Jul 23, 2018
Drive to Succeed: Gonzaga men’s basketball training
By Travis Knight

For Gonzaga University men’s basketball, the players’ desire to be elite forms the foundation for a holistic training regimen.

When I sit down to meet with a Gonzaga University men’s basketball recruit, I usually take a deep breath before sharing the thought that has transformed my life for the past 20 years: There is no other program like this. The reason for the breath is that it will likely take the next 45 minutes to unpack the many reasons why this statement is true.

gonzaga mens basketball 1
Photo: Dirk Hansen

There are obvious points that relate to basketball. For instance, I am thankful to work with a visionary head coach like Mark Few. His leadership has taken us to 20 straight NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament appearances, including two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight, and a national runner-up finish in the past five years alone.

I am also fortunate to have NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, a Gonzaga alum, as a resource. Ever since his retirement from the Utah Jazz in 2003, Stockton has been working out three days a week in our weight room, and he’s been a heck of a sounding board for me. I will often talk to him about a problem I see in our training and some wild idea I have about how to fix it.

But beyond the influence of coach Few and Stockton is the impact of the Gonzaga education, which teaches us to think critically, live life as a whole person, and set the world on fire with our passion. My time at Gonzaga began in the late 1990s as a physical education student and infielder on the baseball team. In my coursework, I was trained to see movement in a very organic, playful, and creative way. As a result, I discovered the interplay between science and art, and it’s something I try to replicate in my training.

In part because of my background, we pursue somewhat unconventional training methods with the men’s basketball team. We follow a holistic approach that factors in the mind, body, and spirit, while emphasizing player accountability and autonomy. We believe doing meaningful activities that are connected to a player’s personal goals and set within a family-centered team culture creates resilient, motivated individuals who are well-prepared for the road ahead.

Thought process

It’s important for me to say up front that I don’t think of myself as a “strength coach.” Although that is my title, and I have been in the business for almost 20 years, I have always felt differently than my peers about the way training should be.

Contrary to what many of my colleagues follow, my overall philosophy for strength and conditioning work is “less is more,” or “How little can we get away with?” This marks a dramatic shift from what I believed when I was first hired at Gonzaga in the fall of 2006. For the first few years, I thought I was doing my job because guys were hitting big numbers on squats and bench. I figured weight gain was the answer to all of our problems and felt players just needed to get bigger, stronger, and tougher. I don’t think that way anymore.

Instead, I navigate performance training by understanding the complexities of the body and sport, as well as the intricacies of the mind and spirit. We probably lift at one of the lowest frequencies of any program in the country, and we are conscious of how much extra work we pile on the players. I want them to be prepared for the intensity and duration of the season and able to adapt to the loads of the season as they arise.

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To get there, each individual needs something different. Some require game minutes, active and passive recovery methods, mobility, and core work. Others need heavy reps in practice, hard lifting sessions several days a week, and possibly extra conditioning. As long as everyone is giving the same effort every week, I’m satisfied.

One resource that has helped me solidify my philosophy has been Stockton. He’s a fellow “outside-the-box” thinker who is known for his longevity in the NBA, which he credits to a holistic medical team.

Stockton still plays pickup with college and pro players, and they all say he is one of the strongest guys they have ever competed against — even though he only weighs 175 pounds. This isn’t because of an impressive bench press or big, thick legs. It is because he is a master of timing, leverage, and making other players feel uncomfortable.

These are traits I strive to develop with our current Gonzaga players. Of course, I want our guys to improve the amount of weight they can move and how they feel when they move it. But the real target is getting them to use that strength to their advantage.

Program design

We begin our pursuit of this objective by establishing goals. Most strength and conditioning programs do this with baseline testing, and we used to be the same. When I first started at Gonzaga, I continued the “decathlon” test battery that the basketball program had followed since before the recent run of NCAA Tournament appearances. The decathlon included events such as a mile run, maximum bench press and pull-ups, vertical jumps, and basketball competitions.

I refer to this part of my career as “the textbook years.” Fresh out of graduate school with a satisfying litany of letters after my name, I focused on being “right” according to the standards of thought at the time.

