One of the common assumptions about professional athletes is that they are world-beaters in every single category. In my six years as head strength and conditioning coach of the Lakers, I learned pretty quickly that this is simply not the case.
In fact, many athletes make it to the pro level in spite of their lack of proficiency in certain domains.
Rather than seeing these gaps as weaknesses or deficiencies, I always viewed them as opportunities to improve. While certain elements of performance – such as mental health – were outside my realm of responsibility, I was fortunate to be able to positively impact talented young athletes in the areas of movement, resistance training, and nutrition.
The first item of business was always a process of benchmarking, assessment, and discovery. When I first came to the team, I had to go through these steps with everyone on the roster and thereafter with players who came to the Lakers via trade, the draft, and getting called up from the D-League (now called the G-League).
There’s a tendency in the strength and conditioning world to create boilerplate plans and then just assign them to players. Someone might think, “Well, I’ve got a basketball player who’s a power forward, is this size and weight, so he’s getting plan X.” While there are lines of best fit we can draw, such a presumptive approach is typically too coach-centric, rather than focusing on the individual capabilities and characteristics of the player in question.
Whether it was an NBA pro back then or a 48-year-old father of two who’s looking to get back in shape at my current venture, TD Athletes Edge, I’ve always avoided just handing someone a pre-baked program and telling them to get on with it. Instead, I commit to a process of investigation that will inform the guidebook I eventually give them.
The best detectives might have theories about a crime, but they don’t go in with a fixed idea of what happened and who was involved. Instead, they pursue various lines of inquiry and see where these take them.
I tried to follow a similar approach in the NBA that still serves me well to this day.
The first step is performing a movement assessment to establish some baselines and gauge how competent someone is at getting into fundamental movement positions and sustaining these with stability and mobility. It’s also important to see how an athlete develops strength and power from such positions.
Then I combine this objective, quantitative analysis with a more subjective, qualitative one. This involves talking with the person and asking the what they’re trying to achieve, what their pain points are, and where they want to improve. In the case of the Lakers, I also pulled in skills coaches to get their perspectives on the areas in which the player was competent in and those qualities he could use help in developing.
This required patience and a significant time investment, but meant that I wasn’t going in blind. By getting all the evidence on the table, I’d have a clearer view of every player’s dominant qualities and limitations. From there, I would create a tailored program based on making five areas of the body resilient enough to withstand the impact of accelerating and decelerating and jumping and landing.
- Achilles tendons/calves
- Quads and hip flexors
- Hamstrings and glutes
While I initially used a triage process to uncover areas that needed the most work, I never neglected any of them. My goal with draft picks was to prepare them to deal with the increased volume, density, and intensity that they’d experience in the NBA versus the shorter schedules in high school and college.
I found that a lot of the high draft picks have glossed over the fundamentals of movement. Someone who’s a “one and done” player will have gone right from high school to college, where the strength and conditioning coach will have had a very limited amount of time with them from the moment they arrive on campus as a five-star recruit until the end of their only competitive freshman season.
This typically won’t have given even the best coach sufficient opportunity to develop the player in the way they’d like, not least because they have to train everyone as a team and individual goals have to come second to the collective imperatives of the group.
Once the player’s season ends in late February, or if the team makes it to the NCAA Tournament in March, and the player declares for the NBA Draft, they’ll start working with a coach one-on-one to prepare for the Combine and team workouts with potential suitors.
However, these are not comprehensive training sessions, but rather tailored to getting the player ready to perform six to eight drills that they’ll be closely evaluated on. Once they’re drafted, the player will head to the city where their new team is based, but will only have a couple of weeks before they’re heading to Las Vegas to show their stuff in the Summer League.
After this is over, they’ll head back to their new base, but will often be just as focused on finding a home, getting to know their teammates, and familiarizing themselves with the city as they will on team activities. When I was lucky, a player would be eager to use this period before the start of the NBA preseason to get some work done in the weight room, and this is when I’d initiate my discovery process.
Often, the new players would have a very high skill level and be extremely athletic, but have a low experience level in movement-based training and nutrition. This was a stark contrast to MVPs and Future Hall of Famers like Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, who were far more well-rounded in the latter part of their careers.
By the time I got to the Lakers, they’d both developed training and lifestyle habits that were conducive to continued excellence. Some people might think that someone who’s an all-time great would have a set of secret, out-of-this-world exercises that gave them an advantage, but this isn’t the case.
The real key for Kobe, Steve, and other senior members of the squad like Metta World Peace was their consistency. They never ever skipped a session and when we worked together, they were all-in.
Kobe and Steve had both developed daily routines that worked and that they never wavered from. Through years of trial and error, they’d come up with a series of habits that delivered the best results, so they stuck with them.
From the cellular level up, our bodies are programmed to favor predictability over the snow globe being shaken every day. When you know what’s going to happen and when, you’re able to cultivate a deeper level of deliberate practice than when you give in to randomness. This leads to more advanced skill development. Routines also help reduce stress and anxiety.
Another thing I was fascinated about with these players was that they had the mental toughness not to care about what others would perceive as mistakes or shortcomings.
If Steve, Kobe, or Metta were doing a shooting drill, it didn’t matter if they made or missed six shots in a row. They’d continue to think, “Shoot when I touch the ball” and when it didn’t go in, their faces never flinched. They just focused on making the next one. They were concerned about the process, not each individual outcome.
While I was able to contribute in several small ways, it’s this kind of mindset and dedication to mastery that separates great players from good ones.