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March Madness

This is a post I made last year during the tournament, but it still holds true to form, and I think it is worth re-visiting.

It’s Tourney Time.  My favorite sporting event of the year.  The drama is everywhere.  Each game, a 2 hour blitz, win or go home.  Hearts broken, tears shed, nets cut down.   But, unless you are looking closely, what you don’t see on the television screen is all the hours of work and preparation (physically and mentally) and all the other staff that is involved in the development of those 10 players on the floor.

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I have been fortunate enough to spend a few years with two competitive Div. I men’s basketball programs.  Two of my biggest mentors were the head basketball strength coaches and I was lucky enough to be involved on a regular basis.  (Shout out to coach Tim Beltz at the University of Pittsburgh.  Tim has been doing bball there for over a decade.  He is one of the smartest coaches I have ever met and he has that program rolling friction free.  I learned a tremendous amount from Coach Beltz and I owe a lot to him.

Working with high level basketball can be a thrilling experience, one that provided me many lessons in leadership, humility, patience, and most of all adaptability.  I want to take a few minutes and discuss some of the lessons I learned working with those athletes and coaches.  I also don’t want you to get the impression that these guys were handled with kids gloves.  They were pushed hard.  They trained hard.  They were held accountable to times/reps/schedules.  I just believe that, as a coach, we must be mindful of the obstacles we face, and we must be focused on putting our athletes in the best position to succeed.

Be Adaptable

That is my number one piece of advice, working with college basketball is a lesson in adaptability.  At times you have to scrap everything you know about programming and throw it out the window.  You are no longer working with novice athletes.  You are working with talented, physically mature, and hopefully hard working, young men.  You are working with big bodies, long and lengthy bodies that take a pounding from running up and down the court and all the landings.  Feet the size of swimming flippers and legs the size of bean poles trying to dissipate the forces of sprinting and landing.

The goal, as always, is injury prevention, and with competitive basketball the injuries are wide ranging.  From toes to ankles, to shins, knees, hips, backs, and shoulders.  Your guys will be in the training room more than any other sport.   Big bodies take a big pounding, a lot of physical stress is imposed on those bodies and you need to use everything in your toolbox to try to prepare those young men to handle, adapt, and recover from those physical stresses.

#1. Single leg squatting/lunging patterns are your friend

Most, and I stress the word most (not all) basketball players, just cannot perform bilateral squatting patterns well.  There is a certain body type that succeeds in high level basketball, and that body type is not made to handle heavy spinal loading safely.  The biggest physical attribute to pay attention to is the proportional lengths of the femur and the torso.  Many college basketball players have femurs from here to the moon, with high hip bones and a short torso.  It is an incredibly difficult task to get these athletes to do bilateral work safely.  It is not a matter of flexibility, it is a matter of anatomical structures.  This is one of those square peg/round hole problems.

manute-bol-dead-at-age-47Don’t try to hammer your athletes into a hole they don’t fit.  Be adaptable.  Load up your single leg work instead.  There can still be a lot of variety in single leg patterns.  Load them with dumbbells/barbells/kettlebells/sandbags.  Load them in the hands, on the back, goblet style up front.  Do Rear foot elevated patterns, multi-directional lunging patterns, step up/down patterns.

Additionally, machines can be your friend.  Athletes with long levers often struggle with free weight exercises.  When strength training is the goal, you can get plenty strong doing pin and plate loaded machine work.  Don’t be stubborn, be adaptable.

#2.  Some Flexibility Issues are Anatomical

I struggled with this one quite a bit when I was a young coach.  When you start working with an athlete, you want to correct everything, but the human body is not a machine where I can unscrew the back cover and rip out some wiring.  The reality is, we are all built differently.  Some flexibility issues just cannot be corrected because it’s not a matter of muscle, it’s a matter of bone and articular tissues.

I am not saying you shouldn’t be doing mobility/flexibility work with your athletes.  You most certainly should.  I am saying don’t beat your head against the wall when your freshman become seniors and they aren’t any more flexible.  They were just built that way.  One could also argue that the muscle stiffness they demonstrate is a useful attribute in sports.  One of the greatest paradoxes in sports training.  Stiffness that makes you more explosive but also makes you more susceptible to injury.

#3. Conditioning

You know my tune by now.  Work capacity is king.  The number on benefit of an organized training program for competitive athletes is an increase in the body’s ability to handle higher intensities and volumes of physical work.  Allowing for higher quality skill work during practice without fatigue.

Developing a high level of fitness is incredibly important in the game of basketball.  That is not the issue, the issue is, HOW you develop it.  Good luck taking your team in the off season and running 200 yard shuttles 4 days/week.  See how that goes 4 month later when the season starts and half your guys have stress fractures and shin splints.

This is one of those times where knowledge of your sport is absolutely vital.  Skill work should be of the highest priority, year round.  In the off season, your athletes SHOULD be playing 2-4 hours of organized, competitive basketball 4-5 days per week.   Do the math, that is a lot of volume, a lot of miles on the odometer.  A lot of landings/takeoffs/fouls/sprints.

Fitness work still must be a priority in the summer and pre-season; you must learn to be mindful of their basketball schedules.  You must also attend many of the pickup games so that you can monitor the intensity.  Low intensity game play will do nothing for us in the development of our skills or our fitness.   Get your guys on the court, on the turf, or in the weight room to do fitness work, just be mindful of the volume and error on the side of caution.  Because again, skill work on the court is the priority.  You will have a lot of broken bodies come October/November if you don’t execute this well.

 Hope this raises some discussion points for you.  This by no means a definitive guide, and isn’t even close to covering the complex nature of planning and executing a yearly program with competitive athletes.  Instead, these are just a few helpful lessons I learned in being associated with these programs.

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