The great coach John Wooden once said, "It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen!" This is true in the game of football where a missed assignment or mental lapse can mean the difference between winning and losing. This is also true in the world of sports performance and injury prevention. It is sometimes the smallest of muscles or joints that can get a player to run that 4.3-second 40-yard-dash, or on the flipside, prevent them from playing at all. One of the NFL's most electric players to ever step on a football field, Deion Sanders, was forced to retire because of a toe injury.
Proper care and training of a player's ankles and toes will allow them to showcase improved speed, power and agility on the football field. Power movements start from the ground up and if a player lacks proper range of motion and strength in their feet and ankles the whole chain reaction of building power through the legs is thrown off.
This column will center on improving feet/ankle flexibility and strength with minimal equipment.
The first step in accomplishing this is to attend to the flexibility aspect. Proper range of motion in the ankle/toes will allow for a spring like effect to propel the athlete in various motions, as well as allow the player to adequately bend their knees and subsequently lower their hips and center of gravity. As the expression in football goes, the "low man" typically wins because of the leverage they gain against their opponent!
1)Figure 1 shows how to stretch the ankles/toes with the knee in a straighten position. Simply allow the heel to gently drop downward toward the floor while maintaining a knee straightened postion. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat three times. Don't put much weight onto the stretching leg.
2)Figure 2 is similar to the first stretch, but you now allow the knee to bend or flex while trying to maintain the heel migrating towards the floor. Once again, be sure not to put too much weight onto the stretched leg. This stretch helps create what we call in sports performance, "a positive ankle angle." This is critical for speed as well as generating explosion out of a proper four-point, three-point or two-point football stance.
3) Once proper range of motion is established, utilization of more of the ankle/foot muscles is now available! Figure 3 demonstrates how to strengthen these muscles. Stand on two feet (beginners) or one foot (advanced). Allow for the heel to move towards the ground while maintaining a relatively straight knee. Perform three sets of 10 intially. As this becomes easier, progress to single leg, and then finally to an advanced level by adding weight to the body (vest, dumbbells,etc).
4) It is also very important to train the muscles in the lower leg while the knee is in a bent postion. This is often an overlooked exercise when I train NFL players. In fact, many of them have seen dramatic improvements in their first-step quickness and power by performing the exercise in Figure 4. Much like the previous exercise, start with two legs at a time then, progress to one leg and eventually one leg with weight. To perform the exercise, start with your toes on the edge of the box and lower your heels downward while maintaining bent knees. As you bring your heels back upward continue to keep your knees bent. As the heel comes up, it should propel the body forward as well as upward. Your knees will eventually straighten at the end of the exercise.
Don't get me wrong, the big exercises like bench press and squats are important in football, but attention to the building blocks of proper motion and strength will only allow for improved performance on the football field!