With NCAA championship basketball tournament here and soon the NBA playoffs, it’s that time of year when the inspiring fruits of off-season workouts are on full display. It’s now when players hope to peak and rely the new skills and strategies cultivated during last year’s off-season workouts, to give them a competitive edge in their quest for a championship ring.
And for players whose teams didn’t make the tournament cut, it’s time perhaps for a well-earned summer vacation—and then beginning a new off-season training regimen, to hone physical and mental skills with the aim of improving performance in next year’s season.
Let’s take a look at the overall intention and strategies of off-season basketball training. And then we’ll examine the off-season training regimen of one of the most elite of professional basketball players: Stephen Curry, point-guard for the Golden State Warriors. How does a six-time NBA all-star and two-time NBA league Most Valuable Player—who has struggled with and overcome some very serious injuries—train in the off-season?
Basic Goals of Off-Season Basketball Training
In the off-season, basketball players typically train to improve strength, agility, footwork and core strength. These are the primary physical qualities required to excel in basketball. Players also work to boost endurance and acceleration/explosiveness (e.g. in making cuts and leaping), and complete drills designed specifically to prevent injuries to vulnerable limbs and joints.
The five most common basketball injuries are those to the (1) foot and ankle; (2) hip and thigh; (3) knee; (4) wrist and hand; and (5) head and face. While in-season injuries are part of the game, intelligent off-season conditioning and strength-training can help prevent or reduce the severity of such injuries. So along with overall conditioning, a basketball player will spend extra time in the off-season strengthening the limbs or joints that he or she knows to be most at risk—given previous injuries.
Aspects of Off-Season Basketball Training
The off-season training regimen of almost all college-level and professional basketball players includes work in the weight-room—with free weights, circuit training and/or a kettlebell routine. It includes resistance training of some sort (using resistance bands to make basketball movements more challenging) to strengthen the muscle groups associated with those movements.
It includes Pilates or other core-strengthening practices. More and more basketball players are incorporating yoga excercises into their training to improve strength, coordination and flexibility.
And finally, off-season basketball training obviously includes long hours in the gym, moving though a variety of shooting, passing and ball-handling drills—all with the intention of making actual game-time skills almost automatic.
Just as important as the active aspects of a training regimen are the more passive, restful, restorative or “cool-down” routines that a player engages in—after the hard work has been done. This might include soaking in an ice-bath, to reduce joint inflammation. At other times, it may involve sitting in a sauna or a hot-tub, or receiving a therapeutic massage.
Increasing numbers of athletes—including basketball players—are including meditation and/or visualization practice, as a way to relax and train the mind, and heal the body.
Given this overview of what a typical off-season basketball training regimen looks like, let’s have a look now at some of the more innovative aspects of a particular player’s off-season work.
Basketball Wizard Stephen Curry: Behind The Scenes
As mentioned above, this player is Stephen Curry—whose first years as a professional basketball player were hampered by a series of ankle injuries. After several surgeries, and the help of some very high-tech ankle braces, Curry has become one of the most exciting and beloved of NBA players. He has overcome physical obstacles, and taken his basketball skill-set to almost unimaginable levels of excellence.
How does Stephen Curry develop and maintain these amazing skills? What’s the secret to his lightning-quick shot-release and otherworldly ball-handling (as exemplified in his pregame warm-up sequence)? How has he maximized his court vision—in a way that produces such amazing assists?
As it turns out, Stephen Curry employs some of the most innovative training techniques available, to beneficially transform both his body (i.e. the muscular and skeletal system) and his brain (i.e. the nervous system). Along with physical strength, quickness and agility, Curry trains for neurocognitive efficiency: the capacity of the brain to quickly process large amounts of sensory information.
Off-Season Training Regimen
With longtime personal trainer Brandon Payne—the owner of Accelerate Basketball Training—Stephen Curry trains to become more explosive and strong with basketball-specific movements; and to improve his neurocognitive efficiency. To balance all this active work and allow his system downtime to heal and integrate, Curry spends time weekly in a flotation tank.
