Attacking agility actions, such as side-steps, shuffle steps, crossover cutting, split-steps, spins, sharp turns, and decelerations are important manoeuvres in invasion team-sports, often linked with decisive, match winning moments. Generally, the aims of these actions are to: 1) evade and create separation from an opponent; 2) generate high exit velocities and momentums; or 3) facilitate a sharp redirection. However, importantly, these actions are also inciting movements associated with lower-limb injury. Given the importance of agility actions for sports performance and potential injury risk, based on our recently published review, in this blog we will outline the importance of technique for agility, and provide technique guidelines to best optimise the performance-injury risk conflict that can be used when coaching your athletes.
What is Attacking Agility and why is it Important?
Attacking or offensive agility actions (i.e., side-steps, shuffle steps, crossover cutting, split-steps, spins, decelerations, and sharp turns), in the context of invasion team-sports (i.e., court and field-based sports with the objective to score goals / points), can be defined as “distinct, sharp, change of directions (COD) or decelerations performed for attacking purposes (i.e., team in possession) while being actively defended by an opponent(s) (Fox, Spittle, Otago, & Saunders, 2014). A plethora of different agility actions are available, which have their own unique technical characteristics, advantages, and applications. These are summarised in Table 1.
The aim of attacking agility actions, generally, are to gain territorial advantage to allow penetration of defensive lines and are often characterized by:
- Evasion, deception and space separation from an opponent(s)
- Timing and attainment of high sprinting velocity/momentum for collisions or various offensive plays (e.g., channelling, overlapping, driving, outruns)
- Sharp CODs or speed that require skilful manipulation of the performer’s base of support [BOS] relative to centre of mass [COM]) to attain rapid accelerations and decelerations (Clarke, Aspe, Sargent, Hughes, & Mundy, 2018).
For example, a rugby player may perform a rapid deceitful side-step to evade and avoid being tackled by a defender; in American football, a rapid deceleration might be performed by a receiver to create separation and space from a defender to receive a pass from the quarterback; or a soccer player performing a v cut (large redirection) to draw a defender out from position, to allow a team-mate to exploit the space.
Agility, defined as “a rapid, accurate whole-body movement with a change of direction, velocity, or movement pattern in response to a stimulus” (Jones & Nimphius, 2018; Young & Farrow, 2006) is a highly important component of fitness to develop in team-sport players. Agility movements are a skill, and they involve perception-action coupling in response to dynamic, constantly changing scenarios that occur within the game. Agility is underpinned by the interaction of technique (i.e., the relative position and orientation of body segments when performing a task effectively), mechanical (i.e., impulsive capabilities), physical (i.e., strength and speed capabilities) and perceptual-cognitive (i.e., rapid and accurate decision making) factors (DeWeese & Nimphius, 2016; Nimphius, 2017). Although we are not disputing that perceptual-cognitive factors are highly important for attacking agility performance (due to perception-action coupling), we believe developing an athlete’s technique and mechanical abilities to perform the action (i.e., movement skill and quality) in a rapid, controllable, and efficient manner is integral for improving agility performance and mitigating injury risk. As such, with our positions as sports medicine and science practitioners, although primarily responsible for the physical preparation of athletes, we have a duty of care to develop our athletes’ technique and capacity ability, so that they are robust enough to execute a range of different agility actions. Doing so, we argue, will bulletproof our athletes, and remains viable solution to improve performance and mitigate injury risk in our athletes.
What is Technique and why is it Important?
Technique, which is “the relative position and orientation of body segments as they change during the performance of a sport task to perform that task effectively” (Bober, Morecky, Fidelus, & Witt, 1981; Lees, 2002) is a crucial component for successful agility performance. Specifically, the way athletes’ technically execute the movement (i.e., technical characteristics and postures) to optimise and facilitate effective braking, propulsion, and deflection of the COM is integral for optimising team-sport performance (i.e., wide lateral foot placement, firm BOS, rapid triple extension, trunk control). However, from an injury risk perspective, sub-optimal technique (i.e., poor movement quality, biomechanical and neuromuscular control deficits like knee valgus, lateral trunk flexion) is a critical factor which can amplify potentially hazardous mechanical loading which can result in tissue injury (such as ACL injury). Thus, understanding and developing the techniques and mechanics of attacking agility actions that can optimise performance while mitigating injury risk is critically important to practitioners working in invasion team-sports.
