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Relationship Between Reactive Agility and Change of Direction Speed in Amateur Soccer Players

Matlák, János; Tihanyi, József; Rácz, Levente

The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: June 2016 - Volume 30 - Issue 6 - p 1547–1552
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001262
Original Research
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Matlák, J, Tihanyi, J, and Rácz, L. Relationship between reactive agility and change of direction speed in amateur soccer players. J Strength Cond Res 30(6): 1547–1552, 2016—The aim of the study was to assess the relationship between reactive agility and change of direction speed (CODS) among amateur soccer players using running tests with four directional changes. Sixteen amateur soccer players (24.1 ± 3.3 years; 72.4 ± 7.3 kg; 178.7 ± 6 cm) completed CODS and reactive agility tests with four changes of direction using the SpeedCourt™ system (Globalspeed GmbH, Hemsbach, Germany). Countermovement jump (CMJ) height and maximal foot tapping count (completed in 3 seconds) were also measured with the same device. In the reactive agility test, participants had to react to a series of light stimuli projected onto a screen. Total time was shorter in the CODS test than in the reactive agility test (p < 0.001). Nonsignificant correlations were found among variables measured in the CODS, reactive agility, and CMJ tests. Low common variance (r2 = 0.03–0.18) was found between CODS and reactive agility test variables. The results of this study underscore the importance of cognitive factors in reactive agility performance and suggest that specific methods may be required for training and testing reactive agility and CODS.

University of Physical Education, School of Ph.D. Studies, Budapest, Hungary

Address correspondence to János Matlák, matlakjanos@gmail.com.

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Introduction

Players in soccer and other field sports perform numerous turns, runs with directional changes, accelerations, and decelerations during games. These high-speed actions occur when attackers attempt to evade opponents or defenders follow the movement of opposing attackers to enter the appropriate position to tackle them. The ability to efficiently perform these activities is described as agility. The following definition of agility was proposed: “a rapid whole body movement with change of speed or direction in response to a stimulus” (22). According to the model of Young et al. (26), agility consists of two main components: change of direction speed (CODS) and perceptual and decision-making factors. Change of direction speed is required when a task is preplanned and players do not have to react to any stimulus. This type of movement is rare in team sports because players need to react to the movements of opponents, teammates, and the ball itself. Perceptual and decision-making factors include visual scanning, knowledge of situations, pattern recognition, and anticipation. However, traditional agility tests are preplanned running tests with one or more directional change(s) around cones or other obstacles (5,6,8,20). Studies using these tests suggest that agility and sprinting speed (straight) are not equivalent abilities (5,16,25), and specific training methods are required for development (27).

Studies in the last decade have attempted to develop more specific agility tests that include the cognitive components (perceptual and decision-making factors). In these “reactive agility” tests, participants have to react to visual stimuli such as flashing lights or movements of a live or (on a life-size screen) projected “opponent” (3,4,9–11,17,23,28,29).

Reactive agility tests are known to be more effective for discriminating between higher and lower standard rugby players than are CODS tests (10,21). One of the variables measured in the aforementioned studies is “decision time,” which is the interval between the occlusion of a visual stimulus and a participant's “first definitive foot strike initiating change of direction” (21). Decision time was found to be shorter in highly skilled than in less skilled players (9,10,21). These results underscore the importance of the cognitive component in training and testing this complex ability.

However, significant relationships between reactive agility and CODS test times have been previously reported (9–11,23). This result is in contrast to the notion that perceptual and decision-making factors play a definitive role in agility performance (9,12). One of the possible reasons for this relationship is the number of directional change(s) in the reactive agility and CODS tests. These reactive agility and CODS tests contain only one change of direction in response to the movement of a live “tester” or a projected opposite. In contrast, players in field sports have to perform in more complex game situations, where they react to a series of stimuli and change the speed and direction of their movement several times in a row. Investigation of CODS and reactive agility tests with more directional changes and directional alternatives may more accurately represent the demands of game play and increase our understanding of the nature of agility.

