Looking into how I structured and planned agility training was the first time I really looked into skill acquisition and in particular, ecological dynamics. Ecological dynamics, as I have discussed previously, emphasises the performer-environment (& task) relationship in learning design. In order for a player to become attuned to relevant information in a game, then he/she must be exposed to identifying cues from an environment that is identical to, or representative of the game. An important step is therefore defining what agility is, and then understanding it's component parts.
What is agility?
This description from Sheppard and Young (2006) is widely accepted when defining agility: “a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus". From this definition, there are 2 main components to agility - a physical component and a cognitive component. This is further illustrated in the theoretical model of agility, proposed by Young et al. (2002):
Theoretical model of agility (Young et al., 2002)
This model illustrates that there are a host of factors that influence agility performance, ranging from individual constraints, like strength and power, to more interactive abilities, like anticipation. Looking at agility from an ecological dynamics perspective, it is clear that in order to build better movers who have more creative movement solutions to deal with the wide range of movement problems they are presented with in a game, all aspects need to be trained in a representative manner.
Agility is a complex skill, and what makes developing agility even more complex is the wide ranging evidence surrounding agility, or claiming to look into agility. This is an extract from one of my recent MSc. continuous assessments, where I was reviewing a very small portion of the literature on agility:
These studies highlight the complex nature of CODS (change of direction speed) – any change of direction includes a deceleration component, a transition component, and an acceleration component, as described before. The magnitude of each component is determined by the task – for example, if a player is travelling at a higher max speed, they must decelerate with more force. But also, there are inconsistencies with methodologies when assessing CODS. While many studies ultimately looked at the same bio-motor quality, different tests were used across these studies. For example, to assess reactive strength, one study used a drop jump (Young et al., 1996) and another used a depth jump (Young et al., 2002). There was a similar variation in the testing of CODS – 20m sprint with three 90° turns, 20m sprint with four 90° turns. These individual studies are not invalid, but not alone is agility a complex task, interpreting findings from previous studies is even further complicated with such variation in methods.
This issue was highlighted in a recent review (one that is worth reading) by Young et al. (2021). Change of direction ability is widely research and often results are claimed to provide insight to invasion sports, like rugby union. However, reviewing the technical model presented above, change of direction ability is just one component of agility and there is a decoupling of perception-action. From an ecological dynamics point of view, we are not training or testing the skill of agility when this happens, we are simply training or testing an athlete's capacity to change direction.
In her UKSCA conference presentation in 2016 (available on the UKSCA website), Sophia Nimphius spoke of how to add load to change of direction tasks. This can be done by increasing entry speed moving into the change, increasing the sharpness of the turn (for example, a 180 degree turn is more demanding than a 15 degree turn), and add uncertainty. The last point - adding uncertainty - is something that really interests me, and comparing common task decomposition strategies to task simplification strategies. I must highlight that Sophia Nimphius also stated that she understands that change of direction training only builds capacity, it does not make a more skillful mover, and this is an important distinction to make - are we training skills or capacities?
Task decomposition versus task simplification
It is common in sport coaching for coaches to break down complex tasks into smaller components to make the complex task more manageable (McGill 2001). One of the main objectives of task decomposition strategies, is to reduce the attentional demands on a player during skill acquisition. This is precisely why I spent time working change of direction with players (see example below) in isolation. Recalling the theoretical model of agility - there are two components - physical and cognitive. Change of direction tasks are working only the physical component of agility, and this is a classic example of task decomposition.
Resulting from the dynamical systems theory (a contributor to James Gibson's insights on ecological dynamics) is the task simplification method of practice design. A decoupling of an athletes perceptual and motor systems prevents athletes from strengthening the perception-action relationship (Davids et al,. 2003), which is a key component of all skills, including agility.
Something that captures this trade-off really well is the concept of "fishtanking". Fishtanking for skill development essentially preserves all the fundamental parts of an ecosystem and requires the athlete to practice their interaction with the environment. For example, a fishtank still contains water, rocks, and seaweed, and the fishtank is representative of the ocean. The same concept applies when designing practice activities for anything, but especially agility training. All fundamental parts of the playing environment must remain intact. This may include rules and opposition for example, that make the training activity representative of the sport. For a deeper dive into fishtanking (as well as many other things), check out this episode with Carl Woods on The Talent Equation podcast. I would highly recommend taking the time to listen.
I have spent time working on agility with our group of players, and I have been puzzled as to why players can practice attacking agility side-steps and shuffles, but when they are placed in a game or representative task, they cannot execute an attacking agility maneuver to evade their opponent. This led me down the path of skill acquisition and ecological dynamics in particular. As a result of my exploration through skill acquisition literature and podcasts etc. I started to realise that skills are not developed in isolation i.e. perception-action must remain coupled.