However, a few years ago, I found myself wrestling with how inefficient the testing process seemed. I had a sneaking suspicion that it didn’t accurately represent what was most important for us, and I thought it generated great risk for injury. In addition, I felt it wasn’t as objective or valid as I would like. So, I cut the testing out. Coach Few was on board because he judges my effectiveness by whether I prepare the players for the court — not by weight room numbers.

With the decathlon gone, I no longer have players getting hurt during testing or experiencing bad test days that make them question the program. The only consistent evaluation I do now is the skinfold body fat test, and we use it because it keeps athletes accountable for body changes.

Gonzaga mens basketball
Photo: Dirk Hansen

Instead of testing, we start strength training by helping our athletes determine what they need from the weight room. This gives them personal responsibility for their programming.

Each player not only records his own workout, but he also designs it. Athletes have the freedom to choose what they want to focus on from a variety of templates. We talk about why they should select certain exercises, how these movements fit their goals, and how the movements address what their bodies need that day. (Find ‘Starting Point’ below to see our sample lower-body templates.)

From there, we take measurements within each workout. Players evaluate themselves both quantitatively (such as power output, calories per 30 seconds, reactive strength index, etc.) and qualitatively (including balance, perceived exertion, form, and coach feedback). Other measurements might come from the power output of a Keiser step-up using pneumatic resistance, a flywheel VersaPulley lateral leg drive, or a Fitlight preset agility drill.

Although these values don’t guarantee a transfer to the court, they are a great way to get feedback on whether players are improving or not. This is powerful because it has a positive loop. If a player reaches a new high score in the weight room, his personal records are updated on a spreadsheet that everyone has access to, which further motivates him to keep getting better. It follows the idea of play and flow — the quality of wanting the activity to continue because of the intrinsic value it provides.

In the weight room

Our players may have a great deal of control over what they do in the weight room, but one thing we always emphasize is ground reaction force. The ground reaction forces that basketball players generate can reach nearly 10 times their bodyweight when they make a full speed vertical jump or hit the brakes and change direction when driving to the basket or pursuing a ball handler.

Because of this, we spend a significant amount of time building strength in areas that absorb ground reaction forces. These include hip internal/external rotation, abduction, ankle dorsiflexion, thoracic extension, and thoracic rotation. We use a combination of techniques, including isometrics and Functional Range Conditioning, which is a comprehensive method of joint training that utilizes the muscular system to strengthen the end ranges of joint mobility.

We complement our strength and conditioning work by ensuring that our players recover well.

When players can effectively tolerate the full impact of ground reaction forces, we use those forces (which far exceed what we can create in the weight room) to overload the soft tissues and promote remodeling to tolerate a specific activity. If all the muscle groups are contributing correctly, the proper neurological pattern can develop naturally. But if there is a problem with the way muscles are being recruited, the body will adapt a new movement pattern that may not be as powerful.

Another focus for us in the weight room is single-leg strength work, some of which is influenced by Dutch strength and speed coach Frans Bosch. He proposed that the relationship between strength and coordination is a determinant of performance. As a result, our training focuses on isometric hamstring activity while maximizing elastic tissue to create rapid, high forces with joint stability. We do this through exercises like single-leg back extension holds.

When it comes to conditioning, we believe progress is directly linked to meaningfulness, so we always make conditioning work competitive. For example, if we are scheduled to do sprints, we turn them into a race. If we have one-on-one sand football on the agenda, we make it feel like game day.

As athletes design their programs with our feedback, we never lose sight of our ultimate goal — to transfer all gains to the court. If we are increasing strength, but that strength can only be expressed in the weight room, it’s not useful.

On the rebound

We complement our strength and conditioning work by ensuring that our players recover well. Our athletic trainer is great at helping each guy figure out what works best for him.

It doesn’t hurt that we have a number of tools at our disposal. This includes both hot and cold tubs, negative gravity recliners with recovery pants and heat/massage, and stretching machines. Occasionally, we also do pool workouts for recovery with deep-end maximal weighted jumps using dumbbells.

One of the most significant pieces to our recovery program is our dedication to yoga. We are fortunate to work with an incredible yoga instructor roughly twice a week. As a former collegiate pole-vaulter, she has a great rapport with our players. She knows how to accommodate what their bodies and minds need during each session to restore their physical and mental selves.

