Agility and Change-of-Direction Speed are
Independent Skills: Implications for Agility in
Warren Young, Brian Dawson and Greg Henry
International Journal of
Volume 10 · Number 1 · 2015
International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching Volume 10 · Number 1 · 2015 159
Agility and Change-of-Direction Speed are
Independent Skills: Implications for Training
for Agility in Invasion Sports
Warren B. Young1, Brian Dawson2and Greg J. Henry2
1School of Health Sciences, Federation University Australia, Australia
2School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health,
University of Western Australia, Australia.
This review explores the differences between agility in invasion sports
(defined as including reactive decision-making) and change-of-direction
speed (CODS), and highlights the implications for training. Correlations
between agility tests and CODS tests indicate that they represent
independent skills. Agility tests discriminate higher- from lower-standard
athletes better than CODS tests, indicating that the cognitive element of
agility is important to performance. Training studies have shown that the
development of strength qualities can transfer to gains in CODS, but this
has never been shown for agility. There is some evidence that the
importance of physical qualities is greater for CODS than for agility. It was
concluded that the reactive element should be included in agility training,
testing and research. While there appears to be no research evidence for
the benefits of strength and power training, there is some support for the
use of small-sided games for improving agility.
Key words: Agility Tests, Decision Making, Perceptions, Reactive
Strength, Small-Sided Games, Sprint Training
Agility is important for combat sports such as boxing, court sports such as tennis and team
sports such as volleyball or baseball. However this review will be limited to a category of
sports described as “invasion” or “territorial” sports, which have common characteristics.
These sports involve opposing teams attempting to invade their opponent’s territory to
enhance scoring opportunities . Gaining and maintaining possession of the ball is crucial
for attack, and defending is important to prevent the opposition from scoring . Invasion
sports include all football codes, basketball, netball, European handball, lacrosse and field-
hockey. Although sports played in an aquatic environment such as water polo or sports
played on ice such as ice-hockey are also examples of invasion sports, only agility relating
Reviewers: Lee Brown (California State University, Fullerton, USA)
Tim Gabbett (Australian Catholic University, Australia)
to land-based sports involving locomotion by walking or running will be discussed in this
review. In invasion sports, agility skill is beneficial to attackers to evade their opponent’s
pressure or tackles, and for defenders to reduce space on the field or court to limit attacking
movements, or potentially achieve a turnover.
Unfortunately there is no universally accepted definition of agility . While earlier
definitions referred exclusively to a change-of-direction element [3, 4], agility has more
recently been defined as “a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction
in response to a stimulus” , and this definition has been adopted by several authors [5-8].
A change of direction task that is pre-planned has been described as “change-of-direction”
speed , and this phrase has become increasingly common to distinguish this closed skill
from agility involving a reaction [9-12]. Apart from the change of direction, it is important
to acknowledge two other elements in the above agility definition. First, “change in velocity”
indicates that an agility game-scenario could include deceleration only, where an attacking
player decides to suddenly reduce speed to create space between him or herself and the
opponent. The second important element of this definition is that a change in velocity or
direction is in response to an external stimulus provided by an opponent’s actions. This
recognises that players do not randomly change velocity or direction; rather they typically do
so in response to external stimuli to either evade a defender or place pressure on an attacker.
There are also situations in many sports where players need to change velocity or direction
to get into the desired position on the field or court, but if they are not performed at
maximum effort, they are not usually considered as agility manoeuvres . Therefore, the
stimulus to change velocity or direction is typically the actions of opponents. However, one
rather unique invasion-sport example where a change-of-direction movement is pre-planned
rather than a response to a stimulus is in American football, where an eligible receiver sprints
forward and attempts to cut laterally after a pre-determined distance. There are many
situations in invasion sports that involve set-plays, such as a free kick just outside the penalty
box in soccer. In these cases, the pre-planned team strategy may be to advance the ball to a
particular location, but typically the player in possession of the ball is still required to
perform unpredictable evasive agility manoeuvres in response to a defender’s actions. For
example, if a basketball attacker notices that a defender is moving to the left to block forward
progression, the player with the ball might cut to the right. Similarly, a defender will watch
the attacker’s movements carefully in order to quickly react to any evasive action.
