10 Fundamentals for Proper Footwork

  • Author:
    By Tony Fryer,
  • Date:
    Jun 15, 2011

Proper footwork is the foundation of the game of basketball. Building a skill-set of solid footwork techniques can ensure the proper development of 12-year-old youth players and high school players.

Some footwork techniques included here are time-tested basic fundamentals. Others may be completely unfamiliar, but are widely used in other sports and are applicable to basketball.

Proper footwork can enhance any player's ability to play offense, defense, rebound or any other part of the game of basketball. This article is not meant to be the absolute authority on footwork, but hopefully it will serve to inspire both coaches and players to focus more on footwork. If there are terms and descriptions that are unfamiliar, please refer to the demonstration photos and videos at 1on1Basketball.net.

The following are 10 important aspects of footwork that I have used in coaching major college and pro players:

Ready Position

You can't score unless you make shots. A quick surefire way to improve your shot is to simply have your feet and hands ready to catch and shoot even before the ball is passed. To play defense properly, most coaches and players understand that you must start with a ready position that allows the defender to move in any direction, including jumping up to block a shot or standing still to take a charge. The basic ready positions for both offense and defense in basketball are essentially the same. This is the most basic and necessary athletic stance for success in most sports, including basketball.

Heels Up -- 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. When done correctly, it is actually the area of the foot directly behind and across all of the toes, which includes the ball of the foot, that will bear and support the weight of the body. Raising the heels off the floor automatically causes the legs to bend, making it easier and more natural to lower the body into a slight squat that provides balance, power and enhances propulsion. 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. Players will then find it easier to sprint, jump, slide, stop, pivot and hold their position.

Wide Base -- Maintain a wide stance with both feet about shoulder-width apart. A shoulder-width stance is sufficient enough to increase the ability to quickly move forward, backward, or shoot jump shots and free throws. To increase the ability to move laterally, separate the feet even more than shoulder-width. Establishing post position requires an extremely wide stance.

Jump-Steps

As a former 100-meter sprinter, I know the value and technique of the proverbial quick first step. Sprinters are trained to explode out of the blocks, pushing off with one leg while bringing the opposite knee up toward the chest. Sprinters emphasize not just the speed of the first step, but also how much ground is covered by the step.

To modify this technique for basketball, start from a low ready-position stance, practice jumping as far and fast as you can off one foot at a time, then land on the other foot while regaining and maintaining balance. This should generate movement towards your desired direction, not upward movement.

The best players can do this moving forward, laterally or even backwards. Develop the ability to do this off both feet. The best players in the game utilize this technique to move or change direction forward, backwards or laterally with explosive results.

Speed is a combination of physical strength and coordination. Quickness is that combination, plus the mental focus to anticipate and be prepared to move when and where you need to, in order to be successful. Both stem from jump steps. Examples of how this is utilized in actual game play include driving to the basket, moving into 1-2 step footwork on jumpshots, and the first step of defensive slides.

Sprinting

Most people assume that we all know how to run. No, we don't. Even world-class sprinters work constantly on their technique, and so should basketball players. After the initial jump-step mentioned above, learn to lift the opposite leg and the knee high up toward the chest, while also making sure to alternately and aggressively pump the arms.

The fastest sprinters in track often measure both the speed of their first two steps, as well as how far they go with each step. In a practical example, to truly run a fast break, it's important to actually run fast in a sprint. The benefit of maximizing the ability to reach and maintain top sprint speed in basketball games is evident on both offense and defense. Therefore, it makes sense for players to learn to sprint properly.

To really improve speed, get quality coaching. While speed and conditioning coaches are currently very popular, seeking help from an experienced local track coach could prove to be more effective and less expensive.

Two-Foot Jump Stop

Like the ready position, this is one of the most basic yet useful types of footwork. The jump stop is essentially a technique used to transition from moving (even quickly) in any direction, into stopping and reestablishing the ready position described above. To execute the jump stop, simply get both feet airborne, land with both feet touching the floor simultaneously and immediately drop into a ready position stance to help regain balance.

There is no need to jump up or jump high. In fact, the lower you remain to the ground the quicker you will be able to transition into whatever movement you choose to do next. The two-foot jump stop allows players to gain, reestablish and maintain balance in order to transition into the next movement needed to make a play. On defense, the jump stop can be used to establish defensive position to either take a charge or shift quickly into a defensive slide. On offense, both post and perimeter players use the jump stop to enhance their ability to catch a pass, (commonly referred to as coming to the ball) and create the option of establishing either foot as a pivot. In the modern game, the jump stop is used by many shooters instead of the traditional 1-2 step when shooting.

Tripod Lunge Step

When conducting coaching clinics, I find that this technique is really unfamiliar to many coaches, although as far as I know, it has been around for almost 60 years. The tripod lunge step is the absolute best way to learn or improve a player's ability to do an off-hand layup.

