Footwork is a fundamental component to performance. A misstep on the field could be as costly as a poorly executed approach on the court. Every sport, from soccer to Olympic Weightlifting, puts a specific expectation on foot movement and placement. Although each discipline requires different footwork skills, attacking the footwork limiting factor in training can be approached similarly across the whole spectrum of sports.
The purpose of footwork in training is for an athlete to learn the most advantageous position to dynamically display the required power necessary for the sport-movement or task. The ability of an athlete to execute these tasks seamlessly and effortlessly often determines what level an athlete will reach in their respective sport. Imagine a soccer player who is never able to take eyes off their feet while dribbling, or an Olympic lifter who always has to look down to check their foot position in a split jerk.
A loss of this footwork purpose occurs in training when athletes are tasked with acquiring complex sport-movement skills before mastering basic movement patterns and developing kinesthetic awareness of their foot position. This misguided approach leads to frustrated athletes that just “don’t get” a movement, and coaches ramble off wasted cues to the point of lost patience. A different approach needs to be applied.
Common signs for footwork as a limiting factor include athletes consistently missing Oly lifts because of foot placement, weddings steps in lunges or step ups, wasted steps during change of direction, and even miss stepping a barbell out of the rack from a squat.
Within the purpose, there are three main objectives to accomplish when attacking this limiting factor in training:
These are attributes athletes of any sport can benefit from improving, and will put them in a position for rapid improvement in their sport-movement performance. This article will breakdown the approach behind the ABC’s and present movements to implement into training no matter what an athlete is training for. #ToesForward!
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Body control through space, CNS efficiency, and kinesthetic awareness are paramount for success in sport and it all starts with footwork. The first step in improving footwork control, efficiency and awareness is to introduce the starting position and the end point for each drill or sport-movement. Introducing the start and finish expectations allows an athlete to solve the problem of movement getting from point A to point B. Neural patterning only requires ONE episode, and occurs when a certain stress is imprinted on the CNS. So, emphasize task precision under stress from the beginning.
In our previous article on quickness we introduced the key to improvement: modifying the reaction.
The footwork drills below move through all planes of motion with the goal of creating and challenging posture and position of the spine, hips and lower leg in an effort to create a default, toes forward reaction position. Regular practice makes them instinctive. Coaching tools to challenge awareness of moving through space are much like learning to dance. Break the movement into a count, associate the movement to a rhythm, and don’t forget to tie in the Arm Swing.
An ole’ ball coach once told me, “Go as fast as you can, not as fast as you can’t.” Despite the always immediate response, “Yes, sir!”, it took me years to decipher what the hell he was actually trying to say; move with balance. Balance in respect to training is associated with control. We always want to train fast, but not to the point where an athlete completely loses control and awareness.
Have each athlete find a balance and control in the beginning and ending of each position. We encourage you to start with the athletic position, the lunge, and step ups, no matter the sport. Gradually add new movements to challenge the established default positions. These include different axis of rotation of the hips, changing body orientation or moving through different planes of motion. An athlete’s balance must be stressed to progress, and this can be accomplished by increasing speed, covering more distance or introducing unstable surfaces with caution.
All tasks specific to sport require are strongly influenced by motor coordination and precision of movement. Precision is the ability to execute a single task with the smallest degree of error or minimal unnecessary movement. Wasted foot steps and excess movement is a limiting factor.
Much of the footwork of sport-movements are taken for granted or overlooked in training. Time needs to be dedicated in training for an athlete to gain awareness, balance and coordination of what their feet are doing and where they are in space. This will increase an athlete’s coachability, and allow more time for a sport coach to dedicate to coaching sport-movements.
Quick Feet w/ Lateral Step
The Athletic Position is everything for a field sport athlete, and this movement challenges the integrity of this position through the frontal plane. The athlete begins quick feet in the athletic position, then steps a single foot out wide of position and quickly recover back to the AP. This drill can begin as a single leg focus and gradually build into a reaction drill once an athlete is competent. Most athletes are completely unaware of what their arms are doing while they are concentrating on their feet, so be sure to get the arms moving!
Elevated Jacks take spacial awareness to a new level. This movement challenges the athlete to rotate the hips along the Z-axis, much like a step up, and should be executed with minimal vertical displacement of the spine. Maintain the toes forward positioning, and see if there is an imbalance in coordination/awareness on the right and left sides of an athlete.
Lunge Jump Progressions
This is a great tool to develop courageous athletes, build a powerful first step, and even challenge the split jerk catch consistency. Begin by having the athletes simply perform split jumps through the sagittal plane. Once a strong catch is accomplished, challenge by minimizing the vertical displacement, and requiring a quicker landing. Once competent through the sagittal plane, challenge the athlete with rotation through the transverse plane and still requiring a switching of foot positions. Lunges are found in all aspects of sport, and this footwork drill prepares the athlete for mutliplane demands.
Pelè’s are a classic quick footwork drill that challenges the athlete through the sagittal plane and the Z-axis of rotation. Dorsiflexion is essential for the field sport athlete for hard cutting and change of direction. This simple drill is a stepping stone for developing the foot and knee position for lateral movement and hard change of direction drills.
Open Step Crossover Catch
This is a beginning footwork drill moving an athlete through all planes of motion and prepare an athlete for change of direction drills. The drill begins with the athlete facing forward and initiation with a lateral open step. Second, the athlete plants the open step, pulls with the lead leg and crosses the trail leg across the body. Lastly, once the trail leg plants, the athlete rotates their hips back to face the starting position and catches the movement in the ready athletic position.
As often stated in articles on the ankles, the foot needs to put the athlete in the most stable and advantageous position to dynamically display the required power necessary for the sport-movement or task. Including the above movements into warm ups or challenging in a fatigued state following training will help prepare an athlete for the countless of sport-movements that rely on perfect execution of footwork.
Footwork does not always require great strength or endurance, so do not impair it with useless work. Each movement above has a purpose, whether it’s challenging the athletic position or moving the hips on different axis of rotation. Forget the mindless footwork drills like the speed latter, and start holding athletes to a higher integrity for their hip, knee and foot positions while moving through space!
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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