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Conditioning a core of offseason college programs

Billy Baron loves to be in the gym. He steals every spare moment he can to have a basketball in his hand and his feet on the hardwood.

But it’s not just about being in the gym.

It’s about what he’s doing while he’s in the gym and, by extension, the weight room.

The senior guard for the Canisius men’s basketball team looked at his weaknesses last season. He was coming up short on his shots. He was getting tired late in games and late in the season.

Learning from a bit of research and discussion with Keith Vinci, the athletic performance head coach at Canisius, Baron spent the offseason doing squats and lunges for his legs, adding flexibility workouts along with general conditioning to lose weight.

“You can have a nice little winning streak in November or December and be hot, but you can’t finish off the year if you don’t have your legs late in the year,” Baron said. “I found that with myself, I was very inconsistent early in my career because I didn’t take the proper strength and conditioning. I didn’t take it serious. I didn’t know what to work on. I didn’t know how to work on it. Being able to know your own body, you learn from it.”

Think offseason college conditioning programs are just to keep the kids fit for when practice rolls around?

Think again.

Strength and conditioning programs have become a staple of college athletic departments. Throughout the Big 4, strength coaches devise programs for each team, both in season and out of season, with a focus not just on general fitness but on sport-specific techniques and injury prevention.

Early in the morning at Alumni Arena, the University at Buffalo women’s basketball had completed one of its final preseason conditioning sessions, which focused heavily on agility, sprinting and defensive slides. When the session was over, about half the team stayed for an extra foam rolling workout with strength and conditioning coach Nate Harvey.

The athletes worked each side of their hips and legs over the foam roller to help address common weaknesses in athletes – hips, hamstrings and glutes.

“We try to see where their weakness are and bring up their weak points,” Harvey said. “The thing is, 90 percent of our kids have the same weak points. We see a lot of hip problems. That’s why I have this extra group right now. We’re trying to get some adhesions out of their hips and bring up their glutes.

“Back in the ’90s it was all core, core, core. Now we’re seeing a lot of hip stuff and a lot of back issues come from the hips. So basically we find their weak points, identify them and bring them up. Because if you keep doing the same things you’re good at or the things you’re strong on, you’re not going to get any better.”

But getting better at your sport by working out in the weight room has been an evolution for college coaching to accept. Once upon a time, coaches discouraged their student-athletes from working out with weights. But games have become more physical. Opponents are bigger and stronger. And college seasons, particularly basketball and hockey, have grown longer. Offseason programs can help prepare bodies (and minds) to endure that grind.

“Weight training used to be taboo in basketball,” St. Bonaventure strength and conditioning coach Darryn Fiske said. “A lot of coaches felt it would screw up shots and things of that nature. ... But it’s really turned around. Particularly in Division I basketball, it’s more of a physical game and athletes today are bigger and stronger and coaches have now embraced strength training.”

Most strength and conditioning coaches will tell you that while student-athletes arrive on campus with varying degrees of weight training experience, the majority of them have not spent much time in a weight room. And so the process begins with learning technique, understanding the goals of the weight room sessions and sometimes dispelling myths.

“Basketball is somewhat sold,” Vinci said. “Some guys come in with that attitude where they came from a high school coach who had them working out and other guys just play and they need a little buy-in.

“For the female athletes, you get a few, very few, who come in and have done weight training before. You’ve got to teach them the basics. Usually the smaller ones, especially the guards, they have trouble buying into it. They’re afraid to get too big. They’re afraid to put on too much weight. We have to coach them through that.

“Hockey, they’re sold. They grow up that way.”

While many basketball players have to buy into the strength and conditioning program, both Canisius and Niagara hockey programs have student-athletes who are sold lock, stock and barrel on off-ice sessions.

Many players are coming from junior programs, which often run at a collegiate level including an emphasis on strength training. And incoming freshmen are often older than their counterparts in other sports, giving them more time to understand and embrace conditioning programs.

“Every program is looking for that little extra push to win a game or move up in the standings,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “There’s no secret. I think there’s a level playing field for teams when it comes to fitness, but all the work in the summer can make or break a player in regards to staying away from injury and physically being able to keep up on a daily basis.”

But with all this talk about work in the weight room, addressing weaknesses and injury prevention, there’s another component that’s crucial – nutrition.

“No good workout program can overcome bad nutrition,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “That piece we try to educate them as much as we can on what’s going into their body, what’s fueling their energy systems. So if they’re strong and they’re putting bad gas in the fuel tank, it doesn’t matter. All of those things go together.”


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