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.

How much is too much

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 7.22 (July 2017). Buy Volume 7 as a paperback or a Kindle. 

A few weeks ago, I watched a high-school player practice and listened to her coach and parents discuss her progress and training. Their discussion caused me to fear for the player. Unfortunately, her story is becoming increasingly common.  Read more

Small-sided games, injuries, and too many games

After reading the above on Twitter, I knew that 140 characters would be insufficient. However, to answer the question accurately requires two additional questions: Read more

The problem with ACL prevention programs

During the spring soccer season, nearly every girls team has warmed up with some form of an ACL prevention program. Whether specifically designed for purposes of ACL prevention like the FIFA11+ or PEP programs, or just a basic dynamic warmup that looked similar, every team’s initial warmup period was fairly similar.  Read more

Interview with Julie Eibensteiner

This interview is excerpted from Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletters, Volume 6.

Julie Eibensteiner is a physical therapist and owner of Laurus Athletic Rehab and Performance LLC, an independently-owned practice specializing in ACL rehab and prevention in competitive athletes. In addition to being an educational contributor on topics of sport injury and prevention, Eibensteiner is actively involved as a coach in both college and competitive youth soccer settings.  Read more

A Game Plan to Prevent Knee Injuries

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2015

The post on the local prep sports message board started innocently with a poster offering his condolences to a young high-school basketball player who tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in a spring league game. The thread continued with overwhelmingly positive messages, encouraging the player that she will return like nothing had happened, and she will have time to earn her college scholarship that appeared likely. Though the messages were supportive and positive, they were equally disheartening. Read more

ACL Injury Prevention and Task Complexity

An article published in the Strength & Conditioning Journal based on my presentation at Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group.

Task Complexity and S&C article

After clicking on the link above to read the article, below are videos of exercises that fit with the concepts.



By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development

Pain, Injury, and Rehabilitation

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2014.

Injuries happen. If you play sports long enough, you will hurt something at some point. It is part of the game. I coach basketball, so ankle sprains are the most common injury. What happens when we sprain an ankle? When we land on someone’s foot, we feel pain. However, according to Dr. Adrian Luow, pain is a construct of the brain. When we land on someone’s foot and sprain our ankle, the proprioceptors and nerves in our ankle signal danger, not pain. As Dr. Luow said during his presentation at the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group (BSMPG) conference in May 2013, pain is a decision by the brain, and it is determined by how you think. The pain that we feel in the ankle is really a perception of threat.  Read more

No pain does not mean a healed ankle sprain

During a form shooting drill my my u20 team last night, I walked over to a player and asked about his ankle.

“When did you hurt your ankle?
“It’s fine,” he answered.
“When did you hurt it?”
“Last year, but it’s fine now,” he reassured me.
“It’s affecting your performance,” I said. 

Read more

Injury prevention programs, training right, play, and childhood

I attended the Seattle Sounders Sports Science Mentorship Weekend, which is a good event for the burgeoning sports science field in the United States. The best speaker, to me, was Charlie Weingroff. I have heard Weingroff speak previously, including last month at the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group conference, and he combines common-sense thinking with loads of practical experience and intelligence to substantiate his remarks and his opinions. Read more

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