As an athlete 20 years ago, I was taught never to false step because it’s wasted movement and will slow me down.
As a new coach 10 years ago, I taught athletes to never false step because it is wasted movement and will slow them down.
Today, I am writing an article about how beneficial, natural, and efficient the false step is for speed in sports and how it will undoubtedly make athletes faster.
So, what is all the fuss about the false step anyway?
What people refer to when they say a “false step” is a step, jab, or movement in the opposite direction of where an athlete wants to go. Many people still believe it is a wasted movement or a disadvantage to the athlete because of their lack of understanding of what actually happens during these false steps.Many people still believe it is a wasted movement or a disadvantage to the athlete because of their lack of understanding of what actually happens during a false step, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
And the name doesn’t help. False has a negative connotation. False, after all, is wrong.
I really like the term that Lee Taft coined with the intention of replacing the use of “false step” while describing an actual positive athletic movement: the plyo step. Plyo step sounds athletic. It sounds positive. It sounds efficient. False step, again, sounds like a mistake. But it’s not a mistake at all.
They are technically the same thing, but as we know, our words matter. So our terminology matters too. A plyo step reframes the idea of a false step into something that makes sense from a physics standpoint as well as from a pure communication standpoint.
A plyo step is a step, jab, or movement in the opposite direction of where an athlete wants to go that allows the athlete to reposition their body for the most efficient propulsion in that direction. Instead of it being a wasted movement or disadvantageous, it actually helps the athlete naturally find the better angles and kinematic postures needed to accelerate into their next movement.
Newton’s Laws of Motion
I don’t know about you, but when we learned about Newton’s Laws of Motion back in ninth grade, I was probably in the back of the classroom in full REM sleep. But these three simple principles are so foundational for everything we teach as performance coaches, it’s pretty ironic how much I refer back to them today.
Newton developed these principles in 1666, and they are still relevant to all movements today. They make it especially easy to grasp the concept of why and how a plyo step works and why we’ll never get rid of it, no matter how much we try to coach it out of athletes.
Newton’s First Law—Inertia: An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at a constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.
A great athletic example of this law is an athlete making a cut. Let’s say an athlete is running forward and wants to make a cut to the right. To do this, the athlete must plant their left foot in the ground to decelerate their forward motion and re-accelerate moving in a new direction.
Newton’s Second Law—Force: The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied.
In the example of a plyo step, the acceleration of an athlete is dependent on the amount of force they can apply and the direction in which it is applied. Force (N) in this case is equal to mass (kg) x acceleration (m/s).
Newton’s Third Law—Action & Reaction: Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first.
Now, the first two laws are obviously vital, but the third law is especially relevant to the topic of the plyo step because it’s a perfect depiction of exactly what is happening between the ground and the foot.
Video 1. When NASA launches a rocket, it relies on Newton’s third law. But you don’t hear anybody calling it a “false launch.”
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When NASA launches rockets into space, you see an explosion of flames, fuel, and energy coming out of the bottom of the space vehicle to propel it upward. You don’t hear astronauts calling it a false launch.
But for some reason, when an athlete puts their foot violently into the ground behind them to produce force for movement going forward, coaches lose their minds.For some reason, when an athlete puts their foot violently into the ground behind them to produce force for movement going forward, coaches lose their minds, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
If we want to move efficiently, we have to work within these laws of motion. And the plyo step perfectly combines all three of Newton’s Laws of Motion into one beautiful, athletic movement.
The Plyo Step in Sports
Okay, Justin, you think you’re so smart because you referenced Isaac Newton in an article…but how does this even make sense in the world of sport?
This is so simple that it’s actually a bit lazy on my part. I searched “Best NFL Routes” on YouTube and watched the top result. Here it is. Every single route begins with a “false step.” The receivers step back, or sometimes even hop back, to better position themselves to create power and explosiveness coming off the line.
If we try to coach that out of our athletes in the name of “getting rid of wasted movement,” we end up telegraphing the upcoming route, lose explosiveness, and ultimately cause the athlete to overthink a simple, natural movement—possibly resulting in decreased performance.
