Moving From Speed To Agility: Closed To Open

Rich Clarke

One of the most prominent components of agility is the fact that is has to be reactive to a stimulus. It becomes an open skill which is more difficult to control and at times chaotic. Sy we have to think about how we facilitate athletes transferring their skills from closed tasks to open tasks.

It seems commonly accepted that as soon as task become open and reactive, they become messy and because of this load and injury risk goes up. So you should avoid this until the athlete has mastered the skills needed. All of which is true.

But the question is, when is the foundation good enough? And when can you start making things open tasks without big negative consequences. In my opinion, this time point is probably earlier than you think it is.

There are three key things which factor into decision making:

  • The type of uncertainty.
  • The complexity of the stimulus
  • The physical challenge

A principle for the perception side of things: Mechanics are best in less complex perceptual conditions with more preparation time.

A principle for the physical skill: High load and complexity comes from combining high speeds with large angular changes in direction (needing large changes in BOS location)

As usual, we need to use continuums, not binary groups. Below are how I look at the continuum progression for each consideration.

The type of uncertainty:

  • Closed = Pre-planned
  • Temporal Reaction
  • Spatial Reaction
  • Spatial and Temporal Reaction (this isn’t much different to the spatial level)

This is a traditional view of it, which is completely suitable. But I actually think we need to combine this with the perceptual complexity as they are both related.

Perceptual complexity

This is the type of uncertainty, but with a consideration of the complexity of defender’s movements. This doesn’t include lights and whistles and there is no deception until level 6. Exactly what they the defender (the leader) is doing, or the attacker (the perceiver) is seeing can vary. It could be the same movement as the attacker/perceiver needs to do or a different one and from any angle. I have also kept this to one defender as once you bring in multiple, the task becomes more tactical where it isn’t a clear leader – perceiver scenario.

  • Static with temporal reaction
  • Moving with temporal reaction
  • Static with spatial option
  • Moving with spatial option
  • Moving with 3+ spatial options
  • Moving with spatial options & deception

Physical challenge:

  • Linear acceleration (low speed and low angle) from static
  • Multi-Directional accelerations from static (low speed but large angle)
  • Mult-Directional movements from a dynamic start (slightly more speed with a large angle)
  • Acute multi-directional movements from a high speed (high speed with a low angle)
  • Multi-directional movements from a high speed (high speed with a large angle)

A couple of examples putting these together:

A temporally reactive linear sprint

If the athlete’s task is to begin a linear sprint, they can set themselves up in an effective position to start. And if they are looking at a defender knowing what they need to do, but not when to do it (no deception) they can react to relatively simple movement cues. i.e as soon as they see the defender begin their initiation is their cue to go. This doesn’t have much impact on the technical execution as there isn’t much uncertainty and the task is simple. But it does give the added benefit of some early exposure for the athlete to seeing human movement and being asked to give their attention to it. It also gives us an opportunity to facilitate the athletes learning by asking “what do you see? What moves first? What gives away the leader is about to move?”

The opposite end of the spectrum would be asking an athlete to transition from a sprint into a cut but react to a defender who trying to deceive and who can turn to any direction at any time. This has a high load and movement complexity demand with a reduced ability to pick up perceptual information.

The key thing which I recommend trying to achieve and add into training is to get your athletes used to seeing how people move. What gives away the information they are about to do something? What give away the information of the direction they are about to go? Research shows that athletes can gain around 250ms of time if they are better at picking up perceptual information. And given that you can introduce the human movement which they need to be familiar with relatively easily without any major negative impact on the technical execution. I can’t see how that would be a bad idea.

The error I see people make it they develop the pre-planned foundation then they add in a whistle or a light and go straight to spatial reaction. This doesn’t do you any favours. It provides the least amount of time of any stimulus (impacting performance the most), isn’t really developing anything of use and also asks for complex BOS movements. Whereas the simplest example outlined above eases into the reactivity and also begins to develop some useful perceptual skills. Win-win in my eyes.

My closing point is simply to remember that you still need to look to optimise their movement execution. This doesn’t mean perfect, but it does mean decent. If the athlete can’t repeatedly execute the movement you are asking them to do with good shapes, then keep your priorities in check and stay pre-planned. But my opinion is that point comes earlier than people thing it does, and there is even an argument that it will optimise over time as you continue to drive physiological change from strength training.


Rich is the founder of Strength Coach Curriculums and an S&C coach who specialised in multi-directional speed. He runs the S&C provision for Bristol Flyers Basketball and consults with clubs across the globe while also leading the MSc programme at the University of South Wales