Beyond ‘Go’: Adding Sensory Cues to Train Agility in Team Sports

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

As strength and conditioning coaches, our job is to prepare the athletes we work with for the demands of their sport. We do this by loading their musculoskeletal systems in the weight room and by training their neuromuscular systems to be efficient in communicating from the brain to the spinal cord and out to the motor neurons controlling movement. I work with volleyball, basketball, and tennis players who need to be fast in getting from point A to point B, and then from point B to point C—but Point B continually changes, and point C continually changes as well.


"Athletes can’t make a decision about how to get to each point without having an ability to adjust on the fly and change their path, says @will_ratelle."

Therefore, these athletes can’t make a decision about how to get to each point without having an ability to adjust on the fly and change their path. Their path will most likely change with every step they take. Not only will the direction change, but the speed at which they move will change, the angle in which they push off of their toes will change, the height of their center of mass will change, and many other aspects of their movement will change.


Choosing Open vs. Closed Agility Drills


Sometimes athletes need to train with closed agility drills to get the basic motor patterns down, and sometimes athletes need to train in open environments and self-organize to find a way to succeed—when a real competition starts, that’s all that really matters.

The context will always matter when we make decisions about training an athlete, with questions like:

  • How old are they?


  • What is their training age?


  • What level of participation are they at for their sport or sports?


  • What are their goals?


  • Does their sport involve interactions with other humans? With a ball? With Both? Or other implements?


The answers to these points will affect the drills we utilize and whether we choose closed drills or open drills. The differences between the two types exist on a spectrum: closed drills involve completing a task within predictable and fixed settings, while open agility drills involve completing a task in a chaotic and dynamic environment. As coaches, we can always manipulate different variables within a drill or put constraints on drills to shift it toward one side of the spectrum or the other. We just have to make sure we do our job and choose wisely.


During competitions, athletes chase opponents, chase the ball, sift through traffic, avoid referees in the field of play, execute their own technical strategies, adjust to the opposing team’s tactics, and so on. During a standard agility drill such as the pro-agility, athletes start in the same position each rep and learn to develop the best strategy to achieve the best time possible. This is not to say that the pro-agility is wrong in any way; it just is a different stimulus, and it has its place.


So, when should a coach use a closed agility drill such as the pro-agility or t-test? The following are some contexts in which using a closed drill is appropriate:

  • Learning new movement patterns.


  • Emphasizing a specific quality of a movement pattern (technique, power output, application of force).


  • During a de-loading week that is not meant to be high-stress.


If there is a skill or a movement pattern in which an athlete needs to become competent, it is probably a good idea to practice that movement pattern without external factors disrupting the learning process.


"If there is a skill or movement pattern in which an athlete needs to become competent, it is probably a good idea to practice it without external factors disrupting the learning process"


When and why to use an open drill:

  • Fun/novelty/engaging


  • More challenging


  • Include “game like” stimulus


Different Stimuli to Practice Open Speed and Agility Work

Our body gives us feedback by utilizing the five basic senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Theses senses allow us to react to our environment in ways that we see fit. Most sports require athletes to respond to visual stimuli, auditory stimuli, and touch stimuli. I’m not sure that many sports involve smell or taste (possibly, but I don’t know). Since athletes are required to react to their environment and these senses, it’s important to practice this in training.


1. Auditory Stimulus


In real life, athletes have to interpret some sort of call, whether it comes from an opponent or a teammate/coach, telling them where to go on the field or court. The auditory stimulus lets the athlete know how fast to run, where to run, whether to run at all or just stay put, or if they need to turn around or dive.


Since there are so many different ways that athletes need to react to this primary input, most training programs already incorporate an auditory stimulus with their athletes. At the beginning of many drills, there is a “go” call or some variation that their athletes respond to. I think if we can take this further, it isn’t difficult to come up with more sophisticated ways to give an auditory stimulus. It’s basically a verbal command to dictate a task to the athletes.


Simple enough: The following are just some of the ways I like to do it with my athletes. We can use these verbal commands consecutively throughout the repetition of the drill, so the athlete needs to be aware of their direction/path/angle the entire time.



Video 1. North/South Call. This is one of countless possible ways to add an auditory stimulus to an agility drill.


North/South—In Grand Forks, ND, it seems like everyone knows which direction is north. So when my athletes train outside, calling out “north” or “south” is a fun way to change up from the typical “right” or “left” call to begin a drill.


City/State—Instead of giving a direction or location for where an athlete should go, you can call out “Kansas” or another state, and based on that call, they have to understand where they need to go for their task. This is very similar to a lot of team sports that run set plays.

Numbers—This is probably a pretty common one. Odd numbers, for example, can mean going to one landmark while even numbers mean going to another. Coaches can obviously play around with this one as much as possible.


Colors—If you use colored landmarks like cones, you can call out the color of whatever cones you want your athletes to go to.


Names of athletes—If you do a drill that involves chasing/evading/racing, you can call out certain names of the athletes to “lead” the drill or become the “chaser,” which is a fun way to get your athletes engaged. This is also great for any version of the mirror drill, during which the athletes trade off who is the lead and who is the chaser.



Video 2. Acceleration drill with athletes responding to auditory, directional command.


2. Visual Stimulus


Vision is probably the dominant sense in sports, and in my opinion, the most important one to incorporate into drills. We read and react with our eyes more than with any other organ—we could play sports with a limited amount of hearing ability, but we couldn’t play in the same way with a limited visual capacity. Visual stimuli play a huge role in understanding where we are in space, where we need to go, where our teammates are going, where our opponents are going, and where the ball in play is going.


