Athleticism and athletic flaws

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletters, Volume 4.

Stability, Sport and Performance Movement by Joanne Elphinston concludes with a couple important points:

  • Technical problems are not ‘personal style’ just because the athlete is a high flyer.
  • The best performer is not necessarily the one with the least issues. He is the one who compensates most effectively for them. When his ability to compensate is exceeded by the demands on his body and mind, a cycle of injury often ensues. Assess accuracy without prejudice.”

Jumping high and running fast are the most obvious athletic feats, so we tend to think that anyone who excels in these areas is a great athlete. In basketball, we also are prejudiced toward long, lean bodies, and anyone with an exaggerated wingspan is classified as athletic. Length, speed and vertical jump are only a few measures of athleticism, and when we assume that one is athletic because he possesses one or all of these attributes, we may short-change the athlete’s overall development, and he may fail to maximize his potential. In girls’ basketball, this can have an even more dangerous side effect, as we may fail to notice deficiencies in an “athletic” girl that may lead to an ACL tear.

The ability to overcome and compensate for weaknesses is a trait desired by coaches, parents and managers. The media has been infatuated with Steve Nash, in part, because Nash is hero-worshipped as someone who has overcome limited size and athleticism to excel in a sport dominated by size and athleticism. However, as coaches, especially with young players, our goal is not to manage weaknesses or teach players to overcome them, but to fix these issues.

As an example, several prominent women’s basketball coaches no longer teach the jump stop because evidence suggests that many players injure their ACL while making a jump stop. Rather than identify the weaknesses and teach the skill properly, they manage the risk by eliminating the skill.

However, most ACL injuries occur during deceleration or when landing from a jump: this could be when landing from a rebound or making a cut. A coach cannot eliminate all the movements which contribute to ACL injuries because to do so would be to change the game altogether. Therefore, rather than eliminating one skill, we need to identify the causes – lack of hamstring strength, lack of glute activation, poor proprioception, poor landing technique, lack of core strength, neuromuscular inefficiency, and more – that put individual players at risk and address these issues. Eliminating the jump stop may prevent players from tearing their ACLs on jump stops, but if the players are at-risk, they may tear the ACL on a cut, a 1-2-step or a rebound, especially if the solution centers on one skill and not a progressive plan to improve on the varied weaknesses and flaws which contribute to most non-contact ACL injuries.

I worked with a young player labeled as an athlete because he was tall and fast, but he could not bend properly or decelerate. He missed many shots because he was off-balance, but people figured it was a shooting problem, as his athleticism was obvious when he sprinted ahead of other players. His coaches and trainers ignored his weaknesses because he managed to compensate well, but he never would have maximized his potential, as he was a poor shooter and finisher due to his balance, bending, squatting and deceleration. While these athletic skills are not as obvious as speed or as exciting as jumping high, they have as much to do with a player’s athleticism as the more awe-inspiring feats. We cannot manage these deficiencies with young players; we have to fix them to give the athlete a chance to compete as he ascends the competitive ladder.

The May 3, 2010 ESPN the Magazine features Roger Federer on the cover and suggests that he is the world’s best athlete (an assertion that I made two years ago in Volume 2). In a side column alongside the main article titled “The Power of Smooth,” Shaun Assael writes: “Every pro has a fast first step, but Federer has an exceptionally fast stop. His ability to decelerate instantly gives him an extra millisecond to position his feet, hips, chest and head into the vertical alignment necessary to generate force.”

When people measure athleticism, how many account for deceleration? A long basketball player may block a shot when playing against non-elite players, even if he is off-balance. However, when the athlete progresses to the next level and plays among peers, his inability to decelerate will leave him foul-prone or he will struggle to contain offensive players. My middle blocker got excited every time he “roofed” an opponent this season (and people took note of these blocks), but he was called for multiple net violations every game because he never attained balance before jumping vertically, so he drifted into the net. He lacked the ability to decelerate quickly and the core strength to prevent his body from rotating in the air. People noticed the jumping ability and long arms, but failed to see the lack of balance, poor core strength and poor timing.

In the main article, “One Among Many,” Tim Keown includes a comment by Marc Kovacs, a USTA exercise physiologist, who says: “I don’t think there is any one test that would show [Federer] is better than anyone else in the top 100…If you put him in the 40-yard dash, he wouldn’t be the fastest. If you put him in the weight room, he wouldn’t be the strongest. But the overall composition takes him off the charts.” The article continues to describe his balance, deceleration, movement economy and anticipation.

When anyone produces a list of the NBA’s best athletes, LeBron James is generally first (no argument there), and Atlanta’s Josh Smith is typically very high due to his phenomenal jumping ability. Steve Nash is nowhere to be found: it is an accepted fact that he is unathletic by NBA standards. However, just as Federer would not win any single test, neither would Nash. However, Nash excels in the unglamorous aspects of athleticism like deceleration, balance, movement economy and anticipation. Nobody would suggest that Nash is a better athlete than someone like Dwight Howard who has massive arms and can touch the top of the backboard, but when you look deeper into athleticism, Nash’s success isn’t a surprise, and he is a more complete athlete than Howard.

What often is explained as skill actually starts with athleticism. For instance, I have argued that Nash is among the best shooters in NBA history. He is one of two players to have multiple 90-50-40 seasons (90% free throw percentage, 50% field goal percentage and 40% three-point percentage) along with Larry Bird. We see this as his basketball skill. However, think about all the unorthodox shots that he makes or his ability to sprint straight into a three-point attempt. While these certainly involve a high level of basketball-specific ability, sprinting straight into a shot and decelerating with sufficient balance, timing and power to make a 24-foot shot is an athletic skill, and few players do this as well as Nash.

Howard, while a tremendous athlete, has things that he could improve athletically, but they mostly go undetected because his athleticism is so overwhelming and any flaws are disregarded as his personal style or poor basketball skills. For instance, the timing of his movements when shooting a free throw is uncoordinated. Is that a poor basketball habit or an athletic issue that he has learned to compensate for?

To enhance the development of young players, we cannot disregard athletic flaws or overlook issues just because the player plays at a high level right now through compensation or other facets of athleticism. Eventually, the inability to decelerate properly or the lack of balance or the poor sequencing in one’s squatting will lead to a plateau in his development or potentially to the end of his competitive career through injury or inability to keep up with the competition. These basic skills which start with stability, balance and basic movement skills set the foundation for all the athletic and basketball skills that one needs to advance and play the game at a high level. To develop a player, we need to ensure that these skills are taught early and monitored as the players develop to continue one’s development and improvement.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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