Elite athletes often make explosive movements look easy. However, one weak link can derail even the most powerful athlete. For basketball players, ankles are often the weak link, being very prone to injury. For years, players and coaches have relied on ankle braces or tape to keep from rolling their ankles and preventing sprains—but those things won't improve ankle strength and mobility.
Here are some better ways to keep your ankles strong and healthy, allowing you to part ways with the bulky ankle braces and tape of years past.
Start With the Feet
Before we tackle ankle function, we have to effectively treat the base of support for the ankle, the foot. The foot provides a balanced and stable base for the ankle to move on. Instead of restraining your feet with shoes, braces and tape, try training barefoot to naturally build stability. You can perform low-impact exercises barefoot for balance and strength to improve stability and function.
To improve ankle mobility and flexibility, you have to loosen the fascia and muscles in the feet. Here's a good self-myofasical release for the foot and then the ankle:
- Roll the bottom of your foot around a tennis ball, golf ball or lacrosse ball, applying light pressure to release tension.
- Make sure to get all areas for comprehensive coverage.
- Afterward, apply the same procedure to your heels and calf muscles to improve blood flow and mobility.
- Do this for five minutes on your feet, heels and calves.
Develop Dorsiflexion and Plantar Flexion Mobility
The primary role of the ankle in any linear movement and almost all planting motions is to absorb the impact (dorsiflexion) of contact with the ground, then extend back off the ground explosively (plantar flexion) into a jump, sprint or cut. Both actions need a full range of motion to improve functionality. Dorsiflexion refers to the feet flexing upward toward the body, while plantar flexion refers to the foot flexing down or away from the body.
To improve both ranges of motion, try a unilateral stretch.
- Stand on one leg, bend forward and put your hands on the ground or a wall for balance.
- Push your knee down while keeping your foot flat to stretch your calf muscle and Achilles tendon.
- Extend up onto your toes to stretch the soleus and practice plantar flexion.
Develop Ankle Strength and Balance
We will focus on three key components of ankle strength and balance: developing strength in multiple planes with bands; improving strength and balance through unilateral training; and using game-like scenarios in training. Check out Dwyane Wade's PPT Band Ankle Exercise in the video player above.
Ankle Band Training Complex
This is a great ankle strength circuit that anyone can perform. Do it as a cool-down after practice, or as a warm-up with light resistance. It consists of three seated exercises to develop strength in four different movements of the ankle.
- Plantar Flexion – Wrap a band around the ball of your foot and pull back so that there is tension in the band but your foot can still move. Push your foot forward against the band, hold for one second, then return to starting position.
- Dorsiflexion – Wrap the band around the ball of your foot, then push against it with the other foot while pulling on the band to create tension. Pull your toes back toward you against the resistance in a dorsiflexed position, hold for one second, and release.
- Eversion/Inversion – Eversion and inversion refer to the side-to-side action or rolling motion of the foot at the ankle joint. Begin in the same position as the dorsiflexion exercise. Keep your foot facing straight and rotate it outward against the resistance, hold for one second, then return to starting position as slowly as possible.
Clock Toe Touches
These are great for improving ankle mobility and functional balance. Begin by balancing on one foot. Reach forward with your elevated foot and lightly touch the ground as far away as possible. Your foot should not rest on the ground at any point. Keep your stationary foot flat and your knee bent to allow for greater range of motion.
Return to the starting position, then repeat, moving your foot/leg slightly forward. Repeat this process on both legs, similar to your hands going around the clock.
Single-Leg Catching Drills
The final phase is to add a component of actual gameplay—shooting, passing and dribbling. The three exercises below describe simple, effective balance drills that mimic game situations.
Single-Leg Shooting Form Drill
Balance on one leg in triple threat position. Have a partner toss you a ball from a couple feet away, then catch and rise into a shooting position. Finish by shooting the ball back to your partner. The goal is to maintain your balance throughout the movement.
Single-Leg, Rapid-Fire Passing Drill
Have a partner throw you passes, slowly at first and away from your center of gravity but still catchable—for example at the knees or shoulders, slightly to the left or right side. Maintain your balance throughout. As you improve in the drill, have your partner increase the frequency of passes.
Single-Leg Dribble Pound
Balance on one leg and practice pounding the ball into the ground as hard as possible while maintaining balance. Then explosively cross over and continue the ball pounds with the other hand, all while maintaining balance.
RELATED: Injury-Proof Your Ankles
Ankle Strength and Balance Workout
Use the following workout as a practice warm-up or cool-down, or as a game warm-up with lower intensity. You should certainly use it in some capacity in any off-season training program. Perform the workout barefoot whenever possible
- Self Myofascial Release for the foot, heel, and ankle – 5 minutes
- Single-Leg Dorsiflexion and Plantar Flexion Drill – 2x8 each leg
- Ankle Band Complex – 2x15 each exercise, each leg
- Clock Toe Touches – 3x6 each leg
- Single-Leg Shooting – 3x30 seconds; improve number of completed reps each round
- Single-Leg Rapid Fire Passing Drill – 3x30 seconds; improve number of catches each round
- Single-Leg Dribble Pound – 1x30 seconds; maintain speed throughout drill
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