Landing Mechanics (Deceleration) is a concept in performance that is overlooked by many coaches. The reason is not negligence so much as it is lack of understanding. In random dynamic sports as well as ballistic sports, deceleration typically occurs either just as much or more than the athlete accelerates during competition. Acceleration (burst) typically occurs because of a reaction to something on the field or court. After the athlete builds to or close to top speed he/or she is going to have to react by decelerating at one point either to cut, block a shot, dunk, make or brake a tackle, etc. That gives a 1/1 ratio of acceleration to deceleration which should put in perspective how important landing and stopping really are.
The body mechanics of proper landing not only prevent injury but enhance the general performance of the athlete. The majority of ligament injuries in the knee are due to decelerating by contacting the ground outside of the hip. The first thing to be stressed is the planting foot/feet must always contact directly under the hips, no matter the plane of movement. This disperses force throughout the body reducing shearing and compression stress on the knee and ankle joint. A cue for the hips and spine mechanics are “hips back, back flat.” The athlete must learn to flex the hips by rotating the pelvis backward causing a force collecting stretch of the hip extensor muscles. The elastic response of the muscles will increase the speed of the athlete when they initiate the concentric portion of the reaction (the acceleration phase). To demonstrate the cause of this “stretch shortening cycle” place your hand flat on a table or counter top. Elevate the index finger keeping the palm flat and strike the surface with as much force as possible. You will find that it is difficult to move very aggressively without your whole hand getting slightly involved. To demonstrate the elastic response pull back on the finger as far as it will go and let it snap back to the table. The finger should have increased its velocity significantly causing a louder sound on the table. The finger represents ones hips stretching out slightly and the hands pull on the finger is the combination of gravity pulling on the tendons. “Back flat” means that the athlete must have a neutral spine so that there is no interference with the force trying to leave the body. Think of the spine as a highway for energy. As an athlete puts force in the ground, that force is shot back through the athlete causing propulsion. The energy needs a straight trajectory through the spine or else it is slowed. Every unwanted curve in the spine is like an annoying detour ramp leading to a different spot in the body. The force will be absorbed in the location of the flexed vertebrae causing “wasted motion” in that area. The more an athlete can lock in their spine the more fluidly they can decelerate. The knees are slightly bent but no further than the toe to prevent instability. For beginning athletes it has been recommended that that weight be distributed through the entire foot, emphasizing force off the heel instead of the forefoot. The closer the heel is to ground contact, the more stable the hips are. Since younger athletes have instability in their core it is safer to practice loading the foot closer to the heel. For the more advanced athlete, methods include landing on ball of foot and sticking, or rocking slightly back to heel. It takes a lot more posterior strength to properly land on the forefoot (ball of foot) and it puts the athlete in more instable position. However, elasticity travels much quicker through tighter tendons and the calcaneal tendon (Achilles) is much tighter when on the forefoot than heel, so speed is the result of the risk.
There are many simple exercises that can be used to develop proper deceleration in all three planes. Drop squats are a great method of teaching quick hip flexion. Have an athlete stand up in an erect position and on the coaches cue the athlete aggressively drops into a quarter squat landing on either the heels or forefoot and holds with perfect balance. Speed is the stressor here due to the fact that deceleration must be just as forceful as acceleration so the weight is countered. After “hips back, back flat” is taught then progress to a counter jump into a second landing. The athlete drops quickly, but instead of pausing adds a very explosive vertical (lateral and broad may be used) jump to train the stretch shortening cycle hip extensors. The athlete must land a second time in the correct position. Exercises that involve unilateral deceleration like cutting have the same mechanics but are typically used in a lateral plane. Have the athlete work on the drop squat on one leg and eliminate any excessive knee drive or movement. Once the athlete is able to get the hips back on one leg and stabilize the knee then they can progress to a lateral leap. The athlete starts on one leg and pushes off the big toe of that leg to the opposite direction. The athlete must land with the other foot UNDER the hip, and sink the hips back similar to the starting position. When the athlete becomes proficient they may progress to quicker continuous jumps. Nobody is too good to practice braking for sport. It is a good way to increase the overall agility of an athlete as well as prevent injury.