Over the years, we have had several players do additional yoga in place of weightlifting because it was a better fit for them. Again, this speaks to the trust we have that our players are driven to succeed and knowing that individualization is part of the process.

Frame of mind

We work just as hard at developing players’ minds as we do their bodies. Over the years, I have moved steadily in the direction of focusing more on the mental side of performance.

After working with many athletes and watching them both succeed and fail, I’ve realized the defining variable in optimal performance has been their mental approach. Physical development is always important, but it never supersedes mental engagement and taking ownership of circumstances.

Because of this, I try to evaluate the mental status of each player by connecting with them through conversation and observation. In doing this, I am able to assess what aspects of their perspective can use some attention.

Players will then meet with me to discuss an element of mental performance that seems to be eluding them. For instance, a couple of years ago, I worked with a player on meditation and breath control. He went on to hit the game-winning shot in the Sweet 16 that year. We also often conclude team lifts with a reminder and a focal point for that week, such as the importance of staying connected and centered.

Delving further into mental development, I have been researching the link between the mind and body for the last few years. I am interested in assessing how well athletes focus and understanding how their nervous, visual, and proprioceptive systems regulate the output of their muscular system. I want to know: How can we help an athlete tap into his subconscious and sympathetic nervous system at a higher, faster level?

My pursuit of an answer has led to a portion of our program that I call the Integrated Training Lab. We use various tools, such as strobe goggles, a sensory station, transcranial direct current stimulation, and a three-dimensional light system to engage movement and coordinate strength and mobility through proprioception. In addition, we use meditation to help facilitate awareness and breathing practice to maintain balance of stressors.

As helpful as these devices are, it’s been very challenging to scale them to the entire team. Although we screen all our players for vision and movement, not everyone uses each of the above technologies. We tailor this programming individually based on each player’s stage of development, and we use the tools most often with our advanced athletes and starters.

What I hope is represented in our training is that our athletes are deeply centered by their confidence in who they are as individuals. This pays off when it matters most — I have watched our players outperform their opponents many times simply because they were deeply committed to the plan and to each other.

Think of the film “Chariots of Fire,” which is about a British runner who wins gold in the 400 meters during the 1924 Olympics. When he ran, he threw his head back in a way that made many question how his form could be effective. What they could not deny was that he ran with a passion that looked radically different from anyone else. He understood something that is hard to capture, difficult to teach, and a challenge to measure, but undeniable to the naked eye.

Similarly, I am responsible for using science to prepare our athletes physically. But I must also use all of my senses to truly gain insight into what allows them to express the fullness of their potential.

Starting point

Below are sample lower-body templates that Gonzaga University men’s basketball players can use to build their own workouts. Each template is then tailored to each player’s needs.

Option No. 1

  • Dead lift, 5×3.
  • Box jump to lock, 4×4 each.
  • Nordic hamstring, 3×5.
  • Keiser box step-up, 3×8 each.
  • Keiser rapid-fire four-way hip, 3×10 each.
  • Medicine ball slides, 3×20 each.
  • Ball single-leg tuck jumps, 3×8 each.
  • Kettlebell goblet squat holds, 3×30.

Option No. 2

  • Back squat, 5×4 to 6.
  • Single-leg jump touches, x4 each set.
  • Single-leg Romanian dead lift, 3×5 each.
  • Keiser lateral bound, 3×10.
  • Single-leg back extension rows, 3×5 each.
  • Keiser split jumps, 3×14.
  • Band jab steps, 3×20 each.
  • Midline iso lunge, 3×30.

Option No. 3

  • Box back squat, 6×3 to 5.
  • Hip thrust, 3×6.
  • Lateral leg drive, 3×10 each.
  • Single-leg drive, 3×10 each.
  • Band jab step, 3×20 each.
  • Medicine ball Bosch 12-inch step-up, 3×8 each.

Option No. 4

  • Trap bar jumps, 5×5.
  • Single-leg diagonal lift, 4×8 each.
  • Kettlebell/dumbbell goblet squat, 4×8.
  • Single-leg clean, 4×3 each.
  • Leg press, 3×10.
  • Single-leg row, 3×8 each.

Travis Knight, MEd, CSCS, CPT, USAW, is Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Gonzaga University, where he works with men's basketball, volleyball and women's tennis.

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