The aim of this study was to assess the relationship between reactive agility and CODS in soccer players using reactive agility and CODS running tests that involve four directional changes.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

To investigate the relationship between reactive agility and CODS, we analyzed the results of preplanned and reactive running tests with four changes of direction. In the reactive agility test used in this study, participants had to react to a series of visual stimuli while they ran forward, backward, and/or sideways. Vertical jump and foot tapping tests were also used to assess the relationship between leg power, movement frequency, CODS, and reactive agility.

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Subjects

Sixteen amateur male outfield soccer players (24.1 ± 3.3 years; range: 20.0–32.6 years, 72.4 ± 7.3 kg; 178.7 ± 6 cm) participated in the study. Players were members of Hungarian third and fourth division soccer teams. All participants had at least 10 years of playing experience in soccer and were free of injury. Participants received a verbal explanation of the experimental procedures and signed informed consent documents before testing. The study was approved by the University Ethics Committee and was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The study conforms to the Code of Ethics of the World Medical Association (approved by the ethics advisory board of Swansea University) and required players to provide informed consent before participation.

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Procedures

All tests were conducted indoors on the SpeedCourt system (Globalspeed GmbH, Hemsbach, Germany). This device consists of a TV screen, a square court (4 × 4 m) with nine pressure sensors, and a personal computer (Figure 1). The pressure sensors are arranged in 40 × 40-cm squares on the court. The whole court and the nine pressure sensors are represented on the screen. After a visual start signal, one of the squares (sensors) turned yellow on the screen. Participants had to view the screen and follow the yellow squares while both running on the court and touching the appropriate square with one of their feet. As soon as a square was touched, another square would be illuminated.

Figure 1

Figure 1

A standardized warm-up, consisting of 10 minutes of treadmill running (8 km·h−1), 5 minutes of dynamic and static stretching exercises and submaximal CODS, and reactive agility test trials on the SpeedCourt, was conducted before testing. After warm-up, tests were completed in the following order: CODS, vertical jumping, tapping, and reactive agility.

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Change of Direction Speed Test

The CODS test was a 14.5-m long running test on the SpeedCourt with 4 directional changes (Figure 2). Participants performed as many submaximal trials to practice the running pattern as required to memorize it correctly. In this test, participants did not have to view the screen while completing the running pattern. The participant stood on the starting square with one of his feet and waited for the visual start signal on the screen. After the signal, he ran the given pattern and changed direction on the squares (sensors) while touching them in the given order with one of his feet. The CODS test was completed four times with a 1-minute rest between trials, and the best attempt was used for statistical analysis. Total time (ToC), average turn time (ATuC), and average split time (ASC) were measured during the test. Total time refers to the time interval from the start signal to the moment the participant's foot touched the fifth square. Turn time refers to the time interval from the moment the participant's foot touched the pressure sensor to the moment the participant's foot left the sensor while changing direction. The average of the four turn times (ATuC) was used for statistical analyses. Split time refers to the interval between the moment the participant's foot left one pressure sensor and the moment the participant's foot touched the next sensor. The average of the 5 split times (ASC) was used for statistical analyses.

Figure 2

Figure 2

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Reactive Agility Test

In the reactive agility test, the participant stood on the starting square until the visual start signal appeared on the screen. After the signal, one of the 9 squares turned yellow on the screen. The participant had to run to the square and change direction on it while touching it with one of his feet. The moment he stepped on the appropriate square, another square was illuminated. The participant completed the reactive test subsequent to touching 5 squares in a row; thus, he completed a running test with 4 directional changes. This type of reactive agility test (running with 4 unexpected directional changes) was repeated 5 times with a 1-minute rest between trials. The 5 running patterns differed from one another and were unknown to the participants, although every participant completed the same 5 patterns in the same order. The distance of the 5 reactive agility tests ranged between 9.3 and 15.9 m (9.3, 11.1, 11.4, 12.9, and 15.9 m). Athletes were not able to watch one another while being tested. Participants were instructed to not only touch the squares (sensors) but to make a change of direction on the squares. The average of five total time agility (AToA), the average turn time agility (ATuA), and the average split time agility (ASA) values were used for statistical analyses.

