Applicability of Agility Training

Far too often, I find myself pressured by sport coaches, parents, and athletes to incorporate more agility drills involving ladders and cones. Scores of sport coaches, parents, and athletes believe that a program solely consisting of rather rudimentary agility drills will lead to improved athletic performance. Agility training is an integral component in a well-rounded performance training program. However, as a standalone, it will do very little to drastically improve athletic performance.

Agility is described as a locomotor skill whereby an athlete changes direction or redirects. It requires the sound development of a slew of coordinative abilities including balance, kinesthetic awareness, and temporal and spatial control. Most importantly, it requires the ability to anticipate action and react to it. I find that refinement of the latter two aspects are repeatedly absent in most programs.

Cookie-cutter speed, agility, and quickness camps and a large number of strength and conditioning programs include only closed skill agility drills in which the distance, patterning, and tempo are predetermined. Closed skill agility drills, such as the 5-10-5 pro agility drill and the T-test, are preprogrammed.

Open skill agility drills, which more closely mimic the unpredictable nature of competition, are lacking in most programs. These drills require the athlete to anticipate a cue—be it auditory such as a blown whistle or a coach’s command, or visual such as a light or sign that’s associated to specific activities or with colored implements such as cones or hurdles—and react to them. A study conducted by a team of Australian researchers found that open skill agility drills are more effective in differentiating anticipatory and reactive abilities between groups of athletes with varying skill sets than closed skill agility drills (1). Their findings make perfect sense, as an athlete can refine his performance on a given drill through repeated efforts. In my experience as a strength coach who regularly works with collegiate and high school athletes and as a personal trainer who has worked with a number of populations, I've noticed that improvement in a given task is directly correlated with the frequency in which it’s performed. For instance, if you have a football player complete ladder drills without fail every day, he’ll become more proficient with them over time. Soon, he’ll be able to progress to a number of other complex drills such as backwards Ickey shuffles. However, he won't necessarily improve his athleticism or playing ability.

Some of my favorite open skill agility drills are of the reactive variety including get up and gos. I’ll usually set up a number of different colored cones in a line, spaced approximately three to five yards apart. I’ll instruct the athlete to assume a prone position five to fifteen yards in front of the cones with his torso and legs entirely making contact with the ground. I’ll yell a color and the athlete will have to swiftly push himself up and sprint to the corresponding cone.

Another drill I like to use is the reactive tire flip with a jump through into a sprint. To start, I’ll have the athlete assume an athletic position, a prone position, or a supine position. I’ll blow the whistle, and the athlete will have to immediately get up and get into position to flip the tire. He’ll explode into it and jump through it while it’s down, which is when one of his teammates or partners will yell out a color. Then the athlete will have to sprint to the corresponding cone. You may also have the athlete engage in a tire battle with a partner prior to the sprint to a cone. I find that the tire battle to a sprint is effective in helping defensive linemen anticipate movement while they work to shed a block. For basketball players, I've found the drill helpful in players anticipating a screen or pick while awaiting a specific target. I’ll also throw in tire flips with a tag, in which the athlete will have to track down and tag his teammate following the tire flip, and chase drills, in which the athlete will have to chase and tag his teammate who is wearing a different colored pinny or jersey.

Other considerations

Specificity reigns supreme: Open skill agility drills should be used as the competitive season nears. I've found that incorporating them in specific physical preparedness (SPP) mesocycles works best. It’s during this time that I’ll have the athletes perform them with work to rest intervals that mirror competition demands.

During the latter stages of their training, I’ll be sure to have their agility training performed on the surfaces they’ll be playing on with the footwear they’ll be using during their season.

Getting them stronger: A high degree of strength is required in activities that require rapid absorptive and propulsive forces as well as the ability to quickly redirect or change direction. In younger athletes, you must first improve their maximal strength. In untrained youth athletes, simple body weight exercises and lower intensity plyometrics will help establish the musculotendinous elasticity required to exert greater forces as they recoil from a sudden forceful stretch. Additional recoil will boost contribution from muscle fibers during the concentric phase of the stretch-shortening cycle, enabling them to move a segment or lower limb faster.

Getting them more explosive: Sometimes training purely for strength isn’t enough, especially in more experienced athletes. Advanced athletes, who typically boast appreciable strength levels, need to shift their training efforts closer to the right side of the force-velocity curve. Plyometric exercises and dynamic effort movements such as paused box squats that spike ground reaction forces will help them get more explosive.

Quick comment on closed skill

There isn't anything wrong with cone and ladder drills. They still improve balance, proprioceptive ability, and conditioning. They will also improve elasticity of muscles and tendons. Additionally, they make for a great dynamic warm up. However, they shouldn't be used exclusively. Unless a coach is using them to train athletes for specific closed skill agility drills such as a combine or skills competition, I merely view them as busy work or filler exercises to make the time pass.


  1. Sheppard JM, Young WB, Doyle TL, et al (2006) An evaluation of a new test of reactive agility and its relationship to sprint speed and change of direction. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 9:342–49.