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.

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