Among basketball players, ankle injuries are the most common type of injuries that lead to missed practice time and game action. So why don’t players put in any time or effort on training their feet and ankles to become strong and more mobile? Training your feet may seem like a remedial thing to do, but players are built from the ground up, and starting with a solid base underneath you can improve your performance and lessen the chance of getting injured.
Muscles fire at an optimum length. When the muscles around your foot and ankle are too tight it limits the range of motion in your ankle, which makes you less explosive and limits your performance on the court. If your joints can’t go through a full range of motion then you are severely limiting your overall athleticism on the basketball court, as well as setting yourself up for potential injuries. Think of your body as links in a chain. If there is a limit in motion at the ankle joint then there will be unneeded stress put on the next joints up the chain. Lack of ankle mobility can lead to knee, hip, and low back injuries. More often than not basketball players lack flexibility in their calf muscles, especially as the season progresses and the amount of practice and game time add up.
So what can you do to start improving the mobility and strength of your ankles and feet?
Step 1 – Flexibility & Mobility
Straight knee Calf Stretch (Gastrocnemius) – With your heel on the ground, toes and knee straight ahead, stand facing a wall and push your hips forward until you feel a stretch in the upper part of your calf muscle. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, repeat 4-5times for each leg.
Bent knee Calf Stretch (Soleus) – From the previous stretch, slide your foot a little closer to the wall while still keeping your heel on the ground, toes straight ahead. This time, slightly bend your knee while you push your hips forward until you feel a stretch in the lower part of your calf and Achilles tendon. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, repeat 4-5times for each leg.
Towel Stretches - Both of the above stretches can be done in a sitting position by using a towel to pull your foot towards your face, first with your knee straight, then knee bent.
Soft tissue work – Use foam rollers or lacrosse balls to roll out tightness and restrictions in you calf muscles and the soft tissue on the bottom of your foot. Work done with these tools is a form of self-massage that uses your own body weight to release tension and soreness from your muscles. You should focus on small areas at a time, while concentrating on the upper, middle, and lower parts of you calf muscles separately instead of rolling the whole lower leg at once. Roll each section until a tight/tender area is found and maintain pressure over that area for 20-30 seconds before moving to a new restricted area. Foam roll before exercise to increase blood flow and aid in warm-up and after exercise to help with recovery and flexibility gains.
Step 2 – Work on Your Balance
Proper balance and body positioning is key in any sport. If you can’t maintain an athletic posture by controlling your body’s center of gravity over your base of support, then you aren’t going to be able to move very efficiently. Sure there are many training tools out there to challenge your balance in different ways but balance training is something that can be worked on with very little equipment and can be done almost anywhere. Start by training your static balance and progress to more dynamic exercises. Static balance can start with single leg balance exercises. Start in a single leg position with your core tight and your knee slightly bent. The foot that is in the air should have the knee & toe up in front of the body and be at opposite knee height. Here is a simple progression:
- Shoes on, Eyes open
- Shoes on, Eyes closed
- Barefoot, Eyes open
- Barefoot, Eyes closed
- Add a basketball movement – perform dribble moves while balancing on one foot. Make passes to a wall or a partner
- Add other training tools such as BOSU balls, foam pads, bands, or balance discs.
- Make the balance more dynamic – add reaches, hops, and various bounds to challenge yourself.