The Goofy Foot Layup, language, and motor control

Television analysts repeatedly refer to layups as “wrong foot” or “wrong hand”. Most analysts are old, relatively speaking, and when they were taught to play basketball, everyone agreed that there were wrong ways to execute skills and right ways to execute skills.

One-handed passes were wrong.

Jumping to pass was wrong.

Crossing one’s feet on defense was wrong.

Using the inside hand on a layup was wrong.

Jumping off the same-side foot as the shooting hand was wrong.

None of these skills is wrong, and, in fact, many coaches now actively teach these executions to develop better and more skilled players. Despite their acceptance in the modern game, many refer to these skills as “wrong”, even when promoting them.

Language matters. Why would a coach teach something called “wrong foot” or “wrong hand”? Wrong is defined as “not correct.” What does a player think when being asked to practice something that is not correct? If the player accepts inside-hand layups or goofy-foot layups, as most do today, how does the coach know what he or she means when he or she says “wrong”?

Many coaches dismiss this argument as semantics.

Watch a practice with beginners. Often, when introducing layups, players use a goofy-foot approach: When shooting a right-handed layup, they jump off their right foot.

In a traditional view, this is wrong; the “correct” layup is to jump off the inside (left) foot to shoot with the outside (right) hand. When someone says “layup”, this is what we picture, and any other shot referenced as a layup requires a modifier: two-foot layup, inside-hand layup, reverse layup, etc.

Because a traditional view says that players must use their inside foot to shoot with their outside hand, the coach stops and corrects the players. When we call a layup a “wrong-footed layup”, this is exactly what we mean. It needs to be corrected. Over and over, we stop players who may be making layups jumping off their same-sided foot (right foot for a right-handed layup), and tell them that despite the success, they executed incorrectly and must change.

The irony, of course, is that after spending hours and hours to teach the “correct” layup, if players last long enough in the competitive stream, they will reach a level where their coach teaches the “wrong-foot layup”: The layup that they once executed naturally. The further irony is the this natural movement is no longer natural; players practice the traditional layup so much that they lose the ability to shoot the goofy-foot layup and must re-learn their natural motions.

This is the problem with language. When we label the layup, “wrong”, we automatically correct this behavior in children. However, we eventually teach this skill, and highlight the shots, so how can it be wrong? Why do we frustrate children who are beginning to play basketball and learning new skills by telling them that their initial approaches, which are successful in terms of making the shot, are wrong because they did not perform the skill like the coach wants?

Furthermore, there is a reason that children tend to shoot goofy-foot layups.

The initial movements that children learn — crawling, skipping, walking, running — use a contralateral movement pattern: I lift my right arm, and my left leg. We see this contralateral pattern when children shoot layups initially: they jump off their right foot and lift their left knee and right hand to shoot. This is not wrong and need not be corrected initially.

Put yourself into the child’s shoes. To shoot a traditional layup, the child must change his or her basic coordination, while learning to manipulate a basketball (which often is too big) to shoot at a target that is often too high. We ask children to learn several new things at once. Do we start ball handling by asking players to make around-the-back moves on the move or do we start by learning to bounce the ball, then bounce the ball with movement, etc.?

Many coaches argue that a goofy-foot layup is “wrong” because it is not natural. If that is, in fact, true, why do so many children use a goofy-foot layup when they initially start? Without prompting, they use a goofy-foot finish; they have to be instructed, and practice repeatedly, to use a “traditional” layup. How does that make the traditional layup “more natural”?

A goofy-foot layup is not wrong, and for most children, it is the initial natural movement because it fits more closely with their previously-learned skills and coordination. Rather than start with constant corrections to move to the “traditional layup”, why not allow players to start with success? Encourage them to shoot in the manner of their choosing in an effort to make the shot. After all, we judge the “correctness” of a professional’s shot by its outcome; why hold beginners to a more difficult standard of making the shot AND using a specific technique? As players progress, coaches can introduce other layups and diversify the players’ skills.

Instead, we drill the traditional layup to such an extent that many middle-school and high-school basketball players can be differentiated from other athletes by their inability to skip. Many older basketball players who have been instructed in the proper layup technique change their skipping pattern to match their layup pattern: Rather than skipping by driving their left knee and right arm together, they drive their right knee and right arm. They have adopted a sport-specific pattern to such a degree that they have lost their initial coordination patterns.

This, of course, is why older players struggle to re-adopt the goofy-foot layup that initially came naturally. They must re-learn basic contralateral patterning. All because we are adamant that players start with one traditional layup, which differs from their previously-learned patterns and requires many repetitions, feedback, and corrections.

Rather than building on success, we make the initial learning harder and more frustrating, and later when we deem the goofy-foot layup to be technically- and strategically-appropriate, that learning becomes harder and more frustrating. All because we have a traditional view of what a “correct” layup looks like and refer to an important skill as “wrong”.