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. Obviously, this is the opposite for lefties. 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.

When approaching the basket to shoot a layup, take as long of a step as possible with the foot of the outside leg (the leg furthest away from the basket and closest to the sideline). Next reach out with both hands--also as far as possible--to grab the basketball. In this position, the player should have the outside leg and foot as one point of the tripod, and the two hands, also stretched out, make up the other two points of the tripod. It may be beneficial to have the ball sitting still just outside the block in a chair or being held still by someone when learning or practicing this technique.

Think of chair drills or especially the Mikan drill, only stretched out. It may prove helpful to research the "Mikan Drills" even if you think you know how to do all of them. From the tripod position, first pull the basketball into "the chin and protect position" with the elbows out. Next, with the opposite/inside leg, take a lunge step towards the top corner of the white square of the backboard and jump up off this leg towards the top corner of the white square on the backboard. The knee of the outside leg should now be lifted with as much upward thrust as possible to help increase the vertical leap off the floor. Finally the eyes, hands and fingers must remain projected and pointed at the target.

Many basketball coaches and players prefer to aim at the top corner of the backboard. Another very helpful technique is to keep the eyes and fingers on the target, the top corner of the backboard, as long as possible--even after landing on the floor and having momentum take the player away from the basket.

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Pivoting

The purpose of pivoting is to gain a positional advantage. Learning to pivot in the direction that gives the offensive player positional advantage is an acquired skill. A foot becomes a pivot foot because it is the last foot to touch the floor or the other foot leaves the floor first. Because the pivot foot can turn as long as it remains anchored to the floor, the player is now able to move the other foot without a causing a traveling violation.

Most players keep their entire foot on the floor when pivoting. Most coaches allow this and many teach it. Although commonly used, this not the best bio-mechanical way to place the foot on the floor. If the foot is flat, the player stands straight up instead of being low, balanced and powerful. Remember "heels up." The pivot foot should contact the floor only with the area of the foot directly behind and across all the toes.

A pivot should only be used to gain a positional or tactical advantage like maintaining balance, to get away from the opposing player or to protect the basketball. Once in the ready position following a two-foot jump stop, either foot may be used as the pivot foot. Virtually every basketball movement requires or can be enhanced with proper pivoting.

Plus Sign Pivots -- This is one of the best ways to learn proper pivoting. Find two lines on the court that form perfect 90-degree angles that look a like giant extended (+) plus sign. Place the left pivot foot on the floor at the center of where the lines cross. Then get the body into the ready stance with the heels up. Practice this while holding the basketball in a triple-threat or chin-and-protect position. Be mindful to keep both elbows up to protect not only the ball, but to also help keep defenders from bodying up and crowding the offensive player. Failure to keep the elbows high allows the defender to force the offensive player to step backward and lose balance. That allows the defender to get close enough to swipe the ball away.

Initially, practice just getting into the ready stance with a slightly wider base and establishing balance with the left foot (the pivot foot) on the center of the plus sign. Once comfortable, begin pivoting by moving the right foot and shoulder forward together until they reach the same horizontal line from where the pivot foot (left foot) is anchored.

The most important part of the movement is to keep the pivot foot on the floor while turning on the plus sign. If the foot is not still in the same exact spot when you touch the right foot to the horizontal line, the pivot was done incorrectly. After that, simply reverse the right shoulder and foot back to their original placement. Switch and pivot on the right foot as well to learn and strengthen both legs.

These two movements are commonly referred to as an outside or front pivot and the inside or reverse pivot. Practicing 25 to 50 inside and outside pivots not only teaches great skills development, but is also a great warm-up activity. Practice 100 or more on each foot and it becomes an excellent strength and conditioning activity. Practicing 300 or more can take a player's game to the next level.

Straight Line Pivots -- Learning and executing this pivot is the same as the horizontal + "plus pivot" except for two things. First, the use of the vertical line of the + sign on the floor instead of the horizontal line. Secondly it is also helpful to start holding the basketball under the chin with elbows up. Then position and sweep the ball up over the head or low near the ankles as this protects the basketball from defenders.

This move is highly effective in protecting the basketball when trapped by two defenders. A player utilizing a pivot foot and adding a pass fake becomes very difficult to contain in a trap. This helps players trapped at half court or in a full-court press. Post players and rebounders can also benefit from straight-line pivots and pass fakes to make outlet passes when trapped. Perimeter players use straight line pivots on the perimeter to jab step in attack moves to set up a shot or drive.

Jab Step

The jab step is basically a combination of a pivot and a fake jump-step. First establish a pivot foot. Keeping the heel up on the pivot foot allows a player to have balance, the ability to change the direction before dribbling, and the ability to push off with enough power to maximize quickness of the individual player.

