Natural and Unnatural Movements in Basketball

In the video below, Kevin Cantwell says “it is very important to teach that the front foot moves first. Natural movement would be the back foot pushes the front foot forward. You cannot play defense like that because you will get beat. Alright, it’s not a natural movement so you’re working on that.”

I don’t know what’s on the rest of the video as I stopped it at that point. Why would you want to teach an unnatural movement?

A recent study by Montgomery et al. (in press) compared a coach-taught technique to the players’ intrinsic movement and found that the intrinsic or natural movement of the players was faster than the coach-taught technique in a basketball closeout.

One explanation is that the body tends to pick the optimal solution  to a movement problem (Schoellhorn, 2000). This is essentially what Cantwell means when he says that the rear-foot push-off is the natural movement: the body chooses the rear-foot push-off as the optimal solution.

This introduces two questions:

1. Is it better to teach an unnatural movement, as Cantwell suggests in the video?

2. If the body chooses the optimal solution, why are there so many movement issues, something that I have written about frequently on this site?

For the answer to number one, you are not going to convince me that teaching a front-foot movement is a better tactic. Yes, there is a chance that with a rear-foot push-off, the defender will get beaten. However, the same is true on a front-foot movement. Sometimes, the offense picks the perfect time for a move. However, the rear-foot push-off is a faster, more forceful, more natural movement.

More interesting is the second question. If the body picks the optimal solution, why are there so many movement issues?

I would argue that the movement issues often seen in basketball games result from one of four categories:

  1. Tightness
  2. Lack of strength
  3. Immature movement patterns
  4. Externally-taught movements

With basketball players, tight hips and tight calves are common. This tightness makes it difficult to maintain good posture, and this lack of posture contributes to poor movement. As an example, I see players who shoot free throws from an off-balanced position because they cannot bend and keep their feet flat on the ground.

Lack of strength and immature movement patterns can work together. One argument with regards to shooting is that players do not pick the proper shooting technique naturally. If you compare a child to an adult, that may be true. However, the technique may be the optimal solution for a child.

I trained a player once whose father was a good coach and adamant that his son would learn a technically perfect shot. The player was 10. His shot was instructional-DVD quality. However, his range extended to eight feet. He lacked the strength to shoot with a picture-perfect adult shooting technique from any distance.

Meanwhile, I trained a 9-year-old who shot from a much lower shooting position because he lacked the strength to shoot from distance with an adult technique. The father-coach questioned my work with this player, as he felt the child was developing a bad technique. However, at that age, he was a far better player because he could shoot with range. He hit a couple game-winning three-pointers, while the other player could barely get the ball to the basket from the free-throw line. The game-winning shots fueled his confidence.

Several years later, after he had matured some, the player with the lowered technique went to a basketball camp with a nationally-respected coach and won the “Best Shooting Technique” award. At 9, he adopted the optimal solution to the movement problem (making shots), and as he matured, he did not allow his immature (though optimal) shooting technique to prevent his improvement and development of a new optimal movement solution as he gained strength and coordination.

Most children do not worry about emulating Ray Allen; they just want to make some shots. They do not worry about whether their shot is technically correct. They shouldn’t. Most young children cannot shoot with adult technique.

To most, this is why these children need coaching. However, is it? Does coaching make them stronger?

When a player’s immature technique persists into adolescence and adulthood, he or she has a less than optimal movement technique. Does that mean the player’s body chose a less than optimal solution to the movement problem or does it mean that the player has failed to leave behind his once optimal technique in favor or a more optimal movement pattern?

Due to the competitive nature of the development system, it is often hard for a player to break from his or her immature movement technique and adopt a more optimal solution for his or her new, stronger body. Rather than adopt a new technique for a new, more coordinated body, players tweak and adjust and try to make slight refinements to their immature movement patterns, which creates a slower (often ineffective) learning process.

Instead, we might be better off viewing the two movements as completely different. A child shoots with an optimal movement pattern that is a child’s technique, and when he or she matures, he or she develops an adult shooting technique that is the optimal movement solution based on his or her strength, coordination, height, limb length, and more internal factors.

As for the externally-taught movements, I listened diligently to all of my coaches when I was young. I went to basketball camps and was taught exactly as Cantwell begins above. When I played games, I dutifully followed directions. My coaches told me that I was slow. I struggled to defend offensive players.

When I got to college, I stopped playing as I was taught. I moved naturally. My body chose its optimal solution to movement problems posed by players who were older, better, and more athletic than most of the players who I defended in adolescence. I went from a defensive liability to a pretty decent defensive player by ignoring everything that I was taught and relying on the optimal solution.

When I played in elementary and high school, I used an externally-taught movement pattern. In a sense, I was controlled by my coaches’ instructions. In college, my body chose its optimal solution to movement problems. If I needed to cross my feet, I crossed my feet; if I needed to push off my trail foot, I pushed off my trail foot. I was unencumbered with external instructions. There were no rules to violate, only movement problems to solve.

Edit: Another source of externally-taught movements is shoes (especially when coupled with long distance running). The padding in the heel of a running shoe teaches a heel-toe stride. When long-distance, slower efforts are emphasized with youth, as opposed to sprints, this heel-toe stride is learned and becomes engrained. Without the big cushion in the heel and/or the slower-paced emphasis, the natural movement is a forefoot ground contact. For speed purposes, a forefoot ground contact is desirable. This is another instance of an external cue (shoes) interrupting the body’s optimal solution to a movement problem and creating an undesirable movement pattern.

When I was young, every practice or physical-education class started with sub-maximal laps around a court or field: baseball, basketball, soccer, and flag football started with some sort of slow, jogging warm-up; 2-10 laps around the field. Rather than engage in activitives that would enhance the learning of an optimal movement solution for the sport, these activities and the shoe cushioning developed a heel-toe ground contact, as that is the optimal stride pattern for a jog, especially with a cushioned shoe. Rather than running barefoot (as my team does now during our conditioning workouts) or warming up with activities that required a forefoot ground contact (like sprints, skips, high knees, etc), we trained in slower movements. To correct this or to learn the proper feel for running technique, the best advice that I have received is to run up a hill or staircase. This environment teaches a forefoot ground contact, a slight forward lean, and front-side mechanics.

Tightness and externally-cued movements can alter movements and/or prevent the adoption of the optimal movement patterns. Lack of strength and immature movement patterns can obscure, interrupt, or prevent the adoption of the optimal solutions to movement problems. The goal from a movement perspective is to eliminate tightness and increase strength to allow for the athlete to rely on his or her body to choose its optimal solution.

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