The human foot is a masterfully designed piece of biological machinery. It’s job – to safely absorb and transfer the force generated when our bodies hit, and then press off, the ground. Lucky for us, it’s really, really good at this.
Unfortunately, do to some questionable decisions by our modern footwear companies (I’m looking at you, Nike), lots of our athletes, both young and old, are very bad at harnessing this natural biomechanical advantage.
Last year, a 12 year old female student of mine showed up with some new shoes. To say these things were clunky would be like saying water is wet. I could tell the second she started moving in them that this wasn’t going to work – not only did she look extremely slow and awkward, but I was genuinely worried we might not even make it through the lesson without her rolling her ankle over one of those ridiculously elevated soles.
So I told her to take off her shoes.
And her footwork immediately improved. Not just a little, either. The second she started playing barefoot (in socks, of course), I swear she was moving like Roger Federer. She was light on her feet, elegantly dancing her way out to the ball, striking it cleanly, and then taking precise, cushioned deceleration steps as she changed direction and recovered back to the center.
Proprioception and Foot Striking
If you saw this girl play in her 2 inch heels, you’d think she was naturally slow. A kinda tall, kinda awkward, unathletic 12 year old. But you’d have been wrong. This girl had awesome natural control over her feet, she just didn’t have the proprioception to use it while hopping around in her cushy cinder blocks.
When you insert two inches of cushioned rubber between your foot and the ground, your brain receives no information about how that foot is interacting with the ground during the strike. All of that force information gets lost in the sole of the shoe. And with it goes much of the natural springyness of the arch as well.
On the other hand, when you’re barefoot, your brain gets a very precise account of what happens during each strike, and it can adjust accordingly. Your brain won’t let you hurt yourself by banging your feet into the ground improperly. You’ll find that, within minutes of hopping around or jogging barefoot, your striking will naturally adjust to a forefoot or midfoot, shock absorbing technique.
The Forefoot Strike
The key to biomechanical efficiency with the foot is to leverage the forefoot strike (or for some people, a midfoot strike); strike the ground with the ball of your foot first. This allows your arch to act as both a shock absorber and a spring.
Your foot is designed for this. If you strike the way nature intended, your foot (and leg) architecture will naturally and painlessly absorb the force, and then transfer that force into springyness off the ground. The impact will be efficiently dissipated throughout your foot and leg muscles, and as a result your joints won’t hurt, and you’ll be faster.
Given our current footwear market and sedentary conditions, this striking may not come naturally to everyone. A few minutes of striking practice is a great way to warm up your feet before you play, both the muscles and your brain’s connection to them.
Changing Direction with Forefoot Strikes
Tennis requires a lot of lateral movement – running right, then quickly changing direction and running left. Even for this lateral movement, if you have enough time, forefoot strikes should be used to change direction. To accomplish this, rotate your hips back towards the direction you’d like to recover. This allows you to, from your feet’s perspective, run that way as if you were just running straight, and thus you’ll naturally strike the ground similar to if you’re running.
Mimicking running strikes wherever possible is ideal, because the foot isn’t nearly as adapted to lateral pivots as it is to running. Transposing lateral movement into front-to-back movement by first rotating the hips toward your destination is very helpful.
Lateral Foot Strikes
Lateral foot strikes are also fine, but they aren’t quite as natural for your foot. Your foot is best equipped for absorbing force that is parallel to the way your toes are pointing – usually you’re running forward and your toes are pointing forward. When you pivot on a foot – say, your foot is facing the net and you push off to the left – the force is orthogonal to your toes, and your foot’s anatomy doesn’t handle it nearly as well.
There are a few consequences of this. First, you want to minimize the number of these strikes you use as you recover; as soon as possible during the process, get your hips turned and start using regular, anatomically advantageous forefoot strikes pointing in the direction you’re moving. Second, don’t put too much force into any one lateral step. Again, your foot isn’t really designed for this orthogonal striking, so don’t overdo it.
Never stop all of your momentum with a single lateral forefoot strike. Your body probably won’t let you, but still, be aware of it. If you’re sprinting and need to stop on a dime, you’re going to have to heel strike (and probably slide, we’ll get to that later), because putting that much force into a forefoot strike when your foot isn’t parallel to the force will injure your ankle. But assuming you have enough time to take a few steps, but still want to take a lateral step or two, just be sure to use 3 or 4 small steps to decelerate, with each step slowing the body a little bit.
The Role of Heel Striking
What if I really really need to stop and recover? Then you’re going to have to heel strike.
Tennis is different from running in that sometimes it requires a heel strike for optimal performance. The best strike for stabilizing and absorbing the force of a sharp change of direction, often a slide, is a heel strike. Strike with the inside of the heel and allow the rest of the foot to come down after it.
When you have to heel strike, try to get the heel as far from your center of mass as possible. This will reduce the impact on the heel itself. Keep your base as wide and low as possible, and stick that foot out as far as your groin can support.
Just like with every other strike, the more of the impact your posterior chain absorbs, the less goes into your foot – and in this case, your heel. Since, on a heel strike, you don’t have your brilliantly designed arch cushioning the impact, utilizing the legs muscles is crucially important.
Not everyone should implement heel striking into their game. In order for heel striking to do anything other than hurt your feet, ankles, and knees, you need very strong legs and enough flexibility to get them wide enough to stay balanced while you heel strike. If your legs are too weak, or too inflexible, don’t heel strike. Just take the extra steps, and use many light forefoot strikes to recover. You need to heel strike far away from the center of your body in order for it to be safe and effective; that’s only possible with very strong legs, and a well engaged posterior chain.
Foot Striking and Quickness
Proper striking utilizes the arch’s natural force absorption ability to maximize your force off the ground after each foot strike. Start implementing it, and you’ll see an immediate boost of speed. Quickness around the court is primarily about three things:
- The athletic ready position
- Playing low and wide
- Proper foot striking
Of these, foot striking may be the most counter-intuitive at first, since modern footwear has destroyed many people’s natural inclination towards the forefoot strike. Still, it’s a worthy goal to recover it. Practice for a few minutes before each session, and you’ll start to see results on the court in no time.