Sep 25, 2017
On the Athlete’s Turf

This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Sombor, Serbia is not a place you would expect to see an NBA rising star training with one of the league’s top strength and conditioning coaches. But that’s exactly what happened this past summer. To keep Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic on top of his offseason workouts, the team’s Strength and Conditioning Coach at the time, Steve Hess, MEd, MATS, spent 11 days in the player’s hometown, helping the 22-year-old build strength and improve his nutrition.

“No matter where our players spend their offseasons, our team of coaches, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and instructors will work to make them better,” says Hess, who recently stepped down from his position but will continue to consult with the Nuggets. “I’m in contact with all of our guys almost every day, whether by phone, text, or e-mail. And sometimes I go to where they are to give them one-on-one attention.”

Training in Serbia allowed the veteran strength coach to work with Jokic in ways not possible stateside. “Being in his home environment where he was able to relax around his friends and family was amazing,” Hess says. “He has such a close-knit family, and the people in the city are so encouraging. It worked wonders for Jokic. He had no distractions-his whole schedule was eat, sleep, train, and repeat.”

Hess worked with Jokic for two to four hours each day. Their sessions often included both strength and basketball components, and Hess constantly mixed things up.

“As a coaching staff, we had identified specific areas we wanted to help Jokic improve in the offseason, including having a strong base, being more agile, coming out of his second jump with power, improving cardiovascular endurance, decreasing body mass, and increasing force output so he could add to his vertical jump,” Hess says. “Those are all areas that I tried to target while I was with him in Sombor.”

Outside of training, their days together focused on recovery and nutrition. Hess helped Jokic utilize compression, hydro recovery, and afternoon naps, so he could get the most out of the workouts and rest his body between sessions. For nutrition, they discussed ways to consume enough protein, with simple cooking lessons on making omelets and oatmeal in the mornings.

Although Sombor is a small city in the northwest corner of Serbia, Hess was determined to not let the challenges of the location slow them down. “The specifics of the machines there are very different than what I’m used to, so I had to modify them to match Jokic’s resistance profile,” he says. “But there were also some things that we used to our advantage. I took Jokic up into the mountains and did workouts there. We went onto the soccer fields and did exercises with tires, resistance bands, and ropes, and we went to a nearby lake, where Jokic did some active recovery.”

However, the workouts, even when unorthodox, were not haphazard. “There was a thought process and a purpose behind everything we did,” Hess says.

Though Jokic is expected to be a key player in the Nuggets’ future success, Hess says that going to a player’s hometown and training with him in the offseason isn’t out of the ordinary. On the contrary, he feels it’s an effective way to help players stay disciplined over the summer, and he’s done it multiple times throughout his 21 years in the NBA. Once Hess left Serbia, his assistant arrived two days later to start another week of training with Jokic.

The results of this personalized attention will be on full display this season. “The trip to Serbia was more than worth it,” Hess says. “When Jokic comes back to Denver at the start of the season, he’s going to amaze people with how much he’s progressed.”


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