The difference between Change of Direction and Agility


This is very exciting for me (Coach Connolly) because this guest blog post is by literally one of the best in the industry. Hand on heart, this woman is the real deal. She can't even go on a holiday back to the US without NBA and MLB teams contacting her to talk shop. So without any further delay, I want to introduce you to Dr. Tania Spiteri.


Change of direction (COD) and agility – they sound exactly the same right? They both involve being “agile” and involve sore sort of directional change making them both different from straight line sprinting. Further coaches, athletes and even researchers use these two words interchangeably when assessing an athlete’s ability to change movement direction. However, it is important to note that COD and agility are two distinct and different qualities that have very different assessment protocols to effectively evaluate an athlete’s ability to execute both movement.


What is Change of Direction and Agility?


First off lets start by defining these two terms so this differences in each become clear. Change of direction is used to describe a pre-planned testing environment, whereby athletes change movement direction and velocity without the inclusion of perceptual-cognitive processes (Sheppard & Young, 2006), whereas agility is used to describe a “rapid whole body movement with a change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus” (Sheppard & Young, 2006).  Perceptual-cognitive processes refer to a range of variables including an athlete’s reaction time, visual search ability, their ability to recognise familiar patterns of play, their attention capacity, visual perception and problem solving ability. In short an athletes perceptual-cognitive ability is typically reflected in their ability to make rapid and accurate decisions, otherwise referred to as their decision-making.


As you can see the main difference between COD and agility, is the inclusion of perceptual-cognitive processes. When performing COD drills such as the 505 COD test and the T-test, athletes are aware of the directional changes in advance as these tests involving a pre-determined course for the athlete to run. Agility however, occurs when you change movement direction in response to something (e.g. an opponent, a light, and whistle), making the movement inherently reactive, whereby the direction of travel is unknown in advance. This will require athletes to not only perform the physical action of changing movement direction, but also involve those perceptual-cognitive processes listed above to make a correct decision regarding the direction of travel (Figure 1). This therefore makes agility more transferable game environments, as athletes are required to execute directional changes in direct response to changes in their environment (e.g. opposition players).




Figure 1. Deterministic model of agility adapted from Young et al., (2002) and Sheppard & Young (2006)




Tests to accurately assess Change of Direction and Agility


There are a variety of tests, which can be used to assess athletes COD ability. When assessing COD ability the directional changes required and course to be run will be known in advance making the test pre-planned. Change of direction tests even include tests with the word “agility” in the title, for example the Illinois agility run (NOT agility as the tests in pre-planned and does NOT include an external stimulus). When selecting an appropriate COD test to use with your athletes think about the typical movement patterns they are required to perform in competition. Lets take basketball for example, common movement patterns include forwards and backwards running, lateral shuffling and high velocity directional changes (for example a backdoor cut in basketball, used to create space and evade opponents). To assess athlete’s physical ability to change movement direction I would use the T-Test (forwards and backwards running and lateral shuffling) and the 5-0-5 COD test to assess a 180-degree high velocity directional change reflective of a backdoor cut.


Here is a list (not exhaustive) of some common COD tests:

  • T-Test
  • 5-0-5 COD Test
  • Illinoi’s Agility Run
  • Zig-Zag Test
  • L-Drill
  • Shuttle Runs
  • Box Drill
  • Star Drill

* Notice that no agility ladder drills are listed here. Drills using ladders does NOT assess COD ability as the concept of “fast feet” does not translate to the ability to change direction. I’ll save this for another blog down the track J


As we have now established that to assess agility tests must incorporate both the physical task of changing direction and the perceptual-cognitive processes to assess an athlete’s decision-making ability, creating such a test may seem overwhelming!


When creating a test to assess agility you must ensure the directional change is reactive and occurs in response to an external stimulus. External stimuli can include a whistle, light, hand signal, or another person and can be incorporated into already established COD drills to make the movement reactive. For example if we take the T-Test (already established COD test), we can incorporate the assessment of an athlete’s perceptual-cognitive ability by making the side shuffle (i.e. left or right) reactive or unknown to the athlete.

The traditional T-test first requires the athlete to run forwards before side shuttling to the left then right, then left again returning to the middle before backwards running to complete the test. This test can be made reactive by signalling with a hand movement, light or another person to indicate the desired side shuffling direction once the athlete completes the forward run portion of the test (Figure 2).  For example the athlete will run forwards and if they observe a hand signal pointing to the right they will then side shuffle to the right, then left.  This makes the directional change reactive in nature to observe how an athlete moves and responds when the added perceptual-cognitive processes are required.





Figure 2. Agility example using a T-Test


Its is important to note that while an array of external stimuli can be used, in order to replicate movements in competition to accurately assess and see how an athlete may respond, stimuli specificity is key! For example using another person as a stimulus to change direction and respond to requires the athlete to read kinematic (body cues) from this person in order to determine the required direction of travel. Therefore the use of a person as a stimulus is a more realistic and suitable stimulus to determine how an athlete changes direction and responds in competition. I’ll delve further into this topic in another blog post J


I hope after reading this blog you can clearly understand and communicate to your clients and athletes the difference between COD and agility and can now understand how to assess each of these individual qualities in your athletes and/or clients.



Dr. Tania Spiteri earned her PhD at Edith Cowan University in Perth Australia, completing research in the area of Sports Biomechanics, Strength and Conditioning and Motor Control.


Her research focuses around performance based differences in change of direction, agility, decision-making, strength and neuromuscular strategies between genders and level of expertise in various high performance sports.


Tania is engaged in a variety of ongoing research collaborations with universities, sporting organisations and high performance institutes across Australia, the United States and England including the NFL, WNBA/NBA and the English Institute of Sport. As a result of her research achievements, Tania was recently awarded the Young Investigator of the Year Award by the National Strength and Conditioning Association in the United States. Tania currently coordinates and lectures in the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees within the school of Health Science at The University of Notre Dame Australia.


Aside from all of this, she's a dead set bad ass, lover of all things basketball and loves a burger and fries like the rest of us. That's why she has earned the 'Legend' status with us at Atlas Performance. Period.

Sean Connolly