Fundamentals and Footwork: What are we really teaching?

by on January 21, 2016
in Footwork

I am skeptical that USA Basketball overtaking basketball administration and coach education in the United States is a positive, and this article on footwork that was sent to me has done nothing to alleviate my fears. My primary fear with mandatory coach education by a single institution was deciding who determined the skills to be taught, and if this article is indicative of the USA Basketball curriculum, it should not be USA Basketball.

The article starts with a misunderstanding of the English language, not to mention proper instructional techniques.

Coaches in every sport often teach players to “get low” and “stand on the ball of the foot” or “on your toes.” These phrases are simply metaphors to more easily explain how to perform this technique.

As the video states, these are not metaphors or analogies, but that is just the beginning.

Raising the heels off the floor automatically causes the legs to bend.

This is not true, as anyone who has done a calf raise knows.

Making it easier and more natural to lower the body into a slight squat that provides balance, power and enhances propulsion.

Again, not true, as anyone who has instructed the squat or lifted heavy weights knows.

This bio-mechanically correct contact point of the foot, combined with a low center of gravity, is the optimum position for basketball players to start any movement.

Again, untrue. First, a lack of specificity. How low should the center of gravity be? Second, the optimum position depends on many factors, including the size, strength, and skill of the specific player, and the task demands. Finally, few expert players lower their center of gravity much to shoot.


Therefore, it depends on the individual and the task, as Curry’s stance on defense differs from his shooting stance.

Stephen Curry guards

Even his stance on defense changes:

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks

(Note: In the picture of Curry shooting, he does not turn greatly; many people would refer to that position as “square”. Second, in the bottom picture of his defense, it looks as though he is crossing his feet, a huge no-no for many coaches and players).

Moving on…

To increase the ability to move laterally, separate the feet even more than shoulder-width.

Why is the unanimously believed to be true? Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object at rest tends to stay at rest. The wider one’s base, the more stable the position; this increases inertia. Now, there may be tactical reasons to use a wide base, but I have not seen anything to suggest that widening the feet improves the ability to move laterally. In fact, if one believes that a player should not cross his feet on defense, a wide stance leads to less movement because too wide of a stance definitely slows movement. Now, in some cases, I use a wide stance to make it appear as though there is no driving lane to the basket; however, in other cases, I use a narrower stance.

The benefit of maximizing the ability to reach and maintain top sprint speed in basketball games is evident on both offense and defense.

One does not reach top sprint speed on a basketball court. A basketball court is 84′ – 94′ long and one rarely runs from one baseline to the other; even running from one baseline to the other, such as in line drills at practice, requires decelerating prior to reaching the baseline, which means that one sprints for less than the total distance. Usain Bolt’s fastest 20 m in London occurred between 60m and 80m, which he would not have reached on a basketball court. Top sprint speed is not a major factor in basketball.

Modern sports science and biomechanics research has shown that a right-handed person’s left leg is stronger and more dominant than the right leg.

Not necessarily:

Scientists agree that most of us are not only right handed but also right legged. We kick the ball with the right leg, and if falling forward we catch ourselves more often with the right leg. The right leg is more muscular and makes longer steps in walking, according to Prof. Onur Güntürkün, biopsychologist at the Ruhr university at Bochum/Germany. “It is only a very small difference of a few millimeters, but they are adding up.”

Another study found that leg dominance depends upon the type of task:

Leg preference may be an adaptation that depends on the nature of the tests required to perform.

Leg dominance was a part of my dissertation, and I found that most right-handed athletes were stronger pushing off of their left feet, but this was not true amongst all athletes. It also is unknown whether leg dominance is mostly genetic, like hand dominance, or if it is environmental, although the switching of dominance by the task suggests that it could be environmental. Because right-handed players spend more time practicing right-handed layups (jumping off their left feet) and using their left feet as their pivot feet, their left feet could be stronger. However, if it is not genetic, more practice on the right foot could reduce the asymmetry.

The problem with most players attempting to make an off-hand layup isn’t strength or control of the arm or hand, it’s that the player has to jump off the non-dominant leg.

Because the original premise is incorrect, or at least unproven, extending the premise is a slippery slope. Considering that many young players when starting their basketball careers jump off the right foot when shooting right-handed layups, and have some success, I have a hard time believing that when they switch to their left hands, the problem is jumping off of their right foot.

In truth, the problem is more easily solved by jumping off two legs when shooting a layup, as my friend Lindell Singleton showed when he studied shooting percentages in girls high school basketball when shooting layups off of one foot compared to two feet.

A foot becomes a pivot foot because it is the last foot to touch the floor or the other foot leaves the floor first.

This is incorrect. The pivot foot is the first foot to touch the floor after picking up the ball or is established when a player lands with both feet at the same time, and subsequently picks up one foot. The statement above is true only for NBA players when the last foot to touch the floor is the outside foot.

If the foot is flat, the player stands straight up instead of being low, balanced and powerful.

Again, anyone who has squatted with any weight on the bar knows that it is more than possible to flex the knees and hips to bend with the foot flat on the ground. This does not mean that the foot should be flat on the ground at all times, but it means that a flat foot does not force a player to stand up.

The pivot foot should contact the floor only with the area of the foot directly behind and across all the toes.

This is a common teaching point, but Basketball Canada’s Mike MacKay differs.

Imagine volleyball hitters. As they step down in their 1-2 step prior to jumping, their first step is heel-toe, and if they pivot at all, the pivot is on the heel. I do not know if that is taught or not, but that is essentially what happens, and that is what MacKay is stating above, I believe.

Inside Foot 1-2 Step: This is the most effective and fundamentally sound way to shoot a jump shot. Period.

Many, many people would disagree with this statement. I, again, believe that the individual’s size, strength, and skill, and the demands of the shot determine the proper footwork. I believe that players must know how to shoot from a 1-2-step and a jump stop.

If dribbling, it is best to make the first step into the shot with the inside foot, which is always the foot closest to the basket, when the player is not directly and straight ahead facing the basket. Off-the-dribble or catch-and-shoot, always step into the basketball with inside foot 1-2 step footwork.

Just as I believe that players need to shoot with a 1-2-step and a jump stop, I believe that players must be comfortable with an outside foot-inside foot step-in as well. The player’s individual qualities and the demands of the task will determine the footwork for a specific shot.

The right foot should come forward and point towards the basket.

This statement was made for a 1-2-step-in to shoot. I imagine most people believe that a player should have at least a little turn from the right foot when shooting. Again, to me, the degree of turn will depend heavily on the speed of movement prior to the shot.

Finally, I personally dislike articles that reference research, but fail to provide a link or a source for the research. If I watched one player play basketball tonight, I could draw conclusions and call it research. However, is it valid? Does it mean anything?

The above are just some of the statements that caught my eye as I skimmed the article. There were other points that I found problematic, but they were so poorly articulated that I could not argue because they were unintelligible.

The larger point is that there are different ways to teach skills, and the traditional ways are not necessarily the best or most correct way. Who decides how we are going to teach skills? Should someone determine that there is only one way and mandate that all coaches teach this way? What if that means that coaches are mandated to teach something like the step-slide or drop step for defense that clearly is not the best method of movement?

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

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