Basketball Quickness with the Boston Celtics

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By: Josh Staph

Walter Norton Jr., managing director and founding partner of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning, has a methodology for enhancing athleticism that is simple, tried and true. He teaches people how to move.

As strength and conditioning coach for the 16-time world champion Boston Celtics, Norton applies the same methods to improve quickness and movement with pro ballers as he does with his 13-year-old protégés and 60-year-old athletes.

In an environment where a single step can be the difference between blocking the lane and getting dunked on, Norton's approach has taken root and yielded tremendous results. Check out his 15 points on basketball movement, quickness and overall athleticism as he tells it like it is.

1. We believe every movement relating to quickness in sports is a variation of getting someone to lean one way and then going the other. In basketball, the best example is the crossover or inside-out dribble.

2. The size of the court prevents even the fastest man in the NBA from getting to full speed. Within three or four steps—especially for a guy with longer limbs—he has to decide to slow down or keep running in another direction. We have a young guy on the Celtics who is 6' 9", and he gets from the middle of the key to mid-court in three steps. As a big man trying to beat somebody down court, he has to decide within those three steps whether to accelerate as fast as he can or throttle down, pick a spot and get the man on his back.

3. A lot of young players and coaches are too concerned with how fast a player can move up and down the court. That shouldn't be the focus. If you don't beat your guy within the first two steps, you won't beat him at all. Give most athletes 10 yards and they will be fine. But in basketball, space is more confined, and people are getting in and out of your way. Allen Iverson is so impressive because he can stop and start while other people are still trying to stop. He's not the fastest guy in the NBA, but he creates space within a two-foot area, whereas another player might need five yards.

4. It is so important to have a point guard or 2-guard who can harass the ball with his quickness when it is being brought up the court—not so much to make the steal as to force the man bringing the ball up to turn several times in the process. Statistically, in the NBA, making a guy take six seconds of the 24-second clock to bring the ball up drops his team's odds of scoring by 25 percent. It's the same in high school and college, but at different ratios.

5. It is amazing how kids today are so poor at making guys miss. I think one reason is that kids don't play outside like they used to. Games like tag, touch football, kill the man with the ball or running bases are great ways to learn how to move with proper mechanics. Over the last ten years, we've seen a real regression in flexibility and movement awareness among athletes coming into our facilities, I think, because of a decline in these games.

6. Because basketball practices are so structured, players become great at ball handling with both hands, but they are like robots and lack elusiveness. Teaching kids new skills takes a long time, because they have been doing the same thing for so long with the same set of coaches.

7. I tell young basketball players to play as many other sports as possible so they can acquire new movements, have fun and compete in team sports. When kids play only one sport for a long time, they build up many imbalances by the time they are 15. You have to acquire new movement skills, because the minute your body stops learning, your ability to improve athletically greatly diminishes.

8. We have some high energy, high effort athletes who work almost too hard to do a certain amount of work. If they were more relaxed, didn't tighten up their bodies and understood how to move efficiently, they would be able to replicate the same movements 35 times as well instead of just 15 times.

9. We don't want kids to have to take 10 steps to get to full speed. We want them to accelerate as efficiently as possible and build up speed quickly within three steps. That way, they can stop and start again efficiently when somebody crosses them over and they have to recover.

10. Bio-mechanically, the body is made to move by pushing. You can generate a lot of power by pushing because of the way your glutes, hamstrings and quads are structured and work together. We want to push to move all the time, so we make sure people are not reaching out with a leg and then pulling themselves. In a sport like basketball, if you are not efficient when you move, it can lead to injury or getting beat by your man. If you reach to pull, it is a tremendous strain on the groin and an inefficient way to move.

11. To optimize efficiency, we want our athletes to have many strengths and few weaknesses. Suppose I have a fantastic leaper with little torso strength. He's only going to have access to about 80 percent of his jumping ability, because he can't transfer the power of his legs up into his hips. We have to address this problem and go back to a point where he is more efficient. I identify these weaknesses right away and address the athletic deficiency to improve movement and prevent injury.

