A few weeks ago I wrote an article about plyometrics, with Dr Yessis claiming that ‘plyometrics is the most misused term in our vocabulary’ . At the time I contended that, in the world of strength and conditioning, it was hard to disagree. The word ‘agility’, however, provides a strong contender. The aim of this article is to first define agility, and then, with this definition in mind, discuss how best to assess agility, and train for it (hint – don’t use the agility ladder).
Typically, athletes and coaches alike confuse change of direction speed with agility and so the two terms are used interchangeably when in fact they are quite different. It is therefore pertinent to first define the two terms before we delve any deeper:
Change of direction speed (CODS): the ability to change direction to a predetermined location and space on the field or court .
Agility: takes into account both the physical change of direction and includes perceptual and decision-making domains .
It is, therefore, the perceptual-cognitive ability to react to a stimulus, such as an opponent, that distinguishes the two.
Bearing the above definitions in mind, tests that have typically been used to test for agility ability, such as the traditional 5-0-5 test, in fact test for change of direction speed, due to the fact that the assessed change of direction is pre-planned. Additionally, there can be considerable discrepancy between tests that assess change of direction as some demand a rapid change of direction from the athlete whereas others require multiple change of directions, and thus might be better described as manoeuvrability tests. This is not to mention the metabolic demand of some tests due to their relatively long duration.
As such, to truly assess agility the test used needs to contain a reactive component. Traditionally, the original reactive agility test (RAT) has been used to do this. What distinguishes this test from the change of direction tests mentioned above is the demand on the athlete to respond to a stimulus on a screen, which may take the form of an arrow or light, a video or a human stimulus. A high-speed camera is used during the test to measure the decision-making time from when the stimulus initiates movement to when the athletes initiates movement in the intended direction i.e. it assesses the perceptual-cognitive ability of the athlete .
In order to develop an athlete’s agility performance, a three-pronged approach often works best .
This approach needs to develop: strength, in particular eccentric strength given the potentially high braking demands during change-of-direction movements; change-of-direction speed, the ability to change direction in a pre-determined drill and can be progressed from low-level to high-level depending on the physical demands of the drill, and perceptual-cognitive ability.
The icing on the cake in terms of developing agility is focusing on the perceptual-cognitive ability of the athlete. These drills focus on improving anticipation, decision-making and accuracy whereas the sport practice itself improves visual scanning, pattern recognition and knowledge of the situation . This would begin initially by adding a perceptual-cognitive component to closed skill change-of-direction drills (hence the need to follow a progressive plan to reach this point). This could then be progressed through making the stimuli more sport-specific e.g. evading an oncoming defender.
The ‘Agility’ Ladder
500 words into an article discussing agility and the ‘agility’ ladder hasn’t been mentioned once – an oversight on my part?
Actually, I’m hoping that, having read the last 500 words, you will have realised that the ‘agility’ ladder in fact does nothing to improve agility performance – there is no perceptual-cognitive component to the use of the agility ladder and so, by definition, it fails to meet the requirement of an agility drill. But the agility ladder develops footwork, specifically fast feet, and fast feet are crucial to improved agility?
I hate to break it to you but that’s not quite the case. Eric Cressey conceptualised the problem with the agility ladder in the following quote:
I think the problem is that coaches and parents equate fast feet with fast and quick feet with agile. However, fast feet don’t equal fast any more than quick feet equal agile 
Why do fast feet not equal fast? Because fast feet don’t use the ground well to produce force and force into the ground equals forward motion. A better use of an athlete’s time is therefore to focus on getting strong legs, and being able to absorb and produce force with these strong legs.
So is the agility ladder a waste of time? For improving agility, yes. But overall, no – it provides a very good neural stimulus in that it demands multi-planar control and co-ordination and so can be incorporated into a dynamic warm up. I also use it extensively with our Youth Athletes for this very reason.
In conclusion, agility is best defined as the ability to change direction in response to an unknown stimulus, such as an opponent. It therefore encompasses both physical (change-of-direction ability) and cognitive (reaction time and decision making) components. In order to therefore truly assess agility, the test chosen must include a perceptual-cognitive component. Like with any other performance attribute, training for agility must follow a progressive plan, progressing from low-level/low-velocity change-of-direction drills to higher-level drills and finally to drills that incorporate a perceptual-cognitive element. Lastly, the agility ladder does not improve agility due to the absence of a perceptual-cognitive element and, moreover, fast feet do not lead to improved speed or agility performance.
References Dr. Michael Yessis, ‘Dr Yessis on Prof. Verkoshansky and the Shock Method’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFS9oc-vLQ0 (accessed 23/08/2018).  S. Nimphius, ‘Increasing Agility’, in D. Joyce and D. Lewindon (eds.) High-Performance Training for Sports.  B. DeWeese & S. Nimphius, ‘Program Design and Technique for Speed and Agility Training’, in G. Haff & T. Triplett (eds.) Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (4th ed.)  E. Cressey, ‘The Truth About ‘Quick Feet’ and Agility Ladder Drills’, https://ericcressey.com/truth-about-quick-feet-agility-ladder-drills (accessed 18/10/2018).