The Science Behind It
The primary technical aspect of the first step is, rather obviously, explosiveness from a stand-still... or not.
Before I go further in my explanation, imagine this: you are holding a rubber band against a table, and you are attempting to hit the table with the highest force possible. If you hold one side on the table, and simply drop the other, will the rubber band ever develop much speed or force? No. If, however, you quickly stretch the rubber band higher up a couple inches, it will shoot down at a rapid pace. This is the essence of the Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC) of the human body.
As I discussed briefly in the defensive post from last week, there are two stages of muscular contraction during movement: eccentric (the lengthening) and concentric (the shortening; generally the explosion of a jump, stride, or first step). The rapid change from eccentric to concentric creates a strong elastic force in the muscle which, again, is known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle. This is precisely why a countermovement jump, where one drops their hips and then explodes up, will always develop more force than a non-countermovement jump, where the athlete does not utilize the eccentric contraction.
So, how does this relate to a first step? It's simple: if you can learn how to utilize the SSC on every first step, you will immediately add to your explosiveness from a "stand-still."
How to Stimulate the SSC
If you were teaching a younger basketball player how to quickly explode past their defender, you would never instruct them to first take a step back, would you? It's literally a step in the wrong direction; it will make you slower and give the defense more time to react. False.
The only way to activate the SSC, which biomechanically provides more force and thus a higher rate of acceleration, is to first load with an eccentric contraction, which can be created by taking either a "negative step," "scissor step," or skip, which can be lateral or linear and many times can also be used with a cross, as seen with Russell Westbrook below. *Note: also, on the catch, a split step assists you in collecting and maintaining balance, as shown at 0:50.*
The first thought for many may be to ask if it is truly worth it to take a step back, when the objective is to explode forward. And, although it is highly controversial, the answer is yes. First of all, the defender is not absolutely sure of a blow by when the offensive man's foot is moving backwards. Thus, they can not predict or cheat the technique, as seen to the right.
Lower Position = More Efficient First Step
Apart from the Stretch Shortening Cycle, there remain a few key technical points that athletes must perfect to maximize their explosiveness. And these all stem directly from the command, almost cliche, that most basketball players have heard redundantly their entire life: "be low."
How many athletes actually knew why they needed to remain low when attacking or exploding? In all likelihood, very few. But when you investigate it more thoroughly, one finds that there are two main benefits in attacking from a low position.
Firstly, when an offensive player is low, their strides automatically become longer and more controlled, without over-striding. When a player's shin-knee angle surpasses 90º, it becomes a deceleration position. And, taking a long first step will generally cause a player to do this... That is,
unless they are low. When low, a player is biomechanically more able to take longer strides without compensating explosiveness. And, longer strides, rather intuitively, mean that an offensive player is able to get past their defender more efficiently.
Secondly, when low, a player maximizes their first step by applying force at a more efficient angle. Remember, force is a vector; not only the amount, but direction/angle matters. When exploding out of an upright position, the body naturally wants to explode vertically, because that is the angle of the body. When low, the body is in a more horizontal position, thus able to expend more of the force in the horizontal plane, which is what truly matters in a first step.
Finally, when low, the entire muscular system of the lower body is engaged when exploding. Think about it: if you explode by hinging your hips and knees just slightly, not much of the major muscles in the lower body will be utilized. When low, every bit of explosive power will be expended.
Source: PJF Performance Instagram (@PJFPerformance)
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