In 2002, a model was published  indicating that agility was comprised of two main
components; perceptual and decision-making factors and change-of-direction speed
(CODS). CODS was in-turn determined by technical factors such as stride adjustments,
physical elements such as straight sprinting speed and leg muscle qualities, which include
strength, power and reactive strength. CODS activities are closed skills that involve pre-
planned movements. An example of a CODS activity in sport is base-running in baseball or
softball, where the batter runs a pre-determined distance before changing direction at an
angle governed by the diamond. It is important to recognise that apart from the American
football example mentioned above, CODS is very rare in invasion sports . For the
purposes of this review, the term “agility” will always refer to changes of velocity or
direction in response to a stimulus provided by an opposition player’s actions. The phrase
“reactive agility” has previously been used in the literature [11,15-17] to acknowledge that
agility is reactive in nature, but this will not be used here because, according to the definition
of agility, the word “reactive” is redundant. The purpose of this review is to explore the
factors that determine CODS and agility in invasion sports and provide practical applications
for training and testing athletes to improve sports performance. While the review will
160 Agility and Change-of-Direction Speed in Invasion Sports
provide insights into the role of strength and power training as well as cognitive factors for
CODS and agility, it is beyond the scope of the review to discuss the technical factors
relating to agility.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AGILITY AND CODS AND THE
IMPORTANCE OF EACH
The different definitions for CODS and agility are not just semantic, as there is evidence to
support the distinction. There is limited research that has used tests of agility in invasion
sports, and even less that has compared both agility and CODS tests with the same athletes.
To the authors knowledge, there are only five studies that have assessed athletes with an
agility test as well as a comparable planned CODS test involving the same movement pattern
[6,15,16,18,19]. Two of the studies were conducted with male Australian Rules footballers
[15,16], one with rugby league , one with basketball  and one with female netballers
. To provide the necessary stimulus when assessing agility, three of these studies used a
video-based display of an attacker [15, 18, 19] and the others used a live tester who
performed side-steps as if evading a defender [6,16]. In all of these studies, the correlation
between the agility and CODS test yielded Pearson coefficient’s of r=0.68 , r=0.321 ,
r=0.434 , r=0.70 , and a Spearman correlation of -0.08 . The common variance (r2
x 100) from the first four studies varied from 10-49% (mean=29%), and since this value is
clearly below 50%, indicates that agility and CODS are independent skills . In agreement
with this conclusion, the Spearman’s correlation was very low . Therefore, since the
main difference between the agility and CODS tests in these studies was the cognitive
component involving a reaction to an “opponent”, this appears to dramatically change the
character of the agility tests, a concept that will be discussed in more detail later.
Having established that agility and CODS are specific skills, the critical question that
follows is which of these skills is more important for performance? This issue can be
addressed by comparing higher- and lower-standard groups of athletes. If a superior-skilled
group is better on a particular test, the quality assessed by that test can be said to be important
for performance in the sport . Conversely, if a higher-level group is not better on a test,
the quality assessed by that test would appear to have little relevance to superior sports
performance. Using such a research-design, several studies have shown the higher-skilled
group to be superior (p<0.05) in an agility test but not (p>0.05) in a CODS test in Australian
football [15, 16, 22] and rugby league [11, 19]. These results clearly indicate that agility is
more related to performance in these invasion sports than CODS tests, and provides evidence
for the importance of the perceptual and decision-making element of agility.