12. Some really fast athletes do not understand the concept of changing direction or using their abilities to change speeds. This is something we focus on with our higher level athletes, who are explosive and quick but lack the ability to slow somebody down and then speed them up. They can either go all out or really slow, but they have a hard time throttling down and doing something under control, like getting a defender to rock back and forth or forcing the man who's bringing the ball up the court to change direction.

13. Some of the more gifted Celtics have been blessed with fantastically athletic machines; but they can't explain how to move properly, because they don't know why their bodies do what they do. Although they can get away with reaching, we have to re-teach them how to move more efficiently to prevent injury and maximize quickness. Just because they are great athletes doesn't mean they can skip any of the steps in learning how to move and why. The idea is to take a great athlete and make him even more athletic by teaching him our methodology.

14. With the high school kids, we try to develop great athletes. We try to build their strength and movement simultaneously by improving their eccentric and single-leg strength. We take body length into consideration, because they are at an age when a lot of growth occurs. We encounter a lot of long-femured basketball athletes who have yet to grow into their bodies and lack sufficient strength. We also see athletes with long torsos who lack good posture and core strength. Our methodology addresses all of these imbalances and teaches the kids to handle their bodyweight with strength.

15. One mistake coaches make is using a lot of neat drills that look good to show people how much they know. Unfortunately, this won't make anyone better. We build upon technical mastery. Once a player can replicate a drill with perfect form, we make it harder. We use the same basic premise and make it harder and harder until the athlete looks fantastic.

Pride is evident in Walter Norton's voice when he talks about the progress made this summer under his tutelage by Holy Cross sophomore Ashley McLaughlin. "Her work ethic was phenomenal, and as a result, she gets every possible thing out of her body and physical ability," Norton says. "The way her body looks and how well she changes direction have improved dramatically. When she goes back to school, this will carry over to increased confidence and aggressiveness on the court."

McLaughlin has already put her "carryover" on display. In a recent pickup game with all male athletes, including some professionals, McLaughlin held her own and even dominated parts of the game. Norton recalls her covering and matching up evenly with a player from Duke.

Raef Lefrentz, a 6'11" starting forward for the Celtics, approached Norton after the game and offered to nominate McLaughlin as outstanding player of the day. Norton says, "I left thinking to myself, 'I had no idea she could look that athletic on the court.'"

Job well done.



RULES: When an athlete gets tagged by It, he must stand in a frozen position. To be set free, another athlete must fully circle him or crawl through his legs.

RULES: As athletes are tagged by It, they hold hands and form a chain of increasing size.

RULES: One athlete lines up on the baseline while another lines up on the half-court line facing in the opposite direction or in push-up position. When a coach yells "go," the athlete on the baseline sprints to half court, eluding the other athlete so he doesn't get tagged.

BENEFITS: "These games help create an awareness and understanding of how your body moves and where it sits relative to other people. They train elusiveness at a basic level."


Line up four 18" hoops in a row so they touch each other

Stand with right foot in first hoop and left foot in second hoop with slight bend in knees

Push laterally with right leg to put left foot in third hoop. Lead with hip, leg and body, not with foot

Put right foot down in second hoop and lift left foot

Push with right leg to put left leg in fourth hoop

Hold position on left leg for one count and then repeat in the opposite direction, pushing with left leg

Perform continuously for three lengths of hoops (there and back), then rest

1-2 CUT
Identical to 1-2 stick, but quickly change direction instead of holding position before going in opposite direction.

Perform 1-2 Cut with partner holding band wrapped around your waist to provide resistance when you push away and assistance when you come back.

BENEFITS: "These drills train you to start and stop while maintaining balance and an athletic stance. They teach you to push to move rather than reach."


Stand in athletic stance with partner in front of you holding tennis ball at eye level

When partner releases ball, accelerate forward without any wasted steps

Try to catch ball before it bounces twice

Gradually increase distance at which partner stands

Stand in athletic stance with partner behind you holding tennis ball

When partner throws ball in front of you, accelerate forward without any wasted steps

Try to catch ball before it bounces twice

Gradually increase distance that partner throws ball

BENEFITS: "These drills teach an athlete to get to full speed more efficiently with fewer steps."

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock