordinative abilities) that underlie the skill

Understanding the derivatives means understanding the breakdown of the movements in the respective sport.

Analyse the moments

Use game analysis to determine the movements and game speed. The game analysis will also determine the volume of work in the actual sport, which will, in turn, determine training volumes and intensities. Essentially what we are trying to do is take the guesswork and opinion out of the whole process to be as precise as possible in the selection and prescription of exercise to produce an adaptive response that will transfer to the game. I have spent too much time drilling for drill's sake. Agility drills with a million cones and sticks look good, but what is the benefit? The player gets good at the drill, but the drills do not transfer to the game. The goal with agility drills should be efficient, effortless, flowing movement that transfers directly to the sport. Time the drills whenever possible, to provide feedback to the player.

The components of agility training are:

  • Body Control & Awareness - The ability to control the body parts and maintain a high level of awareness of those parts to the goal of the movement.
  • Recognition and Reaction - Recognition is the domain of the actual sports skills involved. Recognition of patterns and cues is a key reaction. The reaction is the ability to respond quickly to the required stimulus.
  • Starting - The ability to overcome inertia. In multi-direction sports, starts can be stationary or moving, or a combination depending on the sport.
  • Footwork - The hip-to-foot relationship. Conceptually agility is built from the ground up therefore footwork is the unifying thread in all agility work.
  • Change of Direction - Initiated by getting the centre of gravity outside the base of support and then regaining control to maintain control and move in the intended direction. Change of direction involving stopping, which is the key to agility, also incorporates the ability to restart when necessary, regardless of the position of the body.

All these components can be significantly improved through the systematic application of specific drills. The application of speed to sports that require multi-dimensional movements demands an understanding of the concept of game speed. Game speed is not linear track speed. It is the ability to apply all elements of speed to the demands of the game. Some of the technical aspects of speed that are rewarded in the sprint events in track and field can be counterproductive to game speed. Very little movement in multi-directional sports is straight ahead for any significant distance. Most movement involves angles, curves, starts, stops, and direction changes. Agility and game speed are closely related. Agility is defined as the ability to recognize, react, start and move in the required direction, change direction if necessary and stop quickly. This typically occurs in a time frame of two to five seconds.

How to improve agility

Agility can be significantly improved if we understand and apply some basic principles/concepts:

  • Skill - Open skill occurs when the movement goal is unknown. In a closed skill the movement is pre-programmed. The progression in agility training usually proceeds from closed to open skills.
  • Reaction versus reflex - Reaction is the response to a stimulus to initiate movement. It is a conscious act that can be improved through training. Reflex, on the other hand, occurs at the subcortical level and cannot be trained.
  • Speed as a motor task - A motor task can be learned; therefore, speed can be taught if the motor tasks involved are defined.
  • Practice
    • Massed - the skill is practiced until learned without taking a break. These sessions are suitable for athletes with a high level of fitness and experience and are most suited to fixed practice.
    • Distributed - practice is interspersed with breaks which can either be rest or another skill.

These sessions are suitable for athletes with lower levels of fitness and experience and are most suited to variable practice.

Strength qualities related to agility

Effective starting demands a high level of concentric strength to overcome inertia. It is an extension of the ankle/knee/hip pushing back against the ground to propel the body in the intended direction. Effective stopping demands a high level of eccentric strength demands. It is the proportionate bending of the ankle/knee/hip. Basic strength is a prerequisite for force production and reduction.

Eccentric strength, the primary requirement to stop effectively, is the ability to reduce force. It also requires tremendous joint stability and control. Force must be produced and reduced in concise time frames; therefore, the premium is on the rate of force development. It is the ability to handle forces in an eccentric mode up to 12 times body weight and be able to change direction and overcome those forces. This all must be done in tenths of a second. It is developed through exercises that develop unilateral and reciprocal leg strength.

The following table shows the relationship of the strength qualities to the components of agility.

Basic Strength F
Balance, Body Control, and Awareness
Speed Strength & Plyometrics Starting and Acceleration Speed Angles & Vectors
Power Endurance Complex Footwork
Maximum Strength Change of Direction, Stopping

These qualities must be developed in parallel, not in isolation, and then put back into the whole. There are overlaps and interdependencies. The traditional approach was to build strength through repetition of the movement. Theoretically, as the athlete got stronger, the movement got better, but it did not. The bad habits and patterns that developed due to improper strength resulted in poor movement mechanics. So even though the athlete was doing the drill, the transfer was negative. Incorrect repetitions led to the acquisition of faulty movement patterns that impede the formation of correct skills. A more rational approach demands mastery of prerequisite fundamental movement skills that are within the strength capabilities of the athlete. As the athlete's strength increases through a systematic strength development program, the complexity of the movements can change in parallel. Given the large window of adaptation open to the developing athletes, this can occur quite rapidly.

What is agility work?

Agility work is not conditioning; it is speed development work. That statement has many profound implications. Movements must be mastered before any element of fatigue is brought into the picture. Old myths die hard! Grass drills, matt drills, line drills, and agilities until you are ill having no foundation in training theory. This approach is counterproductive in terms of sound motor learning. Incorrect movement patterns are learned and grooved. Does fatigue or so-called pressure training fit into the picture? There is no question that the plants, cuts, starts, and stops must be able to be done in a fatigued state. But that is not where you start, add a reaction, add game situations and then add fatigue when the movements are mastered.

Mix reaction speed and agility

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming in most agility work is the lack of a reaction component. Research out of Australia has shown significantly different patterns of activation on simple cutting tasks done with reaction than the same tasks done without reaction. In short, reaction changes everything. The reaction can be incorporated early and often if it is placed as part of a logical progression. The reaction should be practiced to the dominant cue demanded by the game.

A reaction can be to one of the following stimuli:

  • Visual - Tracking ability, Narrow versus wide focus
  • Auditory - Different cadences and tones
  • Kinaesthetic - Pressure, pushes, bumps and surfaces


Agility is the key to game speed. It not only has a performance enhancement component, but it can make a massive contribution to injury prevention. A more agile athlete will be able to safely get into and out of positions that would otherwise be impossible. This can only be developed through a systematic approach that has a foundation in sound motor learning principles.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • GAMBETTA, V. (2004) Agility Training to meet the demands of field and court games. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 15 / September), p. 5-8


  1. DRABIK, J. (1996) Children & Sports Training. Island Pond, Vermont: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
  2. KURZ, T. (2001) Science of Sports Training. 2nd Edition. Island Pont, Vt: Stadion Publishing Company

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • GAMBETTA, V. (2004) Agility Training to meet the demands of field and court games [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Vern Gambetta is a conditioning coach for several teams in Major League Soccer as well as a conditioning consultant to the USA Men`s World Cup Soccer team. He is a popular speaker and writer on conditioning topics having lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia, and Europe. Vern`s coaching experience spans 34 years at all levels of competition.