Optimising Agility Technique
A plethora of different agility actions / movement solutions (Table 1) are available to our athletes to perform in sport; however, irrespective of the action, they all involve some form of skilful manipulation of the performers BOS relative to their COM to attain rapid accelerations / deflection / reorientation of COM / decelerations. In addition, fundamental technical characteristics and movement principles are generally applicable across all of the attacking agility actions with the general aim to create effective braking and propulsive impulse to move and redirect the COM laterally or horizontally for velocity maintenance, separation, or sharp redirection in order to achieve the attacking agility action in the context of team-sports (Dos’Santos, McBurnie, Thomas, Comfort, & Jones, 2019; McBurnie & Dos’ Santos, 2021).
Agility actions can generally be divided into four phases (Dos’Santos et al., 2019; McBurnie & Dos’ Santos, 2021):
- Initiation: Linear / Curvilinear / Lateral motion
- Preparation: Preliminary deceleration / preparatory postural adjustments
- Execution: Main COD / execution plant phase
- Follow-through: Reacceleration
For the purpose of this blog, we will focus on the execution phase. We have discussed previously the importance of the penultimate foot contact and deceleration. Furthermore, how the identification of these phases and their underpinning characteristics can also support a more precise application of targeted strength training methods. It is important to note that all agility actions are multistep actions, and all phases and the technical execution will be influenced by the approach speed / velocity, athlete’s physical capacity, COD angle, and the contextual and agility demands of the sport-specific scenario, with the biomechanical demands of directional changes angle- and velocity-dependent (Dos’Santos et al., 2019; Dos’Santos, Thomas, Comfort, & Jones, 2018; McBurnie & Dos’ Santos, 2021).
Although a “one size fits all approach” is unlikely to exist for all attacking agility actions, there are key fundamental technique characteristics which conform to biomechanical and movement principles which can optimise performance and mitigate injury risk, and ultimately facilitate rapid, controllable, and effective movement. Undoubtedly, movement variability and a flexible coordinative approach to agility actions will also be advantageous, potentially resulting in a greater capacity for task execution, and a method of redistributing loading across different structures within the body and therefore mitigating potential injury risk.
Thus, the overarching aim of an agility development framework should be to create athletes who possess adaptable movement strategies and multiple movement solutions to solve the problems they encounter during the unpredictable and chaotic nature of multidirectional invasion sports (Dos’Santos et al., 2019; McBurnie & Dos’ Santos, 2021). We want to ensure that our athletes are not one-dimensional and can meet the random and unpredictable physical demands of competitive sport. We believe, therefore, it is vital that we develop fast, robust, effective 360° athletes who are equally proficient at changing direction rapidly and controllably from both left and right limbs, across a range of velocities (low, moderate, and high velocities). In effect, athletes should possess an arsenal of movement solutions (well-developed agility movement literacy) to perform a variety of agility actions within the contextual demands of the sport (McBurnie & Dos’ Santos, 2021). This will ensure that athletes can meet the physical demands of match-play; this will result in a more skilful and adaptable performer, while potentially mitigating injury risk.
Application of Attacking Agility Actions and Technical Models
The following section will discuss the application of the 7 different attacking agility actions, with the fundamental technical characteristics for each action provided in the accompanying figure.
- Generally, for cuts of 0-90°.
- Evasive action (separation from opponent); 1 vs 1 or multiple defenders, typically with moderate to high entry velocity.
- Sharp redirection – COD angle priority, with moderate to high approach velocity.
- Generally, for cuts of 0-90°.
- Evasive action (separation from opponent); 1 vs 1 or multiple defenders, typically from low to moderate entry velocity.
- Evasive action which can be initiated from static/stationary positions.
Cross over cut (XOC)
- Generally, for cuts of ≤45°
- Key feature of curvilinear motion
- Maintenance steps during lower-upper body separation when direction of play is behind intended direction of travel
- Scenarios where velocity maintenance and momentum critical (i.e., collisions)
- Please note: Crossover cuts are typically performed following the main execution side-step as part of a multistep action!
- Generally, for cuts of 0-90°.
- Evasive action (separation from opponent); 1 vs 1 or multiple defenders, low to moderate entry velocity.
- Evasive action initiated from static/stationary positions.
- Please note that accurate timing of jump is integral for successful execution
- Evasive action (separation from opponent); 1 vs 1 or multiple defenders, typically from low to moderate entry velocity
- Effective when defender is reducing space / tackling from side
- Deceptive action where short time and distance to stop can create separation from opponent, typically to receive a pass.
- Central to reduce horizontal momentum prior to COD actions, typically for directional changes ≥60°
- Central for stride adjustment and slight reductions and increases in acceleration to square up and wrong-foot opponent.
- Performed during linear tasks to avoid tackles / blocks from lateral direction.
Turn or pivoting
- Deceptive and evasive action where sharp redirections and separations are required such as v-cuts.
- Evasive action (separation from opponent); 1 vs 1 or multiple defenders, low to high velocity, moderate entry velocity.
- Necessary where sharper redirections and deflections are needed.
In this blog we have highlighted that there are a variety of different attacking agility actions that have their own distinct technical differences, advantages and applications in sport. Nevertheless, athletes may employ these different actions in order to: 1) evade and create separation from an opponent; 2) generate high exit velocities and momentums; or 3) facilitate a sharp redirection. As such, we encourage practitioners whose responsibility for the physical proportion of athletes to not neglect the importance of TECHNIQUE when developing invasion team-sports athletes’ agility. Most athletes, irrespective of sport, will require the ability to perform attacking agility actions within a 360° turning circle from both limbs. Therefore, it is integral that practitioners develop athletes who possess adaptable movement strategies and multiple movement solutions to solve the problems they encounter in the random, unpredictable, and chaotic sports.
Bober, T., Morecky, A., Fidelus, K., & Witt, A. (1981). Biomechanical aspects of sports techniques. Biomechanics VII, 501-509.
Clarke, R., Aspe, R., Sargent, D., Hughes, J., & Mundy, P. (2018). Technical models for change of direction: biomechanical principles. Professional Strength and Conditioning(50), 17-23.
DeWeese, B. H., & Nimphius, S. (2016). Program Design Technique for Speed and Agility Training. In G. G. Haff & N. T. Triplett (Eds.), Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (pp. 521-558). Champaign: Human Kinetics.
Dos’Santos, T., McBurnie, A., Thomas, C., Comfort, P., & Jones, P. A. (2019). Biomechanical Comparison of Cutting Techniques: A Review and Practical Applications. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 41(4), 40-54.
Dos’Santos, T., Thomas, C., Comfort, P., & Jones, P. A. (2018). The effect of angle and velocity on change of direction biomechanics: an angle-velocity trade-off. Sports medicine, 48(10), 2235-2253.
Fox, A. S., Spittle, M., Otago, L., & Saunders, N. (2014). Offensive agility techniques performed during international netball competition. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 9(3), 543-552.
Jones, P. A., & Nimphius, S. (2018). Change of direction and agility. Performance Assessment in Strength and Conditioning, 140-165.
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McBurnie, A., & Dos’ Santos, T. (2021). Multi-Directional Speed in Youth Soccer Players: Theoretical Underpinnings. Strength & Conditioning Journal, Published Ahead of Print.
Nimphius, S. (2017). Training change of direction and agility. In A. Turner & P. Comfort (Eds.), Advanced Strength and Conditioning (pp. 291-308). Abdingdon, Oxon, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Young, W., & Farrow, D. (2006). A review of agility: Practical applications for strength and conditioning. Strength and conditioning journal, 28(5), 24-29.