A basketball player’s feet are important. Let me rephrase that. A basketball player’s feet are extremely important. There are approximately 26 bones and 20 muscles in the feet. That fact alone should shed some light on their significance.
Basketball is (supposed to be) played standing upright on two feet. Therefore, every movement a player makes on the court is initiated through their feet. Everything starts with the feet. Similarly, can you guess what the most common injury is for basketball players at every level?
Strong and mobile ankles and feet will lessen the occurrence of injury, decrease the time lost if an injury does occur, and will improve performance on the court.
As obvious as these statements sound, most players and coaches put very littler priority on training the feet properly. The goal of this blog is to change that. So please, share this with every coach and player you know!
Before I go further, let me make it crystal clear that this is not a research project or case study. This is my blog. My stance on training the feet and my opposition to ankle braces (and tape) is purely my opinion. I am in no way trying to refute the advice of a qualified athletic trainer or podiatrist or any legit study that has been conducted. However, my opinion is based on 10+ years of experience in the field, thousands of hours of observations, a firm understanding of the human body and efficient movement, and numerous conversations with colleagues.
Basketball shoes are designed to be rigid (with stiff soles) to create as much stability as possible. To further increase stability, many players also wear ankle braces or get their ankles taped. Here lies the problem. By creating so much stability, you drastically limit mobility. Severely limiting mobility will weaken the muscles of the ankles and feet. What happens to a person’s forearm muscle when their arm has been immobilized in a cast from a broken wrist? It atrophies (weakens). So do the muscles of the feet when they are confined to rigid shoes and ankle braces for long periods of time. I know players who wear basketball shoes and ankle braces 20+ hours per week!
I am not opposed to wearing basketball shoes when you are playing. The stability and support is a necessity. But you don’t need to wear them when you are training. And ankle braces? Tape? With the exception of a player who suffered a previous ankle injury, or someone taking a direct recommendation from a qualified professional… ankle braces (and tape) are absolutely unnecessary when playing and when training.
Still not convinced? The other day I flipped on ESPN Classic and saw the 1973 NBA Finals (Game 4) between the Knicks and the Celtics, featuring Hall of Famers Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and Dave Cowens. In addition to wearing shorts that looked like boxer briefs, every single player was wearing low top Adidas sneakers. No braces. No tape. And guess what? No injuries!
What did players wear before Adidas? Chuck Taylors! Thin canvas and a flat rubber sole. Talk about no ankle support! Despite the archaic footwear, I doubt there was a higher rate of ankle injuries in the 60’s and 70’s than there is today. You know why? Because players back then had strong, mobile ankles and feet.
Ankle braces weaken ankles and limit mobility (not to mention natural movement). Given how important the feet and ankles are, why would you do something that makes them weaker and less mobile?
Every time you run or jump, you do what is called triple extension. That is extension at the ankles, knees, and hips. If any one of those joints is not working properly (weak or tight), it limits the function of the other two. So weak, tight ankles limit a player’s ability to run and jump to their potential. Having weak, tight ankles will also cause the body to compensate in a variety of ways during movement… which can lead to knee and back issues. Remember, everything starts with the feet.
So how do you strengthen your ankles and feet? By setting them free and taking off your shoes!
When you work out in your bare feet (or with socks) you can feel all of the intrinsic muscles of your toes, feet, and ankles. At first, this will feel liberating (and probably awkward) because you rarely get to feel these muscles when wearing basketball shoes and ankle braces.
NOTE: I am only suggesting barefoot training for players with healthy feet and no pre-existing conditions (unless cleared by a doctor). Players with excessively high arches, previous stress fractures, or ankle sprains should avoid barefoot training (or at least make severe modifications) to reduce the chance of injury.
How much is the right amount of barefoot training? Once a player has been acclimated to some rudimentary barefoot exercises, they should do as many things barefoot as they can in the confines of a safe, controlled training environment. For most players, 5-15 minutes per workout is a good rule of thumb.
If you have been wearing ankle braces regularly for an extended period of time, you need to gradually wean yourself off of them. Don’t go from wearing them all the time to not at all. Your ankles and feet aren’t ready for that. You are begging for an injury. You need to begin a progressive, structured ankle and foot strengthening program, while at the same time slowly decreasing your dependence on the braces.
What should you do in your bare feet? Many of the same things you do with shoes on! Squats, lunges, dynamic flexibility movements, and low level hops are all great to do shoeless.
If you want to see several dozen exercises we use to strengthen our player’s feet and ankles, check out: http://tinyurl.com/StrongFeet
We don’t do all of these exercises every workout. We pick a few and rotate them. Some are geared towards strengthening the feet, while others are more focused on the ankle. We begin with the most basic exercises and have the player progress as they become acclimated and their feet become stronger. We perform our barefoot exercises on an appropriate surface (cautious of impact, slipping, etc.). Our goal is to improve foot and ankle strength, mobility, and proprioception (the body’s perception of movement and special awareness).
In addition to adding some barefoot training to your regimen, our 12-Week Basketball Off-Season Agility & Conditioning Program will available very soon. It was designed to be done in conjunction with the strength & power portion (currently for sale). You will be able to purchase it at http://Shop.StrongerTeam.com. These two programs are exactly what a player needs to get stronger, quicker, more explosive and in great basketball shape. Remember, the best players are in the best shape!
I have added two new FREE sections to the Media Gallery at www.StrongerTeam.com (please use Internet Explorer to view):
Coaching Nuggets: http://www.strongerteam.com/Global/Gallery/Default.aspx?aid=20
A collection of tidbits and handouts I have compiled over the years from some brilliant coaching minds. I am not the original author of any of these nor have I edited them in any fashion. I will add one new coaching nugget per week!
Exercise Library: http://www.strongerteam.com/Global/Gallery/Default.aspx?aid=23
A vast library of exercises for basketball coaches and players. Clips fall under one of ten categories: pre-hab, warm-up, dynamic flexibility, plyos, agility, core, lower body, upper body, finisher, and cool down. Included is the intro (explanation) for each section. I will add one clip per day for 100 straight days. I began on May 1, 2010).
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Please let me know if I can ever be a resource to you for your program. I would be honored to help. You can email me at Alan@StrongerTeam.com.
Train hard. Train smart.