Interview with Josh Bonhotal - Purdue University - Part 1

Josh Bonhotal is a Strength and Conditioning Coach who specializes in basketball specific conditioning. Currently, he is working for Purdue University, whose men's basketball team ranks very high in preseason (as no. 9 in NCAA, according to Blue Ribbon Yearbook). In the first part of our interview, Josh will be talking about offseason and preseason training, endurance training, or the effect of a coach on the attitude of players. Lot of space is also devoted to speed work. Enjoy! 

Josh, thank you for making time for this interview, I really appreciate it. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Currently, I am entering my 6th year as the Director of Sports Performance for both Men’s Basketball and Diving at Purdue University.  Prior to arriving at Purdue, I spent 4 seasons with the Chicago Bulls where I was the Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach.

 Could you please tell us how long is the offseason and preseason for your team and on which aspects do you focus most in different stages of preparation?

A typical offseason for us in basketball is 8-12 weeks followed by a 2-week break where our players are allowed to go home. Once they return, we will have an additional 6 week preseason prior to our first official practice. 

The focus throughout different stages of preparation is very much specific to the individual and their relevant needs as identified both from the evaluation and anything observed during training itself, which I believe is very much an ongoing evaluation. That being said, with our newcomers, the initial stages of the offseason will typically be directed towards addressing lifestyle habits (time management, nutrition, sleep, developing a routine of training, etc.), movement competency and general physical preparation (work capacity - training to train).  Progression to basic strength work and beyond will once again depend on the individual, where they are and how they respond to training. 

For our returning players who have developed a solid foundation of training, we are able to target more specific strength and/or power work much earlier as we often only need to touch general prep work for the first 1-2 weeks. 

Physical preparation for basketball

Our offseason training is ultimately centered around speed development as I believe this to be the key factor towards improving the performance and overall efficiency of our athletes.  We sprint, a lot!!!  If you want to be fast, you have to move fast!  At this point, it should be no surprise that once again the nature of our speed work is dependent upon the individual. 

Ultimately, our speed training is designed to complement the training taking place in the weight room.  This means for an athlete who’s primary emphasis is GPP (General Physical Preparation), much of their speed work will focus on technical mechanics and initial acceleration (0-5m; 0-10m).  As they progress into more dedicated strength work, sprint distances will also begin to increase out to 20m and eventually when they transition to power/speed work in the weight room we will begin to lengthen their speed out to 30m.  

It should also be noted that any of our athletes with excess body fat will condition in lieu of dedicated speed work. My rationale being if they are fat, speed work is not yet relevant as they must first lose the non-functional weight they are carrying. Any athlete who falls in this category, will still be working technical mechanics within warmups, building acceleration technique through hill work, as well as developing stride mechanics within tempo runs.  Simply losing the excess weight and increasing general fitness qualities, their speed will almost certainly increase.

It is my firm belief the offseason is best utilized to develop absolute capacities (movement, strength, power, speed – with the specific emphasis dependent upon the individual), while the preseason is where we begin to attack the repeatability of these qualities as it relates to on-court performance. In particular, this means the emphasis during preseason will shift towards a decreased frequency of lifting sessions with increased frequency of conditioning sessions. Conditioning will now go from general to specific as we begin to incorporate more change of direction and basketball specific movement patterns. 

Similarly, the intensity of our conditioning sessions will increase. All the while, we will still keep a trace of speed development with the first day of the week being reserved for this type of work. The volume of speed work will be less, but I believe it is important to continue touching some higher velocity efforts.  With our advanced guys we may begin to emphasise more of a high speed change of direction element such as a 5-0-5, angular type sprints along the arc and other more specific type cuts.  Younger guys may continue to simply focus on 10- and 20m sprints at this time.  Regardless of the type of sprint we will always use electronic timing gates (SWIFT Speedlight) which provides us instant feedback, enabling more precise adjustments to the plan on the given day.

That was quite a loaded question but I hope that provides a solid overview of our approach.

How much value do you think the endurance training has for basketball players?

I think the key element here is, how are we defining endurance training?  Too often, I see coaches overemphasizing conditioning during the offseason and never really developing absolute capacities of strength, power and speed. In particular, a common mistake is to attack repeat sprint ability when you have never truly developed speed and thus sprint ability itself.  Without first targeting absolute speed we are, at best, improving their ability to repeat slow (relative to the individual) efforts.