There are two major visual cues that athletes need to be able to read and make adjustments to:

  1. Other humans


  1. The ball/puck/other implements


Since team sports are only played with one ball in play and typically several other humans, you should include human interaction as much as possible while performing drills.

Theoretically, the transfer in training will be much higher when athletes are forced to see and adjust to the environment rather than just running to a marked location that is pre-planned before the task has begun.


"Since team sports are only played with one ball in play and typically several other humans, you should include human interaction as much as possible while performing drills, says @will_ratelle."

A typical form of visual stimulus given to athletes in drills is a coach standing in line and pointing in a direction for the athletes to go. Another is a coach standing in front of the athletes and just taking one hard step for the athletes to react to. While this isn’t by any means bad or wrong, it probably should be taken a step further. Research suggests that a real, live human interaction may have greater transfer to sports performance compared to an athlete reacting to a point or another non-sports-relevant visual stimulus such as a flashing light.


Video 3. Cat and mouse games of chase add an open, reactive element to standard sprint drills.


Sprints can incorporate a visual stimulus by using cat/mouse games. Both athletes work on acceleration qualities, and one individual is at an advantage and one is at a disadvantage, all based on the constraints of the environment.


Mirror drills also seem to be effective for athletes across a range of levels and sports. A great thing about mirror drills is that you can add so many different variations and twists to make them more challenging.

  1. Basic mirror drill

  2. Mirror drill with limited visual capacity

  3. Using other humans

  4. Using implements

  5. The chaser facing away from the opponents


  1. 3-dimensional mirror drill

  2. Mirror drill through traffic

  3. Mirror drill with an end zone


Video 4. Mirror drill with chaser facing opposite.


Any competitive drill that has an offensive and defensive player has this visual stimulus. One example, with a higher level of difficulty, is a basic mirror drill but with more than two athletes performing it at once in the same space. This is especially good for defensive volleyball players, because to get into position to make digs, they need to read through a lot of traffic: teammates who are in front of them, fellow defensive players who are beside them and in their peripheral, and their opponents hitting the ball through the block of their teammates.


Basketball players are in a similar situation when trying to defend their man who is running through screens to receive the ball. In very little time, they need to recognize and understand whether to go over the top of the screen, to go underneath the screen, to switch the screen, etc. You can’t quantify how much information athletes are receiving in order to properly execute their responsibilities in any given situation.


3. Touch Stimulus


By now, it should be pretty easy to understand that the exact drills may vary from coach to coach, but you can still incorporate athletes having to feel out their space to understand where they need to position themselves. A drill you design that allows for a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 situation can be great for incorporating touch. The advantaged group (with more players) can feel each other to cover the area they need to achieve success while the disadvantaged group (with fewer players) can do the exact opposite.


"The exact drills may vary from coach to coach, but you can still incorporate athletes having to feel out their space to understand where they need to position themselves, says @will_ratelle"

An example of this could be two defensive players holding back an offensive player from getting up and running a sprint. The offensive player might start on the ground in a prone position, and when the drill begins they attempt to get up and sprint through a given area while the defensive players attempt to prevent them from getting up and running. This touch stimulus can be very powerful, contributing to the development of skills involving contact in sports such as football, basketball, hockey, rugby, and more.

Putting It All Together

If you can incorporate all three senses into drills, your athletes will benefit in the long run. This might only be undesirable for athletes whose reactions are too slow and so it becomes information overload, with the cognitive demand becoming too high (in which case they probably are not very good when it comes to playing their sport). And, on the other hand, if they aren’t very good at utilizing these senses to help them make decisions, they could probably benefit even more from practicing it in a deliberate way.


In many contexts, regressing athletes to where they only do the types of closed drills that don’t challenge their senses can actually make them worse. I don’t think athletes need to spend 3-4 weeks (or shorter or longer) performing closed agility drills before they are prepared to perform open agility drills. Do youth athletes need to wait until they perform at a certain level before they should train in open environments? Kids play dodgeball in gym class and jump off of jungle gyms during recess. They are already prepared for chaotic environments.


"If you can incorporate the senses of sight, hearing, and touch into drills, your athletes will benefit in the long run, says @will_ratelle."

I think this is especially true for higher-level athletes in college and beyond. I do not think athletes need to be at a certain level of performance before they do drills in a chaotic environment, just like I do not think kids need to wait until they are at certain strength levels to perform plyometrics. If you watch kids at an elementary school recess, you’ll see they already do these things, including one of the most intensive plyometrics—depth drops from excessive heights off of a jungle gym. That in itself is an open drill, masked as a game that is fun for kids. Chances are kids are more robust, and their musculoskeletal system can handle these movements just fine and even recover from them much faster than college athletes and adults can.


My position isn’t that you should never use closed speed and agility drills in any situation. I think they have a place, absolutely. Closed speed and agility drills can be a great way to train speed and agility qualities during a de-loading period when we don’t want the athletes to accumulate too much stress and central fatigue. During a de-loading period, athletes can still get the benefits of technique and improving shin angles coming out of a cut, and they can improve on other specific qualities such as muscular power output because they have less to think about. Ultimately, most athletes could likely benefit from both closed and open drills—context and intent matter.


References

1. Young, W. and Farrow, D. “The Importance of a Sport-Specific Stimulus for Training Agility,” Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2013;35(2):39–43.


2. McGarry, T., O’Donoghue, P., and Sampaio, J. Routledge Handbook of Sports Performance Analysis. 2015. Taylor & Francis Ltd.


3. Sheppard, J. M. and Young, W. B. “Agility literature review: Classifications, training and testing.” Journal of Sports Sciences. 2006;24(9):919–932. doi: 10.1080/02640410500457109

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