Well March Madness is officially here! Like most of you, I was glued to the TV all weekend watching some remarkable conference tournament games, as well as the annual NCAA Selection Show. As usual, this year’s tournament will be outstanding. It is particularly satisfying for me to watch these games, as I am fortunate enough to have worked with dozens of the players who will be trying to lead their teams to a national championship, including several DC natives like Tywon Lawson (UNC), Nolan Smith (Duke), Greivis Vasquez and Adrian Bowie (Maryland), Uche Echefu (Florida St.), and Scottie Reynolds, Dwayne Anderson, and Dante Cunningham (Villanova) to name a few.

This blog post is the second installment of a two part series. Last week’s blog post (Planning Your Off-Season, Part I) covered the importance of rest and recovery, the evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses, and examining your spring and summer schedule. I highly recommend you re-read that post now.

This blog post will discuss my thoughts on AAU, off-season testing, and what most players should be focusing on in the initial part of the off-season. I will also shed some light on common mistakes players make.

Before we even begin discussing the off-season, let’s define it. I prefer to divide the calendar year into 3 distinct phases:

Off-season: beginning the day after your last game and ending 8 weeks before your first practice.

Pre-season: beginning 8 weeks before your first practice and ending the day before your first game.

In-season: beginning the day of your first game and ending the day of your last game.

As a high school age player (or coach), you need to decide whether or not you will be playing AAU when plotting out your spring and summer program. The opportunity to play in numerous organized, competitive games in the spring and summer is one of the biggest differences between the off-season of a high school player and of a college/pro player, but is one that needs to be taken into account.

I have a variety of thoughts on AAU as a whole. On one hand, the right AAU program can provide a platform for kids to play a lot of organized basketball against elite competition, travel to different parts of the country, and get plenty of publicity. This can be very beneficial for players who haven’t been playing basketball very long, who play in a high school program where they don’t get to play very much, or play in a high school program that doesn’t draw a ton of exposure from college coaches. And who are we kidding, it’s fun!

On the other hand, if you neglect to put quality time into your own individual player development and fundamentals, AAU can reinforce bad habits (poor shooting form, weak off hand, etc.), can cause numerous overuse injuries from playing too much, and can take valuable time away from your off-season training. Like most things, moderation and balance are essential. If you decide to play AAU, just make sure you still prioritize the importance of addressing the areas you need to from your self-evaluation.

Many of the questions I receive from players, coaches, and even parents revolve around strength and conditioning testing. In general, testing is fine as long as it meets two criteria: it is safe and it is viewed as a way to monitor progress (not a tool to predict success on the court). No test done in the weight room can predict success on the court. Don’t forget Kevin Durant couldn’t bench press 185 lbs at the 2007 NBA Combine and he was the 2nd player taken in the draft and the NBA’s Rookie of the Year!

If you are going to test, your testing should be comprehensive and attempt to measure three key areas: strength/power, quickness/agility, and basketball specific conditioning, as each of those areas play a role in basketball. Just testing for one of those is too narrow. And remember, testing is only valuable if there are follow up tests. I recommend you test in the beginning of your off season training, towards the middle point of the off season, at the end of the off season (beginning of pre-season), and lastly at the end of pre-season. Four tests over 7 or 8 months are more than enough. Spend more time and focus on training, not on testing!

Here are some thoughts and suggestions on testing:

Strength/Power: I don’t use 1 rep maxes for two reasons – high risk of injury and lifting for a 1 rep max is very intricate skill that is rarely practiced (why test in something that is rarely practiced?). I recommend testing one upper body push (bench press or push-up), one upper body pull (pull-ups or lat pulldown), and one lower body push (leg press or squat). I recommend picking a weight that can be performed for 8-10 reps and then do as many as possible in good form. If a player can bench press 135 lbs for 9 reps on day one, and a few months later can do 155 lbs for 10 reps, then they have gotten stronger! As far as testing power, measuring the vertical jump is pretty much the standard (highest point they can touch with their dominant hand with a one step take-off minus their standing reach).

Quickness/Agility: There are several tests you can use. The NBA uses the lane agility where you basically sprint, slide, and backpedal around the lane and back for time. SPARQ has several quality testing protocols as well. Whatever tests you select for quickness and agility, they should be very short in duration (if they exceed 15-20 seconds, you are then testing more for conditioning than agility) and involve change of direction and possibly different movement patterns (slides, sprints, back pedals, etc.).