PERCEPTUAL AND DECISION-MAKING IN AGILITY
Whether attacking or defending, agility skill requires the ability to perceive relevant
information about opponent’s movements and react quickly and accurately. Some agility
tests have been able to isolate the decision-making time from the total agility action. This is
typically done by using high-speed video to determine the time from the stimulus (attacker’s
initial change of direction movement) to the tested athlete’s first response [6, 11, 15, 17, 18,
19, 23]. In one study , the decision time only represented 3.6% of the total agility time,
but the correlation between decision time and total agility time was r=0.77. The correlation
coefficient between the responding movement time and total agility time was r=0.59,
indicating that the decision-making time was even more influential to agility performance
than the movement that followed. More recently, Scanlon et al.  reported that decision
time was significantly correlated (r=0.577, p<0.05) with an agility test in basketball players,
International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching Volume 10 · Number 1 · 2015 161
and concluded that cognitive qualities are important to develop agility in basketball.
Some studies that have reported decision-making time have also compared a higher- and
lower-standard group of athletes. The higher-standard group was typically found to produce
faster decisions (p<0.05) than the lower-standard group in netball  and rugby league [24,
25], although the difference between the groups is not always statistically significant [11,15].
One study measured decision-making time only by requiring participants to react to video
footage of an attacker changing direction by pressing a switch in the hand to indicate as
quickly and accurately as possible whether the movement was to the left or right . It was
found that professional Australian Rules football players were slightly faster (p>0.05, effect
size=0.26) than elite junior players, but were significantly more accurate (p=0.034, effect
size=0.60) in their decisions, indicating better overall decision-making skill. Further, it has
been found that higher-standard players are less susceptible to deceptive actions of attackers,
such as a fake pass in rugby union  and a fake side-step in Australian football .
A study with rugby league  required a group of sub-elite players to perform six
sessions of agility training by viewing and reacting to 10 video-clips of an attacker changing
direction in each session. After the brief training period, the training group reduced their
decision time from 340 to 40 ms (p<0.05), whereas a control group from the same squad
showed no meaningful change (p>0.05). In addition, a recent study on elite junior Australian
football players  showed that decision-making time in an agility test improved by 31%
(p<0.001) following 11 sessions of small-sided games designed to overload agility skill.
Accordingly, these studies indicate that cognitive skill relating to agility is highly trainable,
even in experienced athletes.
Research on cognitive skill in soccer has focussed on the defender observing video-
footage of an attacker dribbling, or a goalkeeper reacting to a penalty kick. For example,
Williams and Davids  compared elite and recreational soccer players and found the more
skilled players were faster and more accurate (p<0.05) in anticipating the pass direction in a
one-on-one situation. Based on eye-tracking analysis, the better players were shown to fixate
longer on the hip region of the attacker, indicating that this provided an important cue about
the pass direction. A later study  showed that elite junior soccer players were 6% more
accurate (p>0.05) in anticipating pass direction than a sub-elite group in a one-on-one
scenario, but 12% more accurate (p<0.05) in a 11 v 11 situation, indicating the anticipatory
skill was more pronounced in the elite players when the task was complex with more
possible passing options. Furthermore, studies of goalkeepers viewing a penalty shot have
shown that more experienced or higher-standard players are superior to lower-standard
players in predicting the correct direction of the kick [32-34]. Results from one of these
studies showed that the more successful goalkeepers employed a different visual search
strategy , indicating that the ability to extract and interpret relevant visual information is
important for fast and accurate responses.
The above soccer research shows that better performers can identify important postural
cues which serve as the visual stimulus to make their decisions about opponent’s actions. It
has also been shown that elite soccer players were not superior (p>0.05) to inexperienced
players in a reaction time test using a flashing circle as a stimulus . This finding
highlights the point that the cognitive skill required to react quickly and accurately is based
on a sport-specific stimulus rather than a generic one. This conclusion is supported by two
studies indicating that while higher-standard Australian football players were better (p<0.05)
than their lower-standard counterparts when reacting to a video-display of an attacker
changing direction, they were not better (p>0.05) reacting to a generic stimulus of a flashing
arrow  or light .
