Were you ever wondering how does the conditioning of NCAA basketball players look like and how it compares to typical preparation in Europe? Coach Willie Cruz was so kind to answer my questions to clarify this to you. For every basketball coach, this is a must read interview!
How many opportunities do you have to train with your players during the season?
The time i have with my guys varies depending on which stage of season we are in. Typically, during the season, i have 2-3 workouts a week and we follow a non-linear periodization, simply because our fixtures change a lot, and we can have 3 matches in one week and then just one match in another week, so the amount of training sessions also varies. During this period it's also pretty difficult to keep our strength, but it's possible, so we do our basic lifts mostly with 80% of 1RM to keep the load high.
From march to april, i usually have 4-5 training sessions with our guys and in summertime, i spend a lot of time with our players – around 8 hours a week. Usually we strength train 4 days a week and we also do speed and agility work 3 days a week.
We do one separate speed and agility days and then we'll implement 1-2 agility sessions into strength sessions, so we go to the gym first and then we do our agility drills.
But during the summertime, the sessions are unique, because coaches allow players to go back home to see their families, which is great, i actually think it's a great idea to get away, see their family, and get back refreshed. But our players also have an oppurtunity to stay in the campus and work with our staff on strength or skills.
However, when our guys leave, we ensure, that they have their own individualized programme to follow, and if they want to work with another strength coach, that's fine, but we just want to set some template for the guys to follow. They don't have to do the similar exercises that we're doing, we just want to be sure, that they're focusing on the same qualities.
Do you try to focus more on unilateral or bilateral work with basketball players?
I also played basketball on collegiate level and i played it my whole life, so i was fortunate enough to have different trainers, to learn different concepts and training methodologies. Each sport is different and i'm huge on being specific about what the game of basketball demands from our players on the court. So what we do in the gym has to translate to basketball court.
What good does it do for basketball player to be able to squat 400 pounds if he's not able to move efficiently on the court? So we want to ensure first, that our guys are basketball specific. That also means, that we do a lot of unilateral work and we don't back squat anymore. It may sound weird, but let me tell you a story:
In my first year on Fordham, we had 3 guys in our pre-season training with lower back issues. And as I was trying to figure out what's going on and mitigate the risk for potential injuries, I did a review of our work and we actually had a previous back issue last season and we find out, that our players were back squatting a lot back then with heavy loads.
(Just to let you guys know, I see a lot of similarities with the approach of Martin Iterský from the last interview)
And when i look back at our last two seasons, we were doing mostly single leg exercises but also lot of single arm work.
For strength coaches, there is so much ingrained information that you take for granted when you start such as – you have to back squat, you have to bench press and so on, but as this new generation of strength coaches emerges and tries to get into details of specific preparation, the approach to strength training also changes.
Do you use also typical aerobic work like long running or cycling to prepare your players?
Our style of play is very physically demanding, mostly in defense – we cover propably the most space on the halfcourt amongst all team in the country, because we play pressure defense so we just need great stamina of our guys. But from the aerobic standpoint, i don't do anything long distance with our guys – our players don't run anything longer than, let's say, 2,5 minutes. I'm a firm believer, and specially in off-season, when we try to build stamina, in ensuring, that they move the right way, so from the movement efficiency standpoint, it's all about teaching the right way of moving, more than it is about running and running and running. Their stamina also comes simply from the game of basketball when they play against each other, so they have to play as hard as possible, because that's gonna be part of their conditioning.
You can follow Willie on Instagram to see a lot of conditioning drills for basketball!
You can follow me as well - we are on similar level of awesomeness, i guess...
But we also do some „typical“ conditioning and in pre-season, we run mostly shuttle runs, it can be short shuttle runs, let's say for 20 seconds, but we also have a type of drill that can také as long as 100 seconds with some long rest. After that, we try to get more into basketball specific conditioning with short rest intervals and also shorter duration of effort.
Do you discuss nutrition and supplements with your players or do you have specialist in this area on your team?
In our country, the NSCA coach is not eligible to give direct prescription of nutritional strategies. With that being said, i still can give the guys some tips about what worked for me. I also have some ideas about what your body needs to build muscle supplement-wise our nutrition-wise from my own experience, so i can give them some advices.
If a new guy comes in from other team our country, how does your assesment look like?
So whether it's a new guy from overseas or whether it's a player from high school, we will try to look at his inneficiencies, so we put them thru the FMS screen and based on that, we can see some deficiencies that they have that we need to fix before they can actually start our strength programme. So the first few weeks for our newcomers is called as neuromuscular adaptation phase when we're trying to figure out asymetries. We also want to look at previous injuries, movement efficiency/technique and proprioceptive qualities.
What are the main things you are focusing on during agility or speed development training sessions?
For us, the main two things are progression and then variation. So once the technique is good, which is very important part, specially for change of directions (side to side, acceleration, decceleration...), then it's about variation. The improvement of running technique can také typically 2-4 weeks. After that, they can do for example some cone or ladder drill combined with shuffle to closeout and after they have to react to tennis ball drop. So it that drill you have speed, agility, and also reaction.
Do you incorporate plyometric exercises to your workouts throughout the year?
The game of basketball is mostly jumping, so for me it's important to do plyometrics year-round. The volume during season can be very low, but we still do them with very high intensity – so for example, we can do 3 sets of 1 maximal jump in season with focus on maximal height and technique.
How does the typical strength + agility session look like?
We as college strength coaches don't have a lot of time to do strength and agility sessions separately, so we just have to combine them sometimes. So our session lasts around 90 minutes, but we do myofascial release for 5-10 minutes, than dynamic warm-up and activation drills for 20 minutes, then we lift for about 45 minutes, and our agility work takes no more than 25 minutes. But right after that, there is typically some individual work (shooting, dribbling), so our players can spend 3 hours in the gym and on the court, so the recovery process afterward is also very important for us.