Right now I’m in the thick of performance training with Sockeye and Riot, trying to help them recover from minor tweaks and get the most out of their workouts between now and Worlds. Between working with those club teams and creating track workouts for the YCC U16 girls, I have movement efficiency and power on the brain. One of the concepts I’m bringing to these teams (with the help of MC, who’s just as nuts about this stuff as I am… if not more) is staying in a low defensive stance and using your glutes as your powerhouse when cutting/changing directions.
Why do I think lower is better? Well, the lower your center of gravity, the less time you waste when you have to change directions or alter your course quickly. I’ve seen countless missed opportunities when the defender loses a step on her person because she’s up too high and has to drop her weight down before she can take a power step. We need to be able to put power into the ground (as MC calls it, PIG) from any foot position in order to be our quickest, and the lower we are, the less distance we have to travel before we can apply that power. It feels weird to try to get low if you’re not used to it, so I’m going to give you some guidance and a sample workout if you want to give it a try. The key to this stance is awesome glute activation – if you’re not driving with your glutes, you’re not as powerful or as injury-resistant as you could be.
Here’s a few cues for getting in a lower-than-you’re-used-to defensive stance:
- Hinge at the hips, not the knees. Getting low through a knee bend puts stress on your knees and ankles and minimizes your glute engagement. If you have problems hinging at the hips, you probably need to work on your hip mobility – try exercises like this and this.
- Keep your posture – don’t hunch. Leaning too far forward puts strain on your lower back, and rounding your shoulders forward/hunching decreases your core’s ability to fire strongly, making you slower. If you need to work on your posture, try exercises like this and this.
- If the stance is fatiguing, engage your core and/or take breaks. The best way to teach your body to move differently is to do short sets with full attention…as soon as you’re unable to maintain a great stance in whatever respect, stop. If you’re leaving your upper body behind when you change directions, work on some reactive core stuff to get your body moving as an integrated whole – it’s way less fatiguing!
Now that you’ve found a good stance, here are some cues for moving/changing direction:
- Pick up your feet and chop your knees. You don’t have to lift your knees up super high, but think about your glutes/hips being the fulcrum of the lever – if your knees stay stationary, you’re only working the glutes isometrically (in stillness), not concentrically and eccentrically (dynamically). Also, if you pick your foot up off the ground, you can put it down wherever you want, in the most advantageous position.
- Get off your toes. You should be on your toes only when you’re accelerating. Strike with your midfoot when you’re working agility/changing direction, and running (except when accelerating/decelerating). Your midfoot is the back of the ball of your foot – try to get keep your foot stiff, extending your heel towards the ground, but stay off it.
- Eat the ground on your lateral movements. It’s easy to think of the side shuffle as an easy transition, a break from more strenuous movements like crossovers or bail runs. But if you train to put power into the ground on your lateral movements, you’ve got the advantage and can make up steps on your person without committing your hips.
Here’s a track workout I’d like you to do, either with your team or just with a partner – I recommend going through the whole thing, and then timing yourself on the last couple sprint drills. If you’re not convinced that you’re faster with those choppy knees and low stance, time yourself from a higher stance and compare the times!
Line-to-line drills, emphasizing good posture and moving from your glutes. What I mean is any version movements like hamstring stretches, high knees, duck walks, etc. The types of exercises matter less than the focus with which you do them.
Optional: try this partner drill (thanks to a soccer coach for the idea): Make a small cone box and face your partner inside the box, both of you in a low stance. You can move around inside the box, but stay facing each other. The goal is to slap each other’s knees – the first person who gets ten knee slaps wins, but try to maintain good posture and hip hinge throughout.
Agility Drills with cones*:
Lay out a line of cones about the same width as the rungs of an agility ladder.
Low-stance footwork w/ 5 hard steps out, 2 X each exercise
- 2-in 2-out
- 1-in 2-out
- Ickey shuffles
- Ickey shuffles backwards
- Crossovers backwards
*I hate agility ladders. I’ve found they encourage people to stay on their toes in order to avoid snagging the ladder. I’d much rather use cones to let people work on their low stance, midfoot strikes and powerful steps. But to each their own!
Repeat the drills above with a partner giving you light band resistance around the hips.
- Mark out cones at 5 – 5 – 10 – 20 yards apart, pair up with someone who has similar athleticism.
- Partners face each other and side shuffle for 5, crossovers for 5, bail run for 10, sprint for 20.
- Repeat 4 X, staying low and chopping the knees.
- Same progression but shuttles (change direction between movements).
- Repeat 4 X, notice when you lose your posture or have trouble changing direction.
- Variations: Have someone standing behind you who drops their hands to tell you to come out of your bail run – if you’re not actually looking, you’ll be slower on the turn. Add a disc that goes up once you and your partner start your sprint.
Give the lower stance a shot and then give me your feedback! I’m having a lot of fun working with my athletes, trying new things, and I’m always learning and growing as a coach. There are literally hundreds of drills you can do to improve defensive movement – Tim Morrill’s latest article has a lot of great information and videos that work hand-in-hand with the info above. Look for me next at the World Championships in Lecco. I’ll be supporting my Seattle teams and presenting to the community on the 6th! :)