by Alan Stein
A basketball player’s feet are important. Let me rephrase that. A basketball player’s feet are extremely important. There are approximately 26 bones and 20 muscles in the feet. That fact alone should shed some light on their significance.
Basketball is (supposed to be) played standing upright on two feet. Therefore, every movement a player makes on the court is initiated through their feet. Every shot, every rebound, and every pass. Everything starts with the feet. With that said, can you guess what the most common injury is for basketball players at every level?
Strong and mobile ankles and feet will lessen the occurrence of injury, decrease the time lost if an injury does occur, and will improve performance on the court.
As obvious as these statements sound, most players and coaches put very littler priority on training the feet properly. The goal of this article is to change that.
Before I go further, let me make it crystal clear that this is not a research project or case study. My stance on training the feet and my opposition to ankle braces (and tape) is purely my opinion. I am in no way trying to refute the advice of a qualified athletic trainer or podiatrist or any legit study that has been conducted. However, my opinion is based on 10+ years of hands on experience in the field, thousands of hours of observations, a firm understanding of the human body and efficient movement, and numerous conversations with colleagues.
Basketball shoes are designed to be rigid (with stiff soles) to create as much stability as possible. To further increase stability, many players also wear ankle braces or get their ankles taped. Here lies the problem. By creating so much stability, they drastically limit mobility. Severely limiting mobility will weaken the muscles of the ankles and feet. What happens to a person’s forearm muscle when their arm has been immobilized in a cast from a broken wrist? It atrophies (weakens). So do the muscles of the feet when they are confined to rigid shoes and ankle braces for long periods of time. Many youth basketball players wear high top shoes and ankle braces 20+ hours per week!
I am not opposed to wearing basketball shoes when you are playing. The stability and support is a necessity. But you don’t need to wear them when you are training. And ankle braces? Tape? With the exception of a player who suffered a previous ankle injury, or someone taking a direct recommendation from a qualified medical professional… ankle braces (and tape) are absolutely unnecessary when playing and when training.
Still not convinced? When you get a chance, flip on ESPN Classic and watch any NBA game from the 1970’s. In addition to shorts that look like boxer briefs, every single player wore low top Adidas sneakers. No braces. No tape. And guess what? No injuries!
What did players wear before Adidas? Chuck Taylors! Thin canvas with a flat rubber sole. Talk about no ankle support! Despite the archaic footwear, there was actually a lower rate of ankle and foot injuries in the 60’s and 70’s than there is today. You know why? Players back then had strong, mobile ankles and feet.
Ankle braces weaken ankles and limit mobility (not to mention natural movement). Given how important the feet and ankles are, why would you do something that makes them weaker and less mobile?
Every time you run or jump, you do what is called triple extension. That is extension at the ankles, knees, and hips. If any one of those joints is not working properly (weak or tight), it limits the function of the other two. So weak, tight ankles limit a player’s ability to run and jump to their potential. Having weak, tight ankles will also cause the body to compensate in a variety of ways during movement… which can lead to knee and back issues. Remember, everything starts with the feet.
The same thing happens when you land from a jump or during each step when you run. The impact is supposed to be dissipated through your ankles, knees, and hips. Well, if your ankles are immobile and can’t move through a normal range of motion… that force and that impact is now directed to the next closest link in the chain… the knee! Weak, immobile ankles cause additional stress on the knees when landing and running.
So how do you strengthen your ankles and feet? By setting them free and taking off your shoes!
When you work out in your bare feet (or with socks) you can feel all of the intrinsic muscles of your toes, feet, and ankles. At first, this will feel liberating (and probably awkward) because you rarely get to feel these muscles when wearing basketball shoes and ankle braces.
NOTE: I am only suggesting barefoot training for players with healthy feet and no pre-existing conditions (unless cleared by a doctor). Players with excessively high arches, previous stress fractures, or ankle sprains should avoid barefoot training (or at least make severe modifications) to reduce the chance of injury.
How much is the right amount of barefoot training? Once a player has been acclimated to some rudimentary barefoot exercises, they should do as many things barefoot as they can in the confines of a safe, controlled training environment. For most players, 5-15 minutes per workout is a good rule of thumb.
If a player has been wearing ankle braces regularly for an extended period of time, they need to gradually wean themselves off of them. They should not go from wearing them all the time to not at all. Their ankles and feet aren’t ready for that. They need to begin a progressive, structured ankle and foot strengthening program, while at the same time slowly decreasing their dependence on the braces.
What should they do in their bare feet? Many of the same things they do with shoes on! Squats, lunges, dynamic flexibility movements, and low level hops are all great to do shoeless. Pick a few exercises each workout and rotate them. Begin with the most basic exercises and have the player progress as they become acclimated and their feet become stronger. Make sure you perform barefoot exercises on an appropriate surface (cautious of impact, slipping, etc.).
One of your goal’s this pre-season needs to be to improve foot and ankle strength, mobility, and proprioception (the body’s perception of movement and special awareness). If you do that you will lay the foundation for a championship season!