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Vertical Jump

Countermovement vertical jump height was measured using the SpeedCourt system. Participants were instructed to keep their hands on their hips for the entire movement to eliminate any influence of arm swing. Countermovement jumps (CMJs) were completed three times with a 1-minute rest between trials, and the jumping height of the best attempt was used for statistical analyses.

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Foot Tapping

Movement frequency was tested with foot tapping on the SpeedCourt. The pressure sensor in the middle of the court has 2 separate parts that count the number of alternating footsteps in a given time interval. The participant stood on the pressure sensor (with separate feet on the 2 parts). After the visual start signal, he made as many alternating foot contacts on the sensors as possible within 3 seconds. The tapping test was completed 3 times with a 1-minute rest between trials, and the best attempt (i.e., that in which most foot contacts were made in 3 seconds) was used for statistical analyses.

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Statistical Analyses

Data were analyzed using the Statistica software, version 12.0 (StatSoft Inc., Tulsa, OK, USA). Pearson correlation analysis was used to determine relationships between variables. The alpha level of significance was set at p ≤ 0.05. Paired T-tests were used to assess differences between mean values. Bonferroni adjustment was used to eliminate the problem of enhanced risk of type I error. Adjusted alpha level of significance (p ≤ 0.017) was used for pairwise comparisons.

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Results

Differences Between Reactive Agility and CODS Times

Average total time in the reactive agility test was longer than total time in the CODS test (p < 0.0001). No difference was observed between ATuA and ATuC; however, the ASA was longer than ASC (p < 0.0001) (Table 1).

Table 1

Table 1

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Relationships Between Reactive Agility and CODS Times

Nonsignificant correlations were observed between AToA and ToC, ATuA and ATuC, and ASA and ASC (Table 2).

Table 2

Table 2

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Relationships Among Vertical Jumping, Tapping, CODS, and Reactive Agility Test Results

Nonsignificant correlations were observed between CMJ height and the variables measured in reactive agility and CODS tests (ToC, ATuC, ASC, AToA, ATuA, and ASA). However, significant negative correlation was found between tapping count and ASA (r = −0.51; p = 0.042) and significant positive correlation was found between tapping count and ATuA (r = 0.52; p = 0.035) (Table 3).

Table 3

Table 3

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Discussion

In this study, a nonsignificant correlation was found between reactive agility and CODS in contrast to previous studies, in which a significant relationship was found between total times in reactive agility and CODS tests (9–11,23). This may be because the reactive agility test in our study contained four directional changes in a row, whereas participants in other studies had to react and change direction only once while sprinting. Furthermore, participants in the cited studies completed a reactive agility test with 2 possible alternatives (running to the left or right). However, participants in our study completed a reactive agility test with 8 possible alternatives in every directional change. This resulted in participants having to make cutting maneuvers at various angles while running forwards, backwards, or side-stepping.

The nonsignificant correlations between AToA and ToC, ATuA and ATuC, ASA and ASC suggest that the increased number of directional changes and possible directional alternatives may have increased the role of perceptual and decision-making factors in the performance of the reactive agility test. This conclusion is supported by results showing that the number of possible alternatives increases the difficulty of reacting, which increases reaction times (1). The low common variance (r2 = 0.03–0.18) between reactive agility and CODS times suggests that reactive agility and CODS are not the same physical qualities.

In most field sports, the game consists of longer periods of play and complex game situations in which players have to react to stimuli several times in a row. The reactive agility test used in this study contains four visual stimuli in a row, each of which has eight possible directional alternatives. This type of reactive agility test is more complex than those used previously and may better represent the demands of game play. The results of the study also underscore the importance of cognitive processes in the performance, training, and testing of field sport players.

