Speed & Agility Training Zone!

Shuffle 3-Step Training Technique

By Nick Winkelman, EXOS

Part of the EXOS Speed, Agility & Acceleration Series

Within sport there are times when movement strategies need to be adopted to help an athlete track a play that hasn't fully developed, and doesn't require a committed movement (e.g., sprint) in one direction. There also are times when defensive tactics require an athlete to quickly mirror an opponent over short distances, such as when a point guard defends an opponent on the 3-point line. In both cases, a shuffle is often the best movement choice.

The shuffle allows an athlete to gain ground laterally and can be used to track a developing play. While the shuffle is never used for long, it's an important pattern that athletes can easily transition out of, such as when a base runner goes from shuffle to crossover to sprint.

Like cutting, there are common elements from a coaching perspective. In every instance of shuffling there's a need to stay low, maintain a wide base, and quickly apply forces in the right direction. Errors in any of these areas result in poor performance and greater likelihood of injury.

Since shuffling is limited by several factors, we'll focus on the technical attributes needed in most scenarios. Once athletes have mastered the technical aspects, they'll limit injury risk while improving the ability to navigate the chaos of sport.

Technical

The shuffling pattern is generally the same regardless of scenario. We'll assume the athlete is shuffling three to five yards to improve position in a developing play or while defending an opponent.

When analyzing shuffling technique, focus on three areas of the body: (1) the trunk alignment and height; (2) the outside "cutting" or "push" leg; and (3) the inside stabilizing or "collection" leg. While the three areas are interdependent, there can be errors unique to each. These are the same three technical attributes associated with cutting, as shuffling is an identical movement repeated over a short distance.

During the initiation of a shuffle, the athlete must rapidly decelerate, which requires a lowering of the body through flexion at the hip, knee, and ankle. The feet will be shoulder-width apart. This is best observed by focusing on trunk alignment and height. We should see the trunk remain neutral from head to hip, with the center of the trunk (bellybutton) staying low to the ground throughout the shuffle. The trunk should approach a parallel position with the ground, as if the athlete was preparing to field a baseball. This position is referred to as the athletic base position, as it's the most stable position from which an athlete can shuffle and cut from. Note that faster shuffling requires a lower body position relative to a slower shuffle that might be used to track a developing play.

The outside "cutting" or "push" leg plays a key role. The athlete should load through the inside edge of the foot (or shoe), attacking the ground at roughly a 45-degree angle (depending on speed). The outside leg should load with the hip inside of the knee and the knee inside of the ankle, creating alignment from hip to heel. This is important because without proper alignment, the athlete is at risk for injuries of the ankle, hip, and especially the knee. Finally, the hip, knee, and ankle should rapidly extend, pushing the ground away, before returning back to a shoulder-width position and repeating the motion.

The inside "stabilizing" or "collection" leg should stay under the lead shoulder (shoulder opposite of the "push" leg). As the outside leg pushes, the inside leg should barely lift off the ground, which allows the athlete to cover ground in the desired direction without the base becoming too narrow (i.e., feet coming together). As the outside leg pushes, it's normal to see the inside leg travel outside of the shoulder as if to collect the ground. This is done to help the athlete stabilize and decelerate as the outside leg resets in preparation for the next push. Note that we don't want to see the inside leg move so far outside of the shoulder that the athlete is compelled to pull instead of push. This is not only inefficient, but can also lead to groin ailments.

It's typical to see the inside leg and foot rotated so that the foot points in the direction the athlete is shuffling. This position is controversial as some believe it increases risk of injury, perpetuates a pulling action, and places the foot/ankle in a compromised position should the athlete need to cut in the opposite direction. While this makes sense, there needs to be room for natural movement tendencies. Most athletes will open the inside leg slightly, as this is a more natural position for an athlete to collect the ground, stabilize, and decelerate as the outside leg resets. This position functions as a guide to keep the athlete on a straight line during the shuffle. While we don't coach this specific pattern, we also don't instruct the athlete to avoid this position entirely. However, if the athlete excessively rotates, and starts to reach and pull, then strategies need to be adopted to correct this error.

Errors

While there are many errors that can emerge when we talk about shuffling, we'll highlight and prioritize the dominant four.

1. Trunk alignment
The trunk is the foundation from which the legs push and pull. Any breaks in trunk position result in energy leaks. The most common errors are trunk flexion and/or rotation instead of a neutral position from head to hips. This can be due to general weakness or a compensation for a lack of hip flexion. The body will sacrifice a neutral spine in an effort to lower the center of mass in the event that the hips lack the mobility to do so.


2. Trunk height (center of mass)
The inability to maintain a low center of mass by way of a stable/wide base and effective flexion of the hip, knee, and ankle results in the trunk leaning toward the "push" leg, which threatens the alignment of the hip, knee, and ankle. Lateral trunk flexion in the direction of the "push" leg is associated with excessive valgus forces at the knee. So the primary error is associated with poor timing and/or a lack of flexion in the hip, knee, and ankle. This error is more likely to occur if the athletic base is too wide (i.e., outside of shoulders) or too narrow (i.e., inside of hips), which affects the stability needed to push the ground away.

3. Outside "cutting" or "push" leg
The error here is poor alignment of the hip, knee, and ankle. The knee collapses inward or the ankle rolls into supination during the pushing phase of the shuffle. This error is perpetuated by a narrow base, high center of mass, and lateral trunk flexion as noted above.

4. Inside "stabilizing" or "collection" leg
We see the inside leg either too inside (i.e., under the hip instead of the shoulders) or too far outside (i.e., well outside of the shoulders). If too inside, it perpetuates a narrow base, which increases the height of the center of mass and changes the pushing angle (i.e., greater than a 45-degree angle through hip, knee, and ankle) needed to shuffle effectively. If the leg is too far outside, then not enough weight is shifted to the "push" (outside) leg. Plus, if the leg is too far outside, then the athlete is more likely to pull himself through the shuffle.

Correction

Here we look at corrective coaching cues for each of the errors. While we emphasize coaching cues, it helps to consider the physical qualities (mobility, stability, and strength) that could potentially correct the error.

1. Trunk alignment

a. "Stretch the front of your T-shirt."
b. "Show the numbers on your jersey."
c. "Stay long from head to hip."

2. Trunk height (center of mass) 

a. "Keep a wide base and stay low."
b. "Push outward as if to split the earth/ground."
c. "Shuffle as if there is a low roof above your head."

3. Outside "cutting" or "push" leg

a. "Push, snap, or punch the ground away."
b. "Push the ground like there's a cheetah about to bite your laces."
c. "Push toward…(insert object in the direction of the shuffle)." (i.e., "Push toward the cone/fence.")

4. Inside "stabilizing" or "collection" leg

a. "Keep inside leg just under your shoulder like the suspension on a car."
b. "Pick up (the inside leg) with the push (of the outside leg)."
c. "Collect (the ground) and catch (the body)."

Summary

Whether you use the cues provided above or you come up with cues of your own, use the TEC model to help identify, prioritize, and correct the most dominant errors observed. Once your athlete starts to master the shuffle, then you should build in reaction (i.e., mirroring an opponent) and complex movement sequences (i.e., shuffle to crossover to sprint and close).

In the next article in this series, we'll discuss the crossover.

(February 2016)