Klay Thompson, Biomechanics and Motor Learning

In 2011, before masses of strength & conditioning coaches discovered and popularized motor learning, I spoke at the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group conference (organized by current Boston Celtics’ Director of Performance Art Horne) on using motor learning principles within strength and conditioning to improve performance and reduce injuries, specifically on jump landings. You can see part 1 of the talk here, and part 2 here, but the video camera did not capture the rest; all of the slides are here, and a paper in the Strength & Conditioning Journal on the same topic is here.

One major topic was the difference between a biomechanics viewpoint and a motor learning viewpoint. As you can see in the slide above, one slide shows a landing similar to Klay Thompson’s landing in Game 6. Now, there are a multitude of factors that go into any injury, and Thompson’s landing likely was more forceful because of a higher jump, but the similarities are there.

When I presented, and for several years after, biomechanists debated my premise. One of my conclusions was that we cannot avoid these landings during games so we must train for them. Biomechanists argued that there is a single perfect landing technique, and that is the only thing that we should train. “Why would you purposefully put a player into a sub-optimal position and risk injury?” I was asked. The above was my reply; these landing are going to happen regardless because of the game’s demands, and we should train in a way that prepares players to handle them.

The counterargument often is that if only the athlete spent more time training the perfect, ideal landing, then he would land perfectly regardless of circumstances. So, we train perfect landings in unopposed static environments and expect them to transfer perfectly to chaotic game situations.

In Klay’s injury, as with most ACL injuries that occur on a jump landing, there was contact or someone nearby (I believe the research says within 1 m) and the eyes were directed upwards on the landing (see above). When strength coaches and physical therapists run players through jump training programs or ACL prevention programs, how many focus on the eyes? How many have landings occur through contact or with someone nearby? Some do (I have seen soccer teams practicing landings with shoulder to shoulder contacts), but most do not because looking upwards and contacting players in the air disrupts the perfect biomechanical landing. So, we train repeatedly for something that rarely happens (perfect landing) in the hopes that it will happen, and we avoid training for the events that happen in every game and lead to most of the injuries, statistically.

It is easy to sit back and say that if Klay had landed on two feet in a half squat position, landing on his toes and rolling back toward his heels, that he would not have hurt himself. How realistic is it to land from a dunk attempt when you are fouled and looking back at the rim to land in this idealized position?

Everyone should learn an ideal landing technique as the foundation of a jump training program. However, that is the starting point, not the end. Jump training programs should incorporate jumps, hops and leaps in all directions and all planes with external cues (balls) and without vision of the floor. Programs should progress gradually as players adapt, but they should progress.

Just as athletes strive to jump higher and higher, whether onto higher boxes (which actually reduces the landing demands) or over higher hurdles or just to dunk, athletes should strive to add difficulty and complexity to their landings. Rather than concentrate solely on jumping onto or over higher things, add rotation or distance or actions after the landing (sprints, shuffling). Incorporate catching into jump landings to distract vision. Incorporate a partner into drills for slight contact. Start by adding one of these elements and once players adapt, add more and more.

Will players land sub-optimally? Probably. Is there a greater chance for injury in training than sticking to perfect sagittal plane, two-footed half-squat landings? Yes, but the environment is controlled and managed as compared to the game.

Without these progressions, players are not prepared for the landings in the game. It is similar to a player who never shoots against defenders in practice. We accept without question that NBA players’ shooting percentages are halved in games; a player shoots 80% in practice and 40% in games.

Why would we not expect the same kind of skill deterioration in a skill such as jump landings? Why not train in ways that reduce the skill deterioration from practice to games?

None of this is to suggest that Klay’s injury was preventable. Every injury is multi-factorial; between the hamstring, the fatigue from 5 straight seasons going to the finals, the pressure of the situation, fatigue that that was usually around the time that he’d be on the bench, the contact, the landing, a less than perfect take-off, bad luck, etc., there are many potential explanations.

Instead, this is to highlight the limitations of most jump training and ACL prevention programs because most adhere to a biomechanics-based model that attempts to reduce possible techniques into the singular ideal technique, despite the game demanding more and greater techniques. As long as we adhere to the biomechanics-based models, we short-change our athletes, and they become more susceptible to injury, especially sub-elite athletes who lack the strength and experience of an athlete like Klay Thompson.

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