Conditioning: Testing for basketball conditioning will tell you how good of basketball shape you are in. There are several great tests you can use. I recommend performing a set of 17’s. Players run from sideline to sideline as fast possible 17 times. A well-conditioned player can do this in under a minute.

For 99% of players, their main focus in the initial part (first 4-6 weeks) of the off-season should be to get stronger. There is no such thing as being too strong! When players ask me why strength is so important, I say, "What do you want to be: the bug or the windshield?" Quickness, agility and getting in great basketball shape are certainly important, but for the first part of the off-season, I recommend players focus on increasing the overall strength in their legs/hips, core, and upper body, address strength imbalances, and develop proper movement patterns/footwork.

There are numerous weekly training schedules you can utilize. You need to decide how many days a week you can train and how long you have to train each session. Just make sure you balance all of the components of your individual player development (don’t forget skill work!) and prioritize working on the weaknesses you established from your self-evaluation. If you need help putting together a specific weekly schedule, please email me directly at Alan@StrongerTeam.com.

Here is an overview of 8 common mistakes players make with their off-season training:

  • Players who get caught up in the latest fads. While there are a ton of valuable tools you can use to get stronger and more powerful, you don’t need any goofy shoes or gizmos and gadgets to get better. You need to intensely and progressively work the muscles of your entire body through every plane of movement and angle of motion. This can be done with a combination of “old school” exercises (bench press, pull-ups, deadlifts, etc.), as well as some “new wave” concepts (med balls, bands, TRX trainer, etc.). However, if you spend your entire workout standing on one foot on a BOSU ball, you are missing the boat!
  • Players who pay little attention to proper footwork and technique. Your footwork is critical in shooting as well as in your agility training. Proper landing, planting, and cutting is important for injury prevention as well as maximum athletic efficiency on the court. Don’t reinforce bad habits when you are training. 
  • Players who follow a strength & conditioning program because it comes from a famous player, coach or team. Following their program does not guarantee your success. Just because you are following last year’s NCAA championship team’s program doesn’t mean you will automatically get results. It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it! Effort, consistency, and progression are the key to success for any training program. 
  • Players who follow a program not specific to their needs. Strength and conditioning for basketball players is a means to an end, not an end itself. You are not a bodybuilder, football player, marathon runner, Powerlifter or Olympic lifter; so don’t train like one! Certainly there are valuable exercises and concepts from each of those sports, but you need to follow a program specific to you as a basketball player. Are the weights you are lifting appropriate? Are you working the right movement patterns (defensive slides, jumping, back pedaling, etc.)? Are you working within appropriate work/rest ratios? 
  • Players who constantly over train. This is a very common mistake, especially with plyometrics. Basketball is already very plyometric in nature, no need to over do it, especially if you are playing AAU. If you played in 5 games over the weekend, you don’t need to do box jumps on Monday. Not getting enough rest in between workouts is another problem. You don’t need to lift every day of the week to make progress. 
  • Players who have poor nutritional habits. This is a very common theme for a lot of players, from high school to the NBA. I will make this simple - eat like a bird, look like a bird. Eat like crap, play like crap. Email me if you want some general nutritional guidelines
  • Players who just lift weights and don’t work on their skills enough. No matter how fit or strong you are, if you can’t shoot, pass, or handle the ball you will never be a good player! Ball handling and shooting are only improved through task specific repetition. Thousands and thousands of repetitions at game speed!

With all of that said, your workouts don’t have to be long. Short, intense workouts will get the job done. And don’t allow yourself to have a bad workout because you “feel tired” or just “don’t feel like working out.” If you only work hard on the days you feel like it, nothing will ever get done! Commit yourself to excellence every workout. One day at a time. If you do this over the entire off-season, your progress will be amazing.

Just a reminder, my next blog post will be Monday, March 30th where I will report in from sunny Miami as I offer insight from the 2009 McDonald’s All-American Game!

If you would like to contact me about this blog, my training and/or camps and clinics, please email me at Alan@StrongerTeam.com. I will respond as quickly as possible!

Train hard. Train smart.

Alan Stein