The problem with stutter steps 

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 8.15. Subscribe here.

I attended a college practice, and the team practiced closeouts. Fake Fundamentals explains my philosophy on the traditional closeout. This drill mixed short and long closeouts depending on one’s starting position, and the staff treated them the same. Players ran a few steps and stutter-stepped to close the distance to one arm’s length from the attacker. Because it was a  non-competitive shell drill, nobody gave up an open shot or was beaten on the drive. The closeouts worked! 

It looked somewhat like this (It wasn’t Duke):

Despite the lack of competition, and my unfamiliarity with the players, the best player stood out: She worked the hardest, was a good mover, and had good foot contacts. I do not know whether or not she had been taught previously, developed these habits in high school, or is a natural, but the staff did not emphasize movement and foot contacts during this practice. 

Most players stutter-stepped on their toes with their knees pushing ahead of their toes. How can a player change directions quickly from this position? Coaches use “on your toes” as a cue to prevent players from stutter-stepping on their heels, but neither is correct. The best player moved on the ball’s of her feet with her feet nearly flat (heels slightly lifted off the ground). She also bent more in her hips. One might say that she moved like an athlete. 

Most players ran for 1-2 steps and stutter-stepped for six or more steps; the best player ran for 2-3 steps and stutter-stepped for 2-4 steps. She moved faster and decelerated quicker than her teammates because she was balanced and positioned to produce more force (flexed hips, dorsiflexed ankle). The coaches praised her effort because she got to the desired position (one arm’s length away) quicker, but nobody explained the difference between her movements and her teammates. They did the same thing: Run and stutter step. Of course, this is the same as saying that Andre Roberson and Stephen Curry do the same thing — shoot the basketball — and praising Curry’s effort when he makes shots.  

The drill was a technique drill because there was no competition, and there was no perception-action coupling. The players followed directions. The offense passed from player to player, and defenders ran and stutter-stepped from spot to spot. The offense never moved; the defenders never had to read where to go. This is repetitive, block practice to train a technique, except little to no attention was paid to the technique. 

I teach differently. We did not do a drill like this for an entire season. I am concerned less with the technique than reading the play and deciding the appropriate strategy. Occasionally, as with the injured player above, we focus on technique to correct an error or train a skill (such as the hip turn); I worked extensively on changing directions with one player this season as it was her weakness coming back from an ACL injury: She needed confidence planting and pushing off her injured leg. 

We do not stutter step. Some do out of habit, but we do not teach, train or desire a stutter step because, as with the majority of these players, the stutter step positions them poorly. They move too slowly to contest the shot (because they spend more time decelerating than accelerating) and their foot contacts do not prepare them to change directions. 

We sprint and quick stop, hockey stop or fly by, depending on the offensive player. Against a driver, we quick stop with enough distance between our stop and the attacker’s first step to contain the drive. Against a shooter, we run to the body; if the shooter shoots as we approach, we contest with a fly by (right hand to right-handed shooter to prevent a foul); if the shooter does not shoot, we hockey stop and recover. The quick stop is used to stop; the hockey stop is used when the attacker attacks against our momentum, and we must change directions and recover. 

Does the quick stop leave us susceptible to a shot? Yes. Does the hockey stop or fly by leave us susceptible to the drive? Yes. We choose whether to contest the shot or take away the drive based on personnel. We do not allow the offensive player to choose. On a long closeout, only the extremely long and athletic have a chance to contest the shot without giving away a driving advantage. Fortunately, many attackers wait for the defense, which allows the defense to recover, and also for the traditional stutter-step closeouts to work. We do not train for the average or bad offenses and offensive players; if a defender stutter steps on a closeout against our shooters, they shoot, and last year, we had 8 or 9 players who shot over 33% from three-point range in games (good offenses were around 1.0 points per possession). 

I do not want stutter-step closeouts because I feel that they are ineffective against good offenses in most instances. However, if one teaches stutter-step closeouts, teach the stutter-step: Players should not have their knees ahead of their toes with their weight on their toes. This position allows them to move forward slightly faster, which makes them look better in the drill, but does not position themselves to stop quickly or change directions when the offensive player makes a move, which is supposedly the purpose of the traditional closeout.

Furthermore, I dislike the stutter step because players slow down over a greater distance than they accelerate. If I sprint for six feet, and stutter-step for nine feet, I am not covering that 15 feet of distance quickly. I would prefer to teach and train a faster way to stop and/or change directions, which is why I prefer a quick stop or a hockey stop. 

As an example, listen to players run a baseline-to-baseline sprint. Most decelerate around the free-throw line; they decelerate for one-fourth of their “sprint”. You can hear the change in their foot contacts. After teaching the hockey stop, listen to the same sprint. Players tend to decelerate 1-2 steps before the hockey stop; they run 1-2 more steps before decelerating. They run for an extra 6-10 feet. In the half-court, when closing out, one extra step, maybe 5 feet, likely differentiates a contested shot versus an open shot. 

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