Here’s another great visual example of a notorious LeBron James chase-down block.
Notice LeBron on the bottom of the screen. He plants his right leg outside his frame to project himself to the left and then performs a crossover step to get into his sprint to complete the amazing play.
That “false step” wasn’t wasted movement. That was the exact movement he needed to do to perform the crossover step. The crossover step could not have happened without the plyo step.
The right foot striking outside his frame allowed him to reposition his left foot under his hips to create a better driving angle as he transitions into a sprint. Without making that subtle plyo step, he may have lost acceleration speed and been a split second too late on that block.
Let’s take a look at soccer and the masterful goalkeeper, Ederson, from Brazil. In this video, he utilizes just about every example of a plyo step possible. He goes from static to forward with a linear plyo step. He goes from static to lateral with a lateral plyo step. He goes from shuffles to change of direction, backpedaling to shuffling, sprinting to jumping. He begins all of these movements with a plyo step. It’s all there.
There is a reason the plyo step continues to occur in all these high levels of sport. It’s natural. It’s efficient. Coaching this out of our athletes is counterproductive.There is a reason the plyo step continues to occur in all these high levels of sport. It’s natural. It’s efficient. Coaching this out of our athletes is counterproductive, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
At this point, it’s hard for me personally to conceptualize any other footwork strategy in a lot of these scenario examples. After seeing these athletes perform the plyo step so well, it’s very tough to entertain other strategies, because they don’t even come close.
Cheetahs vs. Rhinos
While we can’t possibly put athletes into general categories and get it right every time, there are some basic distinctions that can help separate two very different types of movers.
You’ve got your cheetahs, and you’ve got your rhinos. Again, every athlete is unique, but these two categories are broad enough to create a little bit of separation in training and some semi-individualized programming.
Your cheetah athletes are elastic and reactive by nature. They are super springy and fast, and they store and release energy extremely well.
A cheetah athlete makes great use of the stretch-shortening cycle. They probably have a great RSI score, good top end speed times on a flying 10, and a near-perfect plyo step with little to no coaching.
The downside? They may lack mass or structural integrity. If you help a cheetah gain some strength and robustness, you can help them support all of their speed and twitchiness. This ultimately allows them to reduce their injury risk and also helps them by adding a little bit more force qualities to their velocity-first tendencies.
Your rhino athletes are still good athletes but in a different way than the cheetah. A rhino athlete is more muscle-driven than elastic.
A rhino athlete excels at exerting force and moves well in a force-dominant environment. They are often strong accelerators but may not have the top end speed of a cheetah.
Reactiveness and elasticity aren’t the strong suits here, but these athletes are robust and strong. When it comes to the plyo step, since it’s an elastic movement, the rhino may not look as fluid when attempting this step.
Training the rhino to improve their reactiveness and elasticity can help them better utilize all of their natural force-producing qualities and ultimately give them what they need to become a better athlete.
Note: You can most definitely come up with a testing procedure to differentiate a cheetah from a rhino with RSI, speed, power, and movement testing. But honestly, the good ol’ eye test may be all you need. If you watch an athlete play their sport for 10 minutes, you’ll be able to tell almost all of the time.
Plyo Step Drills
Both cheetahs and rhinos will plyo step naturally more times than not, but the way we approach the coaching and training of each athlete is slightly different due to the natural strengths and weaknesses of each athlete archetype.
In the weight room, I would approach each athlete with programming that fills the gaps in their athletic profile. For cheetahs, try to build some structure and mass without losing their natural elasticity. For rhinos, try to expose them to faster RFD demands and velocity-based movements to show them how to use their force-dominant movement more efficiently.
However, in a drill setting, I like it the other way around, at least to start. Since the cheetah is a little bit better at naturally using the plyo step, their variations below will add an additional element of reactiveness to the drill to meet the level of the athlete.
Having these athletes simply do a plyo step may not be enough of a challenge. Like having a rhino with a 350-pound 1RM bench press do sets of five with 135—it’s just not enough stimulus.
Same for the rhinos. Since these athletes aren’t quite as natural at the plyo step, we start them off with the more basic fundamental drill variations without the additional reactive demands. Then they can progress to more advanced drills as they get better at the technique and their strength training starts to trickle over into their SAQ movements.
