By James Herrick
Every parent, coach and athlete involved in team sports realizes the importance of having speed. It gives players a distinct advantage over slower opponents.
Although it is not the easiest skill to improve, with persistence players can clearly get better over time. It takes a combination of technical skill training, improved strength and power, and a lower percentage of excess body mass to see noticeable changes.
There are literally thousands of videos, books, and drills out there today that proclaim they can help athletes build speed. But if you had to take just one idea that can make players faster in the shortest amount of time, the one I’d recommend developing first above all others is the ‘punch cut’.
For those of you who have studied what Lee Taft teaches on speed development, this is not a new concept. He uses the term ‘plyo step’ to describe essentially the same idea. And in fact, he is the person who taught me this technique. However, many of our athletes needed a better visual sense of what we wanted them to do, and the analogy of throwing a punch seemed to really tie everything together for them.
A punch cuts are the powerful step great athletes use to change direction with maximum quickness and efficiency. It helps offensive players in a wide variety of sports to get separation from defenders. On the other side, it is equally effective in helping defenders to stay with offensive players that have great cutting ability.
Performing this step properly requires almost the exact same elements that boxers use to throw good punches – it must be quick, powerful and accurate. Missing any of these three elements drastically reduces its effect.
How It’s Applied
To visualize how this works, let’s say a player is sprinting straight downfield and wants to make a sudden, sharp 40? cut to their left. In this case they’ll need to make their cut by pushing off with their right foot.
Why the right foot? Because a great cutting step must be directed in the exact opposite direction in which they want to go. If I want to make a 40? cut to my left, I’ll need to push off my right leg 40? out to the side. Where that step lands is the first critical piece of the puzzle, it should be in the exact opposite direction of where you want to go.
That cutting step also needs to direct a maximum amount of force into the ground. Think of Newton’s law of physics that states, ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. You are literally punching the ground with your foot. The harder the punch, the more explosive your critical next stride will be.
And finally, it needs to be quick. Firing a fast impulse of force into the ground (meaning getting back off the ground quickly) will maximize the elasticity of your legs, helping you to kind of spring out more. A slow push off that takes longer to come off the ground will dampen the spring-like effect your legs have and slow you down.
The Role of Hip Position & Rotation
In order to cut well in a reactionary and multi-directional setting, a couple other factors are critical to elite cutting ability.
Keeping your hips flexed slightly when cutting will help maintain body control much better than a fully extended position. Generally speaking, this is what coaches mean when they tell you to stay low, but it is important to note that staying low comes specifically from pushing the hips back slightly to maintain a sound athletic position.
To apply punch cuts in a multi-directional setting, developing great hip rotation is also essential. Finding the right push off angles, especially when changing direction closer to 180?, will require rotating your hips first so your foot can strike the ground in the right location.
Athletes can begin working on making their punch cuts more accurate, powerful and quick while they are running drills in practice, during games, or any other time they are actively involved in athletic activities. Playing low should become habit in everything you do. Footwork skills like carioca and crossover running will help improve rotation in the hips.
By first becoming aware of what feels right, and then consciously focusing on moving correctly in your practices and skill time, you will be rewarded with much more efficient cutting ability over time.