Agility training: improving your reaction time and the quickness you change direction

A training programme to increase your agility levels

Objective: to improve quick change of direction ability and reaction

Suitable for:  a variety of field and racquet sport players. Can also be used by sprint and other power athletes as a means of improving their general reaction and coordination.

Time in the training year: all year round – the drills can be incorporated into sports specific warm ups after body temperature has been increased by relevant CV exercise and preliminary dynamic mobility drills and sports specific practices have been performed – see dynamic warm up

A bit more on agility

Agility training is really a form of power training – although it is often ‘sold’ as something quite independent, ie as a specific and separate sports performance entity.  There are numerous patented speed, agility, acceleration and conditioning programmes, systems and items of equipment commercially available that make great claims about improving agility. The reality is that agility can be developed thoroughly and perhaps even more sports specifically through more intuitive practices and crucially through learning appropriate skills and practicing conditioning.

Defining agility, Australian researchers reviewed agility research and identified the confusion in terms of definition that has arisen with this aspect of sports performance (1). They came up with this definition: ‘A rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus.’

Their definition would seem to be highly usable and applicable to numerous sports situations, such as a rugby player side-stepping past an opponent, a tennis player sprinting to the net to retrieve a drop shot and a cricketer reacting to take a catch. However, it falls short on the agility required, for example, of an ice skater or a discus thrower, both of whom have to be extremely agile within the confines of their respective sports due to the ‘stimulus’ aspect. Those involved in these sports respond to a carefully orchestrated programme of moves or the repetition of a relatively closed skill respectively, yet rely heavily on agility. Hence a more embracing definition could be:

A rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus or pre-programmed routine/sports skill

The drills that follow adhere to this adapted definition. The suggested repetitions are for illustration purposes only.


1) Forward/backward

Purpose: to develop power in order to accelerate, stop quickly and move forwards and backwards.

Equipment: two cones.

Description: Place two cones 10m apart. The athlete accelerates to the first cone, slows to a stop alongside (or near) to it and then backpedals to the first cone, slowing again in order to sprint forwards to the second cone.

Technique tips: The keys to this drill are the way the legs apply force to brake the athlete and then accelerate them either forwards or backwards. On the transition from backward to forward movement, the athlete’s stopping leg should push firmly into the ground with the point of impact toward the forefoot. Their body should be inclined with the arms moving in harmony with the legs. To drive away, the braking leg should then immediately extend to accelerate the athlete forwards, the non-braking foot will then strike the ground and should be extended equally forcibly to promote acceleration.  The more force that is applied, the quicker the acceleration will be. Therefore once the athlete is relevantly conditioned they should attempt to produce as much force as possible when both braking and accelerating. It is equally crucial for them to pump their arms in order to assist the transference of speed and to employ a forward lean through the trunk. Similar principles apply in terms of the transition from going forwards to moving backwards.

Do:  6.

2) Rectangle Z drill

Purpose: to develop acceleration and lateral agility.

Equipment: 4 cones.

Description: mark out a rectangle with cones as follows:

*3       10m     *4


*1                  *2

The athlete starts at cone 1 and sprints to cone 2, slows, then turns and sprints to cone 3, before turning to sprint past cone 4.

Coaching points: It is crucial that the athlete stays low and that they turn their whole body in the direction of the sprints as soon as they can – where relevant. On braking into the turn the feet should be positioned to preempt it with the body’s centre of gravity taken back to apply greater deceleration. As with the previous drill, the stop, turn and acceleration should be aided by arm movement and torso position. Less than optimum technical performance will be revealed in slow turns – notably with compromised (not smooth) turns. This drill is very demanding and should only be performed by the well conditioned athlete. It should be performed at 70-80% effort initially so that the athlete learns the correct movement patterns, before being tackled at 100% speed.

Do: 4, 2 starting from cone 1 and 2 from cone 2 (to run the Z in reverse, ie from cone, 2 to 1 to 4, to 3).

3) Line Z drill

Purpose: to develop cutting (quick changes of direction agility and power).

Equipment: cones.

Description: set the cones out as in the illustration:



The black cones should be 3m apart and the red ones 3m to the right and centrally placed between the black cones, also spaced 3m apart.

The athlete sprints 5m to the first black cone and then side-steps to the first red cone, leading with their right leg. They then side-step, leading with their left leg to the second black cone and then to the second red cone, side-stepping to the right. This pattern is continued until the athlete reaches the last black cone, where they sprint 5m to the finish.

Coaching points: As with the previous drills, the transitions are the really crucial points in the drill to focus on. Again they require dynamic foot-planting movements in order to decelerate the athlete and then ‘launch’ them in another direction. The side-stepping action should be made on the balls of the feet, with relatively small low, fast steps. A low centre of gravity should also be maintained. Basketball players could, for example, hold their arms up in a defensive position to make the drill more sport specific.

Do: 6.

4) Box drill

Purpose: to develop reaction to an auditory stimulus and sprint, stop and back pedal agility and power.

Equipment: cones.

Description: place the cones in a square 6m apart, as illustrated:

*1                *2

        *5        6m

*3                *4

The athlete starts at cone 5. The coach shouts out a number and the athlete runs to the cone, decelerates and then runs backwards, back to 5. As they reach the cone the coach calls out another cone number and the athlete sprints to it and then backwards. The drill is repeated in this way for 60 seconds.

Coaching points: As drill 1. Additionally, some cone sprints and turns will require the athlete to rotate through 180 degrees from cone 5. To do this the athlete should attempt to make these in one smooth movement, combining the turn with immediate acceleration.

Do: 4.

5)    Shuttle sprints, with pass and dribble

Purpose: to develop sports specific agility and skill. Can be specifically adapted for use by hockey, football and basketball players.

Equipment: cones, balls (football, basketball, hockey ball and hockey stick depending on sport).

Description: set the cones out as illustrated.


*E        *F        *G        *H


*A        *B        *C        *D Finish (cones 2m apart)


The athlete sprint dribbles with the ball from the start (cone E) to cone A and passes the ball to the coach. They then turn and sprint to cone F, run round it and continue to sprint to B, where the coach passes the ball back to them. They control it and sprint dribble to G, go round the cone and sprint with the ball to C, where they pass the ball again to the coach. They then sprint back to cone H and round it and finally past cone D to finish.

Coaching points: The mechanics of sprinting turning and accelerating must be performed in conjunction with a sports skill. This will increase the difficulty of performance and the ‘skill agility’ level. Coaches must look to provide advice on the performance of all the aspects of the drill.

Variation: Two-three athletes perform the drill, setting off about 2-3 seconds behind each other. The following athletes have to try to catch the ones in front; this will add further ‘pressure’ on all participants. The following players may or may not be in possession of a ball. If balls are used then another coach may be needed to control and pass the balls back to the relevant players participating in the drill.

Do: 2-6.

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