How To Train Agility For Sports Athletes

When people think of agility, they think of changing directions.

Cutting, stopping, going backwards, veering, that sort of thing. To me, agility is more than that. Agility is about applying strength and conditioning directly to the sport and its skills. Agility is about expressing strength, speed, power and sport skill together.

Most people train agility with a handful of ladder or cone drills that involve one or more changes of direction. I used to do that, too. But if the athlete is reacting to nothing more than static cones and ladder rungs during the drill, it doesn’t translate well to sport. This is because sports aren’t played with cones or ladders, nor the predictability they offer. Sport is all about reacting to chaos. Sport is opponents, chance, stress and speed. Agility training needs to reflect that.

This brings us to reactive agility. Reactive agility is about reacting to a stimulus. It could be a coach’s verbal cue, a gesture, a ball or an opponent. The more closely you can have the stimulus reflect what the athlete will encounter during the game, the better the carryover generally should be. While more static drills can be useful when helping an athlete learn a movement or fundamental, they don’t offer a ton of benefit once they’ve mastered the basics. By integrating more reactive elements into drills, you can challenge an athlete’s body and mind in a way that’s more akin to what they’ll face during a game.

I think of reactive agility in terms of developing foundational skills and in terms of developing sport skills. I’m going to show some examples below using basketball and baseball, both of which I coach.

For baseball, a fundamental skill for running and for fielding is the crossover step. I’m going to show you three levels of this skill, one is very static and cone dominated. One is reactive but is still focused on developing skill fundamentals. The last is very unpredictable and marries the skill to what happens in the sport.

Static Crossover Drill

Get into the ready position. Turn your right foot at a 45-degree angle. Bring your left foot over and in front of your right to turn your body toward your right and initiate a sprint. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and then practice turning toward your left, as well.

Reactive Crossover Drill 1

Get into the ready position and face your coach. Your coach will cue you to move to your right or left. When the coach cues you by pointing, execute the crossover step in the appropriate direction.

This is a more “reactive” drill than the Static Crossover Drill. However, in a game, there isn’t a coach standing in front of you telling you which direction to move. You are also reacting to baseball situations in a game, so that leads us to the second reactive drill below.

Reactive Crossover Drill 2

Get into the ready position and face your coach. The coach will throw you ground balls to either side of your body. You will have to execute the crossover step, get in front of the ball, field it correctly, and come up ready to throw. This marries the skill of the crossover step to what you’ll be facing in the field during a live game. Now, onto basketball.

In basketball, we have to be able to start, stop, shuffle, change directions, sprint—all while dribbling a basketball. With that in mind, the drills below help to work on those skills.

Static Movement Dribbling Drill

Static movement drills involve shuffling, backpedaling or sprinting for a specific, pre-determined distance (usually 5-10 yards). These drills can do a great job of building footwork and good speed/agility movement patterns. The challenge is that they are very predictable.

Reactive Dribbling Drill 1

For this drill, the players are lined up on a sideline facing the coach on the opposite sideline. Players begin by dribbling with their preferred hand. The coach signals them to either walk toward him/her, sprint, stop, backpedal or shuffle in different directions. Paying attention to the coach’s random gesture forces the players to be able to perform this drill with their eyes on the coach (as opposed to on the ball). This drill should be performed while dribbling with both hands.

The challenge here is that this situation doesn’t occur in a game. The players aren’t looking at the coach for instruction every time they make a move with the ball. This brings us to the second reactive drill below.

Reactive Dribbling Drill 2

Using four cones, create a box on the basketball court. You can make the distance as long or short as you want. There will be two players. One will line up on one side of the box with the basketball. The other will line up on the other side and will be the defender. The goal for this drill is for the player with the ball to dribble all the way down to the other end of the box. The defender’s goal is to get the ball, force the player with the ball out of bounds, or force the player with the ball to make a mistake (like a double dribble, travel or dribbling off his/her foot). Here, both the dribbler and the opponent are reacting to the movement of a player in a game-like environment.

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