"He has a quick first step!"
You hear it all the time from coaches who've just watched their defense get burnt to a crisp. Having an unstoppable first step in your arsenal will make it really hard for defenders to guard you. But as valuable as a lightning-quick first step can be, few players have one. Through my experience, there are a few common issues that often prevent players from having a fast, aggressive first step. After fixing these issues and making some changes to your training, the ability to explode with your first step levels up. Let's break down each of these keys.
1. Clean-Up Pronation for a More Efficient First Step
When being ready to explode with that first step, a stable base is a must. To generate as much power as possible, you have to be able to push off the balls of your feet. Too often do I see a player making moves where one of their ankles gets pronated (falls inside). Along with the ankle, the knee will likely collapse inward, as well. This puts greater pressure on the knee ligaments and also leaves the player in an unstable, un-explosive position. As a player, you have to keep in mind that this position makes it extremely hard to push off that pronated foot to explode forward.
In the following graphic, note the difference between the "A" positions and the "B" positions:
The A positions see the foot planted in a stable position, minimizing injury risk and allowing the player to use his whole leg to push off the court. The B positions see the ankle fall inward, creating a less stable position where your weight is inefficiently distributed and your risk of injury is increased.
Adding drills with or without the ball where you focus first and foremost on the starting position and the way you push off is a good start to improve the efficiency of your first step.
2. React Fast
After you mastered the skill of executing an efficient first step without any outside distraction, it's time to add a reaction component to make the skill more game-specific.
Below are some examples I use with Aaron Jackson, former Euroleague champion and now current CBA player, of how you can incorporate reaction into the drills to make them more game-like. Besides reaction, you can also see the focus on a fast, efficient push-off:
In the second part of the video, you can see how Aaron's ankle turns inward. However, he was able to keep the knee lined up and prevent it from collapsing in. This is what allowed him to still execute a powerful push-off.
3. Create Separation with the Off Hand
After utilizing an efficient push-off with the correct timing, you'll likely have created some separation. One key to enhancing this separation is by using your off hand to protect the ball and ward off the defender. By off hand, I mean the hand you're not using to dribble the ball. When blowing by a defender, your off hand has two jobs:
- Protect the ball.
- Create momentum by pushing off the defender's body to get an extra 5-10 inches of separation.
For a young basketball player, working on simple tennis ball catches with the off hand while dribbling the ball with their other hand can be a good start for improving hand-eye coordination and understanding how to use the off hand. The next step is to add a defensive presence, passive or active, depending on the player's level of ball control. This will help a player understand how and when the off hand should be used. While tennis ball drills improve off-hand quickness and coordination, adding a defensive presence improves a real game skill.
This video shows the combination of a powerful push-off, a smart defensive read and reaction, and effective work by the off hand:
The key to improving your basketball game is to learn simple skills before training them in game-like situations. Follow these three keys and you'll soon find your first step is faster than ever.
Photo Credit: vm/iStock
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