The significantly longer total time in the reactive agility compared with that in the CODS test is consistent with previous reports (9,11,17). Reacting to a visual stimulus makes the running test more difficult. Participants in reactive tests have to process the visual stimulus, decide on running direction, and then modify their subsequent movement. This takes longer than running a planned route.

The total time of the reactive agility and CODS tests in this study consists of the sum of split times (time intervals between pressure sensors) and turn times (time intervals on the sensors). The difference between reactive agility and CODS total times in our study was caused by the longer average split time in the reactive agility test compared with that in the CODS test, as no difference was found between the average turn time in the reactive agility and CODS tests (Table 2). The similarity in the average turn times in the 2 types of running tests may suggest that participants made a change of direction before completely processing the visual stimulus in the reactive agility test. They made the cutting maneuver and started their first step in an anticipated direction and then (after completely processing the visual stimulus and making a decision) changed the running direction toward the appropriate pressure sensor. This is supported by the finding that the average turn time in the reactive agility test (0.33 seconds) was shorter than the choice reaction time with 8 possible alternatives (∼0.60 seconds) (1).

The nonsignificant relationship between vertical jump height and CODS test results is in contrast with previous studies, which reported significant correlations (r = −0.713 to 0.440) between CMJ height and various CODS test results (2,13,14,18,19). One possible reason for this contradiction may be that participants had to change direction with cutting maneuvers on marked areas (pressure sensors) in our CODS test. In previous reports, participants had to run around cones or other obstacles and did not have to touch a marked area with their feet while changing direction. However, participants in our CODS test had to modify the length and frequency of their strides to touch the pressure sensor and change direction on it. This may have increased the role of coordination, thereby reducing the importance of leg strength.

The nonsignificant relationship between CMJ height and total time in the reactive agility test found in this study is consistent with the results of Henry et al. (12) who also found a nonsignificant relationship between unilateral jumping and reactive agility. These results underscore the complexity of reactive agility and the role of cognitive factors (perception and decision making).

Foot tapping tests have been described as reliable methods for measuring movement frequency, which is related to intramuscular and intermuscular coordination (15,24). Damerow (7) observed a significant relationship between foot tapping and the results of 10-, 20-, and 30-m sprint tests. This suggests that movement frequency may be related to (straight) running speed. However, no study has assessed the relationship between movement frequency and CODS or reactive agility. Our results suggest that the role of movement frequency in the performance of a CODS test is limited. Tapping count was significantly related (r = −0.513) to average split time in the reactive agility test, indicating that movement frequency may contribute to the effective change of running direction after reacting to a visual stimulus. High movement frequency may help participants perform more strides while changing direction, resulting in a faster change of direction maneuver and a shorter split time to the next sensor. However, the correlation between tapping count and total time in the reactive agility test was small. Further assessments of relationships among movement frequency, reactive agility, and CODS are required.

The nonsignificant relationship and the low common variance (r2 = 0.03–0.18) between reactive agility and CODS found in this study suggest that different abilities are needed when completing a preplanned versus a reactive running task with directional changes. These results underscore the importance of perceptual and decision-making factors in agility performance.

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Practical Applications

Players in soccer and other field sports perform in complex game situations where they have to react to a series of stimuli and repeatedly change the speed and direction of their movement. The results of the study showed that CODS and reactive agility test times are not related if both types of running tests contain four directional changes. These results offer several implications for reactive agility training and testing. Indeed, it may be advisable to use training drills with a series of visual stimuli, where players have to react and change direction repeatedly and have more directional alternatives and running directions. For soccer and related sports, these types of training drills and running tests seem to be much more relevant than those requiring less cognitive processing and fewer reactions to changing stimuli.

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Keywords:

field sports; testing; conditioning; cognitive abilities

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