I return to a model I use regularly when developing skills, and I have discussed in previous posts. This model can be used when working on the skill of agility, acceleration, max velocity, or any other quality in the context of a game:
there must be perception-action within the task;
the task must be representative of the game;
the challenge point must be optimal for the individual players within the group.
By simply asking players to approach a cone and put a step or a shuffle on is of no benefit to them when entering a chaotic environment. At best, it develops capacity, but as mentioned previously - uncertainty increases load, and as this type of activity is a closed drill (there is no uncertainty), there is a major limit on the load that can be applied in this kind of situation.
One coaching period in 2020 in particular sticks out as clear memory of the difference an open environment makes to the enjoyment of training. We had abnormally small groups (3-4 players per group) due to the restrictions the HK government had in place to fight Covid-19 at the time. As players were not getting any rugby, my objective for the session was to expose the players to scenarios where they had to evade an opponent - automatically working on both attacking and defending agility. A session comprised of a warm up (typically change of direction drill to finish, something I would change if I could go back, although this can have a place), and this was followed by a series of activities, ideally increasing in complexity. I did not have a set rep range in terms of loading for any activity, but the session length remained below 40 minutes, including the warm-up.
A good measure of the enjoyment and engagement level of an activity is the amount of noise coming from players (excitement, laughter etc.; my opinion only). If players are not engaged, it's because the activity designed does not provide a platform to have fun in. This particular point has major implications for a warm-up block - and the reason why I would move away from a simple change of direction drill as the last activity before the main session is to engage players more. Aside from the task simplification route to enhance the skill adaptability of the players, the fact that perception and action were always linked meant that players were forced to think about what they are doing, and this was a mentally stimulating session that was welcomed by the players.
The other benefit I particularly got from this was the collaboration with sport coaches and players to design tasks that are representative of tasks players would face in a game. Sport coaches were present at some sessions, but not all, and for the sessions where they were present I could rely on their experiential knowledge to guide the session content. When sport coaches were not present, I was able to tap into the experiential knowledge of the players, in a representative co-design format (Woods et al., 2020). Some players loved this and were very creative and curious about an activity they could design, while other players were less bothered. But this was a massively paradigm shifting moment for me as a coach - utilising your players' experiential knowledge to design better session does not devalue my worth as a coach. This block of training was the beginning of utilising an ecological dynamics framework to the sessions I design as an athletic performance coach.
This particular period was a huge learning experience in a number of ways, with my 3 key reflections being:
Training skills, like agility, in contextual environments, with players thinking and being suitably challenge, is essential to make better players, and indirectly making me a better coach. Just building capacities is, in my view, way more boring (although often times a vital piece of the puzzle). Newell's model of constraints (also linked above) comes to mind here again - are we training the individual only (i.e. capacities), or are we training the individual-environment-task interaction (i.e. skills)?
I don't need to have a know-it-all approach to training. Tapping into the experiential knowledge of those around me (coaches and players) is how to maximise the training environment. Perhaps this is also a framework for working in other sports?
Players had fun taking part in a session that challenged them cognitively, but I had fun just watching them having fun and trying to create a stimulating environment to challenge them in.
Change of direction is not the same as agility. As mentioned before, change of direction training develops the capacity to change direction. Agility is a skill that must be developed in a representative task.
A personal goal of mine is to investigate if an agility model can replace all change of direction training. By training agility we are developing that skill, but subsequently we are also training the capacity that underpins the skill. Two questions I have:
Can we use only agility training to train the skill of agility AND change of direction capacity?
Can we simplify (not decompose) tasks so that players are having a controlled exposure to load, if that is an aim (I am thinking specifically of rehab sessions, or warm-up activities).
This way, we are maximising our time spent on honing skills that are vital to players in a game - which is the ultimate purpose of training. Bottom line: enhancing skill is fun - for both athlete and coach; and agility is a skill.
Davids, K. & Araujo, Duarte & Shuttleworth, Richard & Button, Chris. (2003). Acquiring skill in sport: A constraints-led perspective. International Journal of Computer Science in Sport. 2. 31-39.
Sheppard JM, Young WB. Agility literature review: classifications, training and testing, J Sports Sci. 2006; 24(9): 919–932.
Woods, Carl & Rothwell, Martyn & Rudd, James & Robertson, Samuel & Davids, Keith. (2020). Representative co-design: Utilising a source of experiential knowledge for athlete development and performance preparation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
Young, Warren & James, R & Montgomery, I. (2002). Is Muscle Power Related to Running Speed with Changes of Direction? The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 42. 282-8.
Young, W. B., Hawken, M., & McDonald, L. (1996). Relationship between speed, agility, and strength qualities in Australian rules football. Strength and Conditioning Coach, 4(4), 3 6.
Young, W., Rayner, R. & Talpey, S. It’s Time to Change Direction on Agility Research: a Call to Action. Sports Med - Open7, 12 (2021).