by: Kelly Baggett
A: Well in my opinion the importance of the plantar flexors (calves) is not so much a matter of "strength" as it is having "good feet" or "bad feet". You hear this a lot amongst football scouts - So and so has "good feet" and so and so has "bad feet". What's meant by good feet and bad feet? It's really nothing more complicated then having good footwork and being light on the feet vs having bad footwork and being heavy on the feet. It's the ability to quickly and efficiently control the body while transferring forces from the hips through the feet and down into the ground. If you have bad feet it's like having flat tires on a car - You can generate as much force from the hips and thighs as you want but you ain't going anywhere in a hurry because what transfers those forces to the ground (the feet) aren't working right! In much the same way, many athletes have "broken feet" even though their feet ain't broken!
Strength "can" be a limiting factor for beginners but is not often the case for others. Everybody oughta be able to knock out a set of 15-20 single legged calf raises at a slow and controlled tempo, (or 30-50 at a faster tempo). Regardless of how strong you get though your ankles/calves/plantar flexors don't really drive your movements. What they are important for is absorbing forces allowing your quads and hips to drive your movements.
One thing you can do to prove this to yourself is try and jump from a standstill with completely straight legs. Regardless of how strong your calves are or how strong they get, you aren't gonna go very high! Along that same line, it's easy enough to pull up all kinds of studies that demonstrate the forces generated by the plantar flexors pale in comparison to those generated by the hips and thighs in sporting movements, but a couple of real life examples will probably work better, so here goes: If you watch little kids run around on the playground many move better on there feet then a lot of high school athletes despite being relatively much weaker.
It's mostly a matter of movement proficiency. Obviously, before you can increase the amplitude of force that you generate behind a movement pattern, you have to be able to perform the movement pattern effectively and proficiently to begin with. Having good feet is key to that. The more efficiently you move, the less effort you move with, and the more things you can do on your feet, the better off you are. For that reason I like to incorporate an assortment of various footwork drills for athletes. This can involve ladder drills, linear, lateral, and backwards agility drills, multidirectional drills, and an assortment of basic and advanced plyometric drills emphasizing proper position up on the balls of the feet with quick and efficient change of direction etc.
Here's an example of a very basic "dot" drill used for this purpose.
Developing "good feet" should be the very first step on the path towards athletic prowess. It's one that can be developed even in very young athletes. Some people do have advantages in this department and those advantages are often apparent from a very early age, but any healthy athlete can immensely improve this ability. Now, the problem is, many athletes of today have been deconditioned to the point where many, if not most, are way behind where they could or should be as far as simple movement efficiency. Not only do they have inferior movement mechanics and "heavy feet" to begin with, but instead of improving that capacity, they spend the majority of their time improving their ability to put out force (weight training and advanced plyometrics). Those methods surely work to improve their ability to develop force but since their movement efficiency is faulty, they aren't able to utilize the improvements they make in those areas. Thus, sometimes it's necessary to step back and really emphasize "good feet" even with mature athletes.