In this training session we see Steph Curry moving through a series of exercises designed specifically to strengthen basketball skills. For instance: dribbling with one hand while shooting with the other; and making cuts with resistance-bands around his hips or waist, then immediately repeating the same movements without the resistance-bands. Again and again, specific basketball movements are intentionally made more difficult, in order to strengthen Steph’s body in exactly the ways that will be most relevant to him becoming a better player.
In a GQ interview, Steph talks more specifically about this kind of resistance training (using Accelerate’s VertiMax machine):
“It’s, like, basketball-specific explosive movements and resistance. And I do all my moves that I do in games and even some new ones I try to come up with, with all that resistance on me. And then I take it [the resistance bands] off right after to kind of contrast my normal body weight… I’m not really trying to gain a lot of weight or anything like that, it’s just about being more explosive and strong with basketball-specific movements that I do in games. And all those creative combinations, dribble moves and all that kind of stuff, doing those while you’re under heavy duress.”
Creative Innovation & Cutting-Edge Technologies
The sorts of drills described above are fairly standard for basketball players. But there are also a host of exercises that are much less common—much more innovative and cutting-edge—that Curry also includes in his training sessions, and which you can see here in this training video. For instance:
* Dribbling a basketball in one hand, while catching a tennis-ball in the other hand—sometimes wearing specialized strobe goggles (called the Eclipse) to increase the difficulty, by partially obstructing Curry’s vision, or distracting it with flashing lights.
* Bouncing tennis balls against a wall while tapping flashing light sensors, or dribbling a basketball and making specific movements in response to flashing light signals. These signals are made via a high-tech training tool (called FITLIGHT) that’s used also during shooting and agility drills. The purpose of the FITLIGHT system connect what the athlete’s eye sees to what the brain thinks and how the body reacts.
So for instance the FITLIGHT discs might be placed in different spots on the court—and then as Curry dribbles by a specific disc, it will flash a particular color, which indicates a specific move or shot that Curry is to make. Training with these discs improves reaction-time, speed, agility, and coordination.
“The world seems to move in slow motion for such athletes because their brain is working at warp speed. By making the brain do more with less, the strobe goggles are a way to make the brain more easily reach said warp speed when one’s vision is clear.”
In addition to cultivating a stronger, faster and more efficient body, athletes like Steph Currys are also cultivating a stronger, faster and more efficient brain.
Sensory Deprivation Down-Time: The Flotation Tank
To balance all the intense cutting-edge training, Steph also includes down-time that features weekly trips to a flotation tank, which has a host of restorative benefits:
“The magnesium in the salt is good for sore muscles, and spending an hour or two suspended weightless decompresses the spine and eases out tension. Moreover, the time spent taking in literally nothing seems to be fantastic for your mind. (Your brain goes from taking in more than 100 gigabytes of data to virtually zero.)”
In the flotation tank, there’s no visual stimulation (all is dark), the water is exactly at skin-temperature, and the high concentration of Epson salts allow the body to float effortlessly. The only sound is the sound of one’s own heartbeat and breathing. This kind of sensory deprivation supports deep meditative states—making the flotation tank not only physically, but also psychologically therapeutic. The athlete’s mind can relax and unwind, which supports the integration of the new physical skills and neurocognitive efficiency.
The Secret Sauce: Steph Curry’s Joie De Vivre
Along with all the innovative training techniques, it’s Stephen Curry’s attitude of playfulness and creativity—and his joyful love of the game—that is, one might argue, the ultimate “secret sauce” to his success. It’s the spark that seems to ignite his full athletic genius, transforming all those hours of off-season training into masterful basketball performances.
Support For Excellence
In addition to all of his training, Steph Curry, as mentioned above, wears ankle braces—similar to those available through Mueller Sports—to protect and support the joints that have, over his career, been most vulnerable to injury.