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As the Australian Diamonds prepare to defend their World Cup in Sydney this August, Diamonds strength and conditioning coach Leigh Smith explains what you can do to multiply your performance on the court.
A big issue in netball is that players try to run like track and field athletes – but on the track, athletes don’t need to stop or change direction. The cues used during acceleration for netball are very specific and very different to those used on the track. We always break it down so that the first three steps are as effective as possible. Those first three steps – whether it’s accelerating, decelerating or changing direction – are the most critical in netball. We coach players to start with either foot forward, as this has a big impact on their ability to change direction. We include this across all of our training and adding a competitive element wherever possible. Since doing this, we’ve seen a significant improvement in the effectiveness and efficiency with which the girls move around the court.
We look at two key areas:
Foot/Ankle stiffness – a stiff foot and ankle minimises the amount the heel drops when the balls of the feet hit the floor. This enables the foot to spring back more effectively – that is, faster and with more energy. Skipping is a great exercise for this. It can be done as part of a warm up, incorporated into a training session or for advanced athletes it can be a training session on its own.
Foot placement – this is the ability to place your foot exactly where it will be most effective, which is generally where it will best apply or absorb force. We coach the athletes to understand how their body will respond when they place their feet in different positions and how being in the most effective position will allow for maximal force production and movement efficiency.
Netball requires multiple repetitive short, sharp movements. Consequently, athletes will do a variety of plyometric, speed and power activities at different stages of the season. Sometimes the aim is to increase their overall athletic abilities, but particularly during a competition phase, the aim might be to simply maintain. This training includes Olympic lifts (cleans and snatches) in the gym, as well as different types of jumps, loaded jumps, hops, bounding and skipping exercises.
Plyometric-type exercises can be harmful if the athlete isn’t strong enough or doesn’t have the correct technique to handle the forces. The most important element in any jumping is making sure the knees stay aligned over the toes at all times both while jumping and landing. If the knees fall inwards at any stage, then the athletes need to go back and do the appropriate strength work before doing any more plyometric exercises. Mixing concentric-only jumps (squat, hold, then jump) with counter-movement jump (dip and jump quickly) is a good method to improve jumping ability, while drop jumps (stepping of a small step, e.g. 10-20cm high) then springing up as quickly and high as possible will help foot stiffness and reactive strength. Speed is the key!
Find a qualified strength and conditioning coach who can help with both movement mechanics (not just speed) and strength exercises – this will help build you into an athlete who is much more effective across all facets of your sport, plus you’ll also become much more resilient to injuries.
A big vertical jump will always help, but being in a better position than your opponent and being strong enough to hold it can make up for a lack of height. In proportion to bodyweight, the Diamonds are some of the strongest athletes I’ve ever worked with. A big focus of their training programs is core and trunk strength. Instead of doing this lying on their back (e.g. crunches, etc.), they complete various wrestling-type exercises using cables, weighted balls and bands, focussing on where their body is in its strongest position. This helps them connect a strong base of support with dynamic body movements. It pays off – if a shorter defender can legally prevent a taller shooter from staying close to the post, then the shooter will have a much harder time getting easy shots.
The risk of most injuries found in netball can be lessened by learning appropriate force absorption. Netball Australia is rolling out a mobile phone-based injury prevention app targeting this in the very near future.
Often, both players and coaches need to change the way they think – we no longer focus on soft “spongy” landings. Instead, the emphasis should be on landing with enough ankle, knee and hip bend to prevent any jarring, while activating the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves and foot muscles as quickly as possible.
Injuries, particularly bigger ones, tend to happen in a split second when forces placed on joints or muscles put them in bad positions. Consequently, we need to train our bodies to “switch on” and stabilise our joints quickly, before these forces are placed on them, e.g. having a stable knee as soon as our foot touches the floor on landing.
All players and staff wear compression tights during long haul flights, with many opting to wear them for shorter travel, too. The athletes also wear long compression pants for the majority of their on-court and strength training sessions as well.