If a coach is adamant that jumping off the right foot to shoot a right-handed layup is wrong, the coach should not teach the layup. However, as Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and others have shown, this would be limiting the players, and eliminating one potential weapon from their skill set.

Spend the Offseason #Grinding or Developing Skills

Yesterday, I commented on a video of college basketball players:

Not everyone was happy with the critique.

Challenge accepted.

via GIPHY

What would you tell this coach/program to better use their time and replace this with?

Without knowing the quality that they attempted to improve, it is difficult to suggest alternatives. Based on the feedback, they cared about effort. If that is the goal, mission accomplished, I suppose. The players appeared to give effort. The drill appeared to be hard. If that was the only goal, I have no real alternatives. It is fairly easy to make anything hard.

The tweet said “getting better every day”, which prompted my question. Getting better at giving effort? Okay. Getting better at basketball? Debatable.

To clear up the misconceptions, this is not agility, nor does it have anything to do with playing defense. Looking only at the movements, this is training a slow change of direction. First, they touch the ground, which changes one’s posture compared to that which a player uses in a game. Second, many reach outside their base of support; they reach toward their outside leg. If I move to my right, and need to change directions to go left, I do not want to reach outside my base of support to my right. This slows down my movement. Notice how they stop on nearly every change of direction.

This is not exactly how I do lateral movement training with bands, but it just popped up on Twitter and is close:

Again, depending on goals, this is an alternative, if the goal is to improve acceleration, change of direction speed, lateral movement, movement quality, etc.

I have commented on this previously with regards to a college strength & conditioning coach. Previously, the team ran to a line, turned, and ran back, much like a baseline to baseline sprint in a game. As with this video, there was no feedback, instruction, or corrections for technique, and the players changed directions slowly. Why do you want to use conditioning work to reinforce patterns that slow down players in a sport predicated by speed?

Before we condition players, we instruct a hockey stop for change directions. Therefore, when we condition, we (hopefully) practice the correct technique and develop this pattern. Why invest time training a movement pattern that ultimately has to be corrected in order to move well during a game?

Again, this comes back to my presentation to Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group in 2011. Strength and conditioning coaches (I am assuming this is an S&C workout, not a basketball workout) should be concerned with skill development too, not just putting up numbers. The S&C workout should complement the basketball skill workout, and vice versa. If players train a slow movement here because the goal is to be hard, it fails to complement the basketball-specific movements on the court.

Is this harmful?

Probably not, depending on volume and preparation. However, is that the standard that we set for workouts? It’s not harmful; therefore, it is good?

On the other hand, it may cause negative transfer. If players use these patterns on the court, and consequently move slower, there is negative transfer. The training made players worse. In that sense, one may view it as harmful.

Doesn’t have any value to explosiveness, core, etc.?

I do not see much value in explosiveness or core because their posture and positions are poor. Is that because of fatigue, not the drill? Is it because it is their first time doing this? I don’t know.

However, I know that college coaches constantly complain about the lack of time with their players during the offseason. Consequently, why use that time for an exercise that probably isn’t harmful? Why not maximize the value of the time?

Honestly, the biggest positive to me is that it works on lateral movement because I believe that there is a sagittal bias in training, and basketball is a multidirectional sport.

However, if one wants to improve lateral movement, why not lateral plyometrics? Here is a link to a paper on the benefits of frontal-plane plyometrics. Below are the exercises; consider those additional alternatives.

Learning to relax to improve sports performance

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2016

Coaches constantly encourage athletes to relax (often by yelling, which seems contradictory), but rarely does a coach explain or demonstrate relaxation or a process to relax. Encouraging players to relax becomes a throw away; something that everyone says, and everyone assumes the other person understands, but which has virtually no practical meaning.  Read more

Winning more games with a better warmup

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Dynamic warmups, injury prevention, and bad habits

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Searching for elite athletic talent

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2016.

During a recent u14 girls soccer game, I watched the younger brothers play 3v3 tackle football between the fields. The parents were invested in the soccer game, and they never bothered the boys who ranged from 8 to 12 years old. The pickup football game was more interesting. There were no parents shouting directions or intervening when there was an argument or an injury. The boys figured it out on their own.  Read more

When part practice goes wrong

Over the last few weekends, I refereed the end of the season tournaments for youth soccer; most teams were club teams, whatever that means, and some have professional (i.e. paid) coaches. These teams dutifully performed the FIBA11+ warmup or something similar prior to their first game of the day (rarely do they perform the same warmup prior to their second game, as they typically warmed up with passing or dribbling drills between fields). Read more

Drills, movement, and the false step

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Movement Skills and Games

Every day P.E. activities for 4th-6th graders

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletters, Volume 6.

A physical education teacher asked for help in designing his curriculum. He asked for the three to five exercises that I would do in every class with 4th-6th graders. Without knowing about available equipment, class size, teacher experience, and other important programing variables, I would play tag, crawl, sprint, and do some form of dexterity/coordination exercise such as juggling in every class. Read more

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