The jab step is used to get defenders to move away or turn in an attempt to stop the offensive player. Players often jab to the left or right, but it is more effective sometimes to jab directly at the spot just outside and past the defender's foot. Experiment to see if the defender has a pattern of putting more effort in turning or moving back more when you jab at their front or back foot, or both equally.

Practice shooting as well as moves that attack both sides. If the defender steps back, the offensive player can return to the original position with momentary clearance in time to get off a good shot. If the defender turns to cut off the angle of the jab step, the offensive player goes opposite, often attacking the front foot of the defender to gain a positional advantage to drive past the defender.

It is very important to actually be trying to beat the defender by exploding into a first step. This move should be done only if you read the defender and realize that you have not created a positional advantage.

Crossover Step

Starting from a low-ready position, protecting the ball in a chin, low sweep or rip through, pivot in the direction you want to travel while simultaneously bringing the opposite shoulder, hip and foot across the body and in the same direction. To maximize the effect of this move, push off the pivot foot like a sprinter using a jump step and raising the opposite knee high to increase explosiveness. This move is highly effective without any fakes, especially if you can lull the defender into being still and flat-footed. It becomes a race, and the offensive player gets to say go. If playing against a quicker or active defender, use the jab step first to help set up your attack.

The crossover can also be used without the basketball to cut off the offensive player on defense and to gain box-out position as a rebounder. Combining the ready position, crossover, jump step and two-foot jump-stop is a highly effective and disruptive use of proper defensive footwork.

Drop Step

This move can be used to counter an aggressive defender over-playing one side of the offensive player--who is trying to recieve a pass or gain a positional advantage to drive or shoot when they already have the basketball. The drop step, like the crossover step, can also be utilized by rebounders to gain and maintain a positional advantage. The move is essentially a reverse pivot where the player uses their leg and hip to block and hold off the opposing player.

Commonly used on offense in back-to-the-basket post moves, it is equally effective by perimeter players who are being overplayed. First, make sure to use the two-foot jump stop to help ensure catching the basketball. As the catch is made, determine where the opposing player is coming from and prepare to land with a two-foot jump stop and immediately start a reverse pivot, leg sweep towards the basket utilizing the hip to both seal off and push the defender away.

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Inside Foot 1-2 Step

This is the most effective and fundamentally sound way to shoot a jump shot. Period. Many coaches still prefer the inside foot 1-2 step because when the shooter spots up and tends to be standing still, it is used to generate lift and rhythm for the shot. It also is a very effective way for the shooter to regain balance and control when on the run from the left, right or straight ahead.

When the shot is actually taken, proper shooting footwork is the same as the basic ready position except that the right foot is slightly ahead of the left foot to line-up the body towards the target (the basket). The shooter's feet should be in the ready position long before the ball is passed.

Statistically, most missed jump shots hit the front of the rim. Expert shooting coaches with training in behavioral science can predict that a shot will be missed as the shooter catches the basketball or as the player picks up the basketball off the dribble. This is easy because we can see that the shooter was not truly ready to shoot before catching/picking the ball up off the dribble. Also, this is an indicator that the shooter's mindset is only ready to take the shot, but not ready to make the shot. This concept is a topic for another article, but is pertinent here because preparing in advance of receiving the basketball to execute the inside foot 1-2 step can be an indicator of the shooter's focus to make the shot.

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. When the shooter's feet and shoulders are already facing straight ahead towards the basket, a right-handed player's footwork should go in the left--right order. This allows the player to brake, stop and gain balance and control utilizing the dominant leg. The left foot should touch the floor, heel first. The right foot should come forward and point towards the basket.

The two-foot jump stop has become popular with many coaches and players. It too can also be very useful when doing a step-back jump shot, moving very fast going left or needing to use a quick release shot. However, research has shown that when players learn the 1-2 step jump shot first, they actually will use the two-foot jump stop shot when pressured or rushed. What is intriguing is that this often occurs when the player has never practiced this technique because the player has already learned to control their momentum to stop and square up to the basket from using the 1-2 step jump-shot.

Finally, many players step or hop into a 1-2 step or jump-step after they catch the ball thinking that they are gaining the advantage of this footwork. Using either the 1-2 step or the jump stop, the player receiving the basketball should use this footwork as they catch the basketball. Said another way to make this concept even clearer, players should use this footwork, in order to catch the basketball.

In conclusion, striving to master these 10 footwork techniques in everyday practice and training workouts will enhance both basketball conditioning and is critical for proper skill development. Practicing pivoting is not easy; it's hard and sometimes monotonous work. Everyone wants to practice shooting or just go out and play games. However, learning, practicing and utilizing proper footwork can change a player's game for the better and separate them from the rest of the pack!

Most top coaches understand that the best players in the history of basketball, from George Mikan, Bill Russell and Oscar Robinson, to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, have all utilized proper footwork to gain an edge over opponents.  The next time you see highlights of these guys, watch and look for what you can learn from their footwork!

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