In contrast, if we are able increase max speed the athlete will become more efficient as they now possess an increased speed reserve. In the game of basketball, most of the sprint efforts, while repeated, are submax.  Therefore, if we raise their absolute speed they are now able to run faster at the same relative workload and in order to run the same speeds as before it now requires less energy. As should be apparent by now, repeat sprint ability becomes relevant in the preseason only after we’ve spent significant time targeting speed itself. As an added benefit of devoting so much time towards sprinting and technical mechanics in the offseason, I believe our athletes become far more efficient at generating the speed they do possess.

Josh Bonhotal - Physical preparation for basketball

Basketball players just love to play the game. How do you keep their interest in conditioning? Do you think that the players are aware of it’s importance?

No matter how you cut it, guys are never really going to enjoy conditioning.  This is where it becomes crucial to build great relationships with players and work to educate them on why we’re doing what we’re doing. While having a dictator type approach may work in the short-term, I find it to be ineffective over the long-term.  Ultimately, it is important to involve your athletes in the process of training – this means everything from lifting to conditioning to speed work.  It has been my experience that player buy-in is maximized by forming these types of partnerships. 

Still, there will undoubtedly be players who never really seem to find the internal motivation to push themselves when things become difficult as is the case with conditioning sessions.  In these cases, there are often so many psychological variables involved and you are really trying to form new habits and create behavioral change.  Under these circumstances, I try to acknowledge the small victories while also working with them to develop greater self-awareness.  Before change can occur, they must first be able to acknowledge what they are doing is not good enough.  I work with these athletes to develop better lifestyle habits, as this often plays a role in their attitude towards conditioning.  Additionally, I will try to have them visualize what occurs when they hit that imaginary wall and work together to identify behavioral strategies they can use to overcome and push through. Unfortunately, as much as you try to help, there will inevitably be some athletes who never really seem to figure it out.

It is known that speed kills, as you’ve also mentioned in the podcast with Mike Robertson. How much time are you devoting to speed improvement, and what is the ratio between linear and lateral speed training in your programming?

I covered this pretty in-depth above, but will go through my rationale for our approach here.  By NCAA rules we are only allowed to train 6 hours each week, this includes any lifting, conditioning, mobility, speed and agility work. As a result, I really focus solely on linear speed development meaning we will sprint big twice a week.  We have done so with great success each of the past 4 offseasons after previously attempting to target both linear and lateral speed and failing miserably to develop either quality. 

Due to our limited hours, I felt it was most important to prioritize linear speed and make sure we are first getting faster in a straight line since just about everything they do in the game of basketball is designed to get back to a straightahead or angular type sprint. Additionally, I like to say „speed is speed.“  What I mean is, everything that goes into running fast from a capacity standpoint (fast twitch involvement, motor unit recruitment, efficiency of neural pathways at recruiting these big motor units, etc) is ultimately necessary of any fast type movement whether that be cutting, jumping, landing or sliding; not to mention any heavy or explosive-type lifting in the weight room.  While the movement characteristics are obviously different, the motor units and other such factors involved are largely the same. 

It was my theory at the time that sprinting with great frequency would allow us to tap into these high-end athletic qualities associated with rapid force development more readily and in turn not only complement but actually enhance our other work in the weight room and on the court.  Having now put this theory to the test for 4 consecutive offseasons, it has been my observation that this in fact has been the case.  I am particularly proud of the fact we have had several athletes each offseason add 10-15lbs+ of lean mass while also dropping a tenth of a second or more in an electronic timed 20m sprint. 

One reason I believe for the success of this approach is due to the fact sprinting is the ultimate expression of the fight-or-flight response and more specifically of strength, power, and speed in combination. Thus, doing so repeatedly enables us to more effectively develop their nervous system and enhances our ability to build upon the various strength qualities (max strength, rate of force development, high- and low-load speed-strength, reactive strength and skilled performance) indicative of high level athletic performance. I am convinced our devotion to running fast has been perhaps the single biggest factor behind our athletes‘ ability to stay healthy while becoming more resilient in response to increasingly greater loads in both training and practice. 

To be continued. Stay tuned for part 2!

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