What Makes an Athlete Great?

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

In a dream come true I was able to spend my Valentine’s Day at home with my girlfriend eating an amazing dinner, and dessert consisting of homemade chocolate coconut pudding (made with the best protein powder on the market) while watching NBA All Star Saturday Night. Now that’s my kind of Valentine’s Day. I text messaged a few friends and told them to enjoy their price fixed dinners with the crappy holiday menu and that they could catch the highlights on Sports Center in the morning. I used to never miss this event but haven’t been as into it the last few years. Let’s face it; things haven’t been the same since MJ retired. But I did find this years festivities very entertaining and I thoroughly enjoyed the All Star Game last night as well.

Seeing guys like Lebron and Dwight Howard dominate the court really emphasizes the point of how important strength training is for almost all sports. When I was growing up most of the guys in the NBA weren’t half as jacked as the guys today. When you’re bigger and stronger than everyone else you are hard to stop.

Unlike some strength coaches, however, I am willing to admit that although those qualities help a lot of the guys on the court, they wouldn’t do much for other guys. I honestly don’t think that a guy like Tony Parker or Ray Allen or any other back court players would benefit as much from a serious strength training program.

Look at a guy like Allen Iverson. He’s one of the best players of the last ten years. And also one of the most injured. Would bulking up a bit have helped AI stay healthy? He plays very aggressively so maybe it would have helped him withstand some of the collisions he was a part of. Or maybe the extra weight would have just been more wear and tear on his knees and lower back. What about if he just increased his relative strength without getting bigger? Maybe… maybe not.

AI has the incredible body control that is a commonality amongst all great athletes. That is not something he trained for. It is the ability to contract the muscles at just the right time with just the right amount of tension and then immediately relax. Maximal contraction, dynamic relaxation. Ali had it. Montana had it. Pele had it. Mantle had it. Jordan had it. AI has it. Slashing, cutting, crossing over, spinning, launching a fade away while changing directions in mid air; these are not things that most forms of traditional strength training can help you with.

How about a front court player who’s skinny as a rail, like Kevin Garnett? If he bulked up to Dwight Howard’s size would he be any better? I doubt it. In fact, I would argue that the extra weight would have been a detriment to his game.

And what of the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan himself? He played the majority of his career at 195 pounds and then in his later years beefed up to 215. That’s when he started getting injured and having the lower back problems. Running up and down the court, jumping and landing with an additional twenty pounds on you takes a toll. If you don’t believe me go put on a twenty pound weight vest and play hoops for 48 minutes. Let me know how you feel tomorrow.

When you have a guy like Jordan or Iverson, there is very little you as a strength and conditioning coach can do to help them improve. They are great and will be great no matter what. At that level your job is really “not to fuck them up,” like Pitt and former Cleveland Browns strength coach Buddy Morris has said.

But what about the high school point guard who has potential but needs work? This is a guy that can be helped. Training for a 500 pound squat is not always the answer, however. He needs to be fast and he needs to be loose. He needs incredible body control. To better grasp what I am talking about picture Ali or Bruce Lee dancing, hopping, shuffling around, light as a feather. Float like a butterfly and then BAM! Sting like a bee. In the blink of an eye every single muscle is maximally tensed and the force is transmitted from the ground up through an incredibly powerful core into a jab that could knock out the mighty Sonny Liston or into the famous one inch punch that Bruce Lee could send guys across the room with.

This has nothing to do with maximal bench presses or anything of the sort.

For the young athlete who has potential, maximal strength work is only a part of the equation. There needs to be more. For skills position players and athletes you need to think more Ali, less George Foreman.

How do you do that? Stay tuned…

Jason Ferruggia

PS. If you can’t wait any longer and are a field athlete or coach who needs to learn more about improving speed ASAP, check out Complete Speed Training.