162 Agility and Change-of-Direction Speed in Invasion Sports
USE OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING TO TRAIN CODS AND
Determining the relative importance of a trainable quality to either CODS or agility is
necessary for a coach to know how much training time and effort to devote to development
of that quality. The following section will discuss the importance of strength qualities and
sprinting speed for the development of CODS and agility. There is a plethora of research that
has reported the correlations between physical qualities and CODS [9,10,14,35,36], and
while a strong relationship between two qualities indicates they possess common
characteristics, it does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Ultimately, the issue that
coaches are interested in is the effectiveness of a particular training approach for enhancing
performance, and therefore more convincing evidence comes from training studies, which
will be discussed below.
When evaluating the evidence relating to the importance of physical factors for CODS, a
major difficulty is the huge variety of CODS tests used to assess this quality. This is expected
because different invasion sports require a range of movement patterns and footwork. For
example, some sports involve lateral shuffling such as basketball, while other sports such as
rugby union or league commonly require side-stepping or cutting movements. One element
that is common to all of these tests is that the athlete is required to complete a pre-planned
course defined by obstacles such as cones in the shortest possible time, usually assessed with
an electronic timing system.
CODS tests also vary greatly due to differences in the angle of directional change and the
number of changes of direction, which may be as little as one  to as many as eleven .
One study that compared six different CODS tests used for assessing soccer players reported
low to moderate inter-correlations ranging from -0.028 to 0.554, indicating a common
variance of no more than 31% . The authors concluded that the CODS tests were all
specific due to their complexity and the different agility movement patterns. Therefore, there
is no “gold-standard” generic CODS test that can be used for all invasion sports.
A study involving eight weeks of jump squat training with a heavy load (80% 1 repetition
maximum - RM) produced a 10.2 % gain in 1RM squat strength (p<0.05), and this was
accompanied by a 2.4% (p<0.05) improvement in T-test CODS . In contrast, when three
sets of three repetitions of heavy squats with 90 % 1 RM were performed five times per week
for 3 weeks in addition to CODS training by professional soccer players, no benefits in a
CODS test were realized . The authors concluded that the added strength training did not
offer a greater advantage over change-of-direction and coordination training. One
explanation for the lack of benefit to CODS in this study could be the short three-week
training period, which may have resulted in modest strength gains (not reported). A recent
study  investigated the effects of two years of strength training with parallel squats in
addition to normal soccer training in elite-junior soccer players. The supplementary strength
training produced large gains in leg strength and this transferred to significant (p<0.05)
improvements in a CODS test. However, two years of strength training in developing athletes
is likely to result in meaningful gains in any physical quality utilising the leg muscles ,
and therefore the relevance of general strength training for enhancing CODS remains
International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching Volume 10 · Number 1 · 2015 163
POWER AND REACTIVE STRENGTH TRAINING
Jump squat training for eight weeks with an additional load of 30% of 1 RM has been found
to produce a 10% greater peak power (p<0.05) in a jump squat with that load  and a 1.7%
improvement (p<0.05) in the T-test of CODS, indicating that power development can
transfer to enhanced CODS. When a drop jump (DJ) is performed with the intention of
maximising rebound height and minimising ground contact time, it imposes high eccentric
loads and can be described as a test of reactive strength . Since the correlation between
this type of DJ and a countermovement jump (CMJ) was only r=0.37, representing only 14%
common variance , reactive strength is considered an independent form of power .
Reactive strength may be expected to correlate highly with CODS because changing
direction (such as during a side-step) involves a relatively small knee flexion with a short
ground contact time, and high eccentric loads during the leg extensor muscle stretch-
shortening cycle . This idea was supported by an investigation that showed that pure
concentric leg power produced relatively low correlations with CODS, but a DJ test of
reactive strength correlated more highly . Since plyometric exercise can specifically
target reactive strength, it is useful to determine the potential benefits of training with this
exercise modality on CODS.
