Coaches should pay close attention to an athlete’s footwork, particularly the first step they take when beginning to move. The adage “the quicker the start, the earlier the finish” certainly applies when a player is attempting to beat an opponent.

Athletes should aim to make the first step as “explosive” and as quick as possible, and this is helped by first being in a low and balanced stance.

One of the most common mistakes that players make is that their first step actually goes nowhere or moves them in the direction opposite to the one intended.

A simple way to identify whether or not a player is doing this is to have the players start by standing next to the baseline (or any line). On the coach’s command the players start running (i.e. when the coach says “go”). The coach should pay close attention to their footwork, and in particular must look at:

  • Which foot moves first (the coach may designate this if they wish);
  • In what direction that foot moves.

Surprisingly, the first step is often backwards (or straight up and down) and it is only the second step that moves forwards. Having the athletes next to the baseline makes it easier to identify the footwork.

Similarly, when athletes move sideways, the first step should be with the foot of the direction they are moving (i.e. if they are moving to their right, they should step with their right foot). Often though, the footwork is incorrect.

Less commonly, the player may even cross their feet when moving to the side (e.g. the first step with the left foot is so big that it goes past the right foot). Clearly, this is not moving as quickly as possible.

Whilst the effect of this may seem trivial, this type of movement makes it highly likely that a player will be beaten by an opponent that has the correct footwork – essentially, the player will always at least be one step behind.

This is illustrated in the following graphic:

The cause of stepping backwards (when moving forwards) is often the player’s stance. Particularly if they are standing with straight legs and need to move a leg so that they can push of it.

Most players will not realize that they are doing this – they are “unconsciously incompetent” and the first step to improving the footwork is for them to become aware of what they are doing. Once, this is done, they can start to move through the stages of learning until reaching “unconscious competence”.