Hip turns are a great way to transition from a retreat position to a catch-up position. For example, if a basketball player is in a defensive stance and gets a little out of position laterally, they will need to hip turn to reposition their feet to get into a movement—like a shuffle, lateral run, or sprint—that will help them catch up with the ball handler.
This is also a great movement strategy for getting from a bilateral or squared-up stance into a movement at an angle. Again, if a defender is square to the ball handler and they drive right, the hip turn is a great transition from that defensive stance into a lateral shuffle into the cutoff angle.
Below are two great drills, one for rhinos and another for cheetahs, to work on their hip turns.
Video 2. The hip turn to shuffle drill helps “rhinos” work on their hip turns.
Video 3. The decel to hip turn to shuffle drill helps “cheetahs” work on their hip turns.
A linear sprint is obviously a crucial game-speed skill to have for all athletes.
But how do we get into that sprint?
In sports, there are hardly ever static starts for sprints outside of track and field, so the use of a plyo step to initiate the sprint action will almost always be the best movement solution.In sports, there are hardly ever static starts for sprints outside of track and field, so the use of a plyo step to initiate the sprint action will almost always be the best movement solution. Click To Tweet
Whether it’s a backpedal to a sprint, lateral shuffle to a sprint, or a sport skill action like a crossover dribble, all of these movements require an athlete to produce force down into the ground to propel themselves in the opposite direction—a plyo step.
Below are two great drills for rhinos and cheetahs to get into a sprint from a plyo step.
Video 4. This bilateral stance to plyo step with target drill helps teach “rhinos” to get into a sprint from a plyo step. (Note that this athlete is on a return-to-play program, so speed is appropriate for his stage of recovery.)
Video 5. The reactive split stance reaction sprint drill teaches “cheetahs” to move from a plyo step to a sprint.
Sometimes we need to bridge the gap between purely lateral and linear movements. In the chaos of sports, we don’t get to pick and choose how to move; we just take the opportunities presented by the sport and react accordingly.
A plyo step into a lateral transitional movement is a great way to blend lateral and linear in training. Below are two great drills for rhinos and cheetahs to get exposure to these gray area movements.
Video 6. The lateral plyo step to sprint is a great drill for “rhinos” to blend lateral and linear movements.
Video 7. “Cheetahs” should use the continuous hip turn to reaction lateral sprint drill to hone their lateral to linear transition skills.
The drills featured here only scratch the surface of what you can do in training to continue crafting a great plyo step. Beyond that, there are two major things that have made a huge difference in training for our athletes.
The first is that we always try to use lines or visual feedback when working on our plyo steps or any type of repositioning of the feet. Lines are amazing for showing an athlete where their foot started, where it finished, and if needed, where it should have finished.
This is nothing new, though. A very similar technique comes from the weightlifting world when teaching the clean and catch position and how the feet should widen slightly on the catch compared to where they begin in the first pull.
We’ve used tape on courts and rubber surfaces, washable spray chalk on turf surfaces, and cones if tape or chalk isn’t available. Another great option, if time allows, is visual feedback on video. This really helps the athlete connect the dots, showing them what they actually did versus what they thought they did.
Another amazing coaching tool, if available, is objective quantification of these drills. The 1080 Sprint has been such a great tool for showing athletes immediate feedback on their force, speed, or power in connection with the video feedback of the rep. And we can store and compare them over time from a numbers standpoint and a technique standpoint.
Other ways to quantify things would be laser or manual timers, again, supported by the video of the rep so athletes can break down their actions and the results those actions got them. OnForm is a great app for coaches to really do all of this in one platform with slow-mo, built-in timers, and tools for displaying body angles.I’d say it’s safe to move on from calling these steps false and start teaching them as the correct way to move, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
We know that false steps aren’t false. They are a naturally occurring movement that, in many cases, is the proper strategy for an athlete to use. Supported by physics and years of athletes’ experiences, I’d say it’s safe to move on from calling these steps false and start teaching them as the correct way to move.
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