Two studies [45,46] have demonstrated that 6 weeks of plyometric training was effective
for improving CODS. For example, training with the drop jump exercise induced significant
improvements (p<0.05) in the 505 CODS test , and a range of multi-directional
plyometric exercises produced improvements (p<0.05) in both the T-test and Illinois CODS
tests . Another study  required a group of 12 physical education students to perform
a training program combining half squats (4 sets of 6 repetitions) with bilateral and unilateral
plyometric exercises for eight weeks. In contrast to the previous two studies, while the
training induced a significant gain (p<0.05) in both strength (1 RM squat) and power (CMJ),
no significant improvement (p>0.05) in a CODS test involving three sharp changes of
direction was observed. It was concluded that the CODS task was relatively complex, and
may have been more influenced by motor control factors than strength qualities.
Although there is a large body of work correlating straight sprint performance over various
distances with CODS, there are few training studies relating to the possible benefits of
straight sprint training to CODS or agility. In one of those, when linear sprint training was
performed over six weeks, significant mean improvements in sprint time (p<0.05) of 2.9%
were reported . This was accompanied by an improvement of 2.3% (p<0.05) in a test that
involved two slight changes of direction. However, when the COD tests became more
complex by increasing the angle and number of changes of direction, the transfer was
diminished. Indeed, in the most complex test involving five relatively sharp changes of
direction, the straight speed gains had no transfer at all . These findings indicate that the
benefit of straight sprinting speed to CODS decreases as the CODS task becomes more
complex. Therefore, since CODS activities involve decelerations, re-accelerations and
constant adjustments of steps and body posture, the potential to improve CODS speed by
linear sprint training is limited .
The above discussion is based on considerable research using various CODS tests to measure
performance. Unfortunately, evidence for the importance of physical qualities for agility
development is extremely rare, with some correlational research [6,11,16]. These studies
164 Agility and Change-of-Direction Speed in Invasion Sports
reported correlations between sprint tests with both COD and agility tests, and are shown in
Table 1. These data indicate that while sprint speed and CODS can share some common
characteristics (19-55% common variance), the shared variance drops considerably for
agility (11-17%). This is likely explained by the inclusion of the cognitive component of
agility, which has been found to possess 59% common variance with agility performance
. The relatively low correlations between speed and agility suggest sprint training would
be unlikely to transfer well to agility performance. Unfortunately, there is minimal research
indicating the relationships between strength, power and reactive strength to agility. One
study  correlated vertical, forward and lateral jump tests with an agility task requiring
Australian football players to pursue a video-projected attacker from a rear view. The
negative correlations ranged between -0.12 to -0.28 (p>0.05), and the authors suggested that
agility performance was more likely to be influenced by cognitive rather than strength
factors. Likewise, there is no research evidence for the specific effects of training sprint,
strength, power and reactive strength on agility performance.
Table 1. Correlations between 10 m sprint performance with CODS and
agility. the common variance (r2x 100) is in brackets
Authors CODS Agility
Gabbett et al  “505” test 0.57 (32) 0.41 (17)
“L Run” test 0.64 (41)
Sheppard et al  0.74 (55) 0.33 (11)
Scanlon et al  0.439 (19) 0.406 (16)
Small-sided games (SSG) have become a popular training method for invasion sports because
they have the potential to develop multiple fitness components together with sport-specific
skills and tactics . Two studies have specifically examined the value of SSG in improving
CODS and agility performance. One of these compared six weeks of training with either CODS
drills or soccer SSG in untrained men and women . The CODS training was effective
(5.9%) for improving performance on the CODS T-test, whereas the SSG had little effect
(2.1%, p>0.05). Another recent study on elite junior Australian football players also compared
CODS training with SSG designed to overload agility skill . However, this study also
assessed players on both a CODS test (“Planned Australian Football League agility test”) and
a video-based agility test, which was previously validated for Australian football . After 11
sessions of training over a seven-week period, the CODS group experienced no significant
changes (p>0.05) in either CODS or agility. The SSG group also achieved a trivial change in
CODS (p>0.05), but agility performance improved by approximately 4% (P=0.008). This gain
was accompanied by a 31% improvement (p<0.001) in the time taken to react to the attacker’s
change of direction movement (decision time), and a 1% change (p>0.05) in movement time.
