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The Speed Ladder Can Be a Valuable Tool if Used Correctly

What if I didn’t have a thorough understanding of a hammer, its purpose, and how it should be used? Would I view it as a valuable tool in my toolbox?...Probably not. After all, it doesn’t cut wood, measure anything, nor help me sink a screw into a piece of drywall. And while I am correct with all of those things in which a hammer cannot do, my lack of understanding doesn’t provide me with an appreciation for what it can do, its role and its purpose.

Over the past five or so years, I’ve seen countless posts by “experts” on social media bashing the speed ladder and making comments such as “it doesn’t make you faster,” “it’s a waste of time,” “it doesn’t translate to the field,” and the like. And while everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, it’s clear that some opinions may be the result of not having a thorough understanding of this tool, its purpose, its role, and how it should be used.

If you’re teaching me how to play tennis, what is the very first thing you are going to do?...You would teach me how to hold a racquet (teaching me how my hand should interact with the racquet). The purpose of the speed ladder is to teach how the foot should interact with the ground – a concept often overlooked and overshadowed by athletes speeding through a ladder while performing an Ickey shuffle. In this instance, the ladder is being used incorrectly, with quantity being placed before quality. What if I told you that I hit 200 forehands every day…one might celebrate my dedication to hard work? But, what if only 1 of those 200 forehands landed inside the court? Using this logic, one could say that practicing forehands is a waste of time, and that they don’t translate to the game of tennis, and they don’t help you become a better tennis player.

So how should the ladder be used? Every exercise that an athlete performs while using the ladder should be performed by striking the ground on the ball of the foot – this isn’t “running on the toes” nor flat-footed. If you’re performing these drills on a court or hard floor, you will hear a “pop” rather than a “scuff” when the foot makes contact with the ground.

Engaging the ground with the ball of the foot does a few things…

  1. Generates better ground reaction forces.

  2. Reinforces “toe up” (dorsiflexion) cueing.

  3. Helps to teach concept of forward lean.

  4. Provides foundational mechanics for linear, lateral, and multi-directional speed development.

  5. Prevents “breaking” and reinforces “front-side” mechanics or “knee-up” cueing.

Once the athlete demonstrates proficiency with striking the ground on the ball of the foot, then other exercises (linear and lateral) can be prescribed, and the speed at which these exercises are performed can be increased. With the change in prescription, the goal is still to show proficiency at higher speeds and with more complex patterns.

Developing this prerequisite to all speed and movement work is paramount to setting yourself up for future success.

More to come...

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