Therefore, these results indicate that SSG designed to encourage agility skill may provide a
powerful agility training stimulus due to improvements in decision-making speed.
A case study of four rugby union players  involved testing agility before and after 18
training sessions which included SSG and other reactive drills. Each player demonstrated
some improvement in agility performance, with a mean gain of 3%. Although other forms of
training were performed such as speed and strength training which may have influenced
agility performance, the authors recommended the use of open-skill training modalities such
as SSG and reactive drills.
International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching Volume 10 · Number 1 · 2015 165
Invasion sports require offensive and defensive agility, but rarely CODS. Agility and CODS
are different tasks due to the unpredictability and cognitive elements of agility, which are
absent in CODS tasks. Evidence exists that agility tests are better able to discriminate higher-
standard from lower-standard athletes than CODS tests, and therefore training and
assessment of athletes should focus on agility. However, the majority of past research that
has recommended physical training and testing, has been restricted to CODS tasks, and
therefore may have limited application to agility in invasion sports. Accordingly, coaches and
sport scientists are advised to develop training programs and tests that target the multi-
dimensional nature of agility as required in sport, which includes a reactive element. In
relation to testing, the challenge is to develop reliable tests that use sport-specific agility
scenarios that capture the complexity of movement and decision-making aspects of on-field
agility. This requires the inclusion of a ball or other sport-specific equipment, a variety of
views (not just front-on), multiple players, different movements and some deceptive actions.
Current agility tests have been restricted to the defensive role, and it is not known whether
offensive agility is unique.
In relation to training, there is evidence that a carefully designed strength and
conditioning program can enhance CODS, but there is no evidence that such programs are
also beneficial for agility. Plyometric training using multi-directional exercises can
potentially be specific to the change-of-direction movements used in agility tasks, but it is
still not known whether it transfers to agility performance. It is possible that the importance
of training various strength qualities for agility is diminished due to the relative importance
of the cognitive component of agility. Accordingly, it could be speculated that athletes are
not able to express their athleticism on the field or court because the decision-making
requirement of agility dominates, but this needs to be examined further.
There is good evidence that the perceptual and decision-making element is important to
agility performance and as such, training should be prescribed to include this component.
One option is to use one-on-one activities where one player is designated an attacker, and the
other player takes on the defensive role. The attacker should be encouraged to use evasive
skill (sometimes including deception), while the defender should try to pick up cues from the
attacker’s movements to react as quickly and accurately as possible. Another training method
that has some research support  is the use of sport-specific SSG, and coaches are
encouraged to be creative with game design (e.g., field dimensions, rules, number of players)
to maximise agility-skill demands. If the games can duplicate the skills of competition and
also overload agility, change-of-direction technique and cognitive demands should be
enhanced. Since the perceptual and decision-making component of agility is highly trainable
[8,29], another option is to perform video-based cognitive training involving decision-
making alone, without the subsequent sprint. Such a program has been shown to be effective
for developing anticipation skill in softball fielders . A potential advantage of this is the
possibility of enhancing agility without applying a physical load, which could be especially
valuable for injured players who are not able to participate in intense physical activity.
Based on the discussion above, a new model of agility of invasion sports is proposed
(Figure 1). This is intended to show the main factors that contribute to agility performance.
A significant difference between this model and a previously reported model  is that the
proposed version excludes CODS, which is not a component of agility, but a different skill.
It is important to acknowledge that the relative importance or contribution to performance
from these factors is variable, with some exerting a large influence (e.g., cognitive factors),
some having a minor influence (e.g., straight speed), and many others exerting an unknown
166 Agility and Change-of-Direction Speed in Invasion Sports
influence. Therefore, to prescribe a holistic training program for the development of agility,
the coach can use the model to check that all the contributing elements are targeted.
However, future research is needed to provide evidence to coaches about the most important
factors and the training methods that are most effective for enhancing agility performance.
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Figure 1. Model of main factors that determine agility in invasion sports,
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