Coaches Corner: Q&A with Renowned Strength and Conditioning Coach Alan Stein

In this week’s edition of Coaches Corner, renowned strength and conditioning coach Alan Stein sits down with editor Adam Warner and dishes out advice for coaches and players, reveals some of his most effective workouts and sets the story straight on certain strength and conditioning myths.

Talk about your background a bit and how you’ve gotten to where you are today.
“I’m a former high school hoops player and also played basketball at Elon College in North Carolina (now Elon University). Ever since I was in high school, I’ve always gravitated towards performance enhancement and realized in college that I could make it a career and also stay with the game of basketball and my passion. It all kind of fell into place and I was in the right place at the right time. There weren’t too many strength and conditioning-specific coaches when I started. Now, every NBA and college program has one, and the field has really grown in recent years.”

What drove to you to become a strength and conditioning expert?
“I consider myself a coach now, but more of the X’s and O’s of strength and conditioning, versus the X’s and O’s of offense and defense. We are all limited by our genetic potential, but strength and conditioning you have complete control of. Whether you are in great shape or not, you still have it within your control to get as strong and as fit as you can. And as I learned more about it, I discovered what a positive impact it can have on people, from an injury standpoint and a performance enhancement standpoint. It’s also a way for me to create a new niche and contribute to the game that has been so good to me.”

You’ve been a well-known strength and conditioning coach at the high school level for some time now. Have you ever thought about taking your work to the next level?
“I’ve been offered positions at higher levels, but I’ve chosen to stay here. I can have the biggest impact on youth players, junior high and high school players, and acclimate them and prepare them for what they will need at the next level. There’s a lack of quality coaching at some youth levels and I believe I can have a positive impact there. Most coaches are good at what they do and climb the ladder, but I’d like to see more focus on the youth level and getting professional-level coaching to help prepare them. The earlier we can coach kids, the better the finished product will be.”

How has the field changed over the last 10-20 years? What are the biggest differences?
“Even 10 years ago, not every NBA team had a full time strength and conditioning coach. Maybe only a handful of teams had these coaches in the 1990s. Not even college programs had bought into it. But in the last 10-15 years, coaches realized just how important it is to stay injury free. Now, we’re seeing a lot more influence at the high school level and a lot of private schools have hired coaches. It’s trickling down. It’s a great trend and I hope to see it continue.

Also, everything has gone from generic to much more specific. We can do stuff that is specific to the needs and demands of basketball. 10 years ago, people would go to a local expert at the YMCA who was a former player who looked the part of being strong and fit, and that’s where they derived their program from. Now, kids and players of all ages and levels can do something that’s specific to their needs, will help them stay injury free and improve their performance on the court, instead of doing a generic program.”

There are many coaches and parents who believe the best way athletes can train is just to play basketball. Can you explain why it’s so important for athletes to be involved with strength and conditioning workouts on a routine basis?
“There is partial validity to this. The absolute best way to get in the best shape is to play basketball at a very high level. Even though I work with youth players, I’m not a big advocate of early specialization. I think kids should play multiple sports even if basketball is their vehicle. But in the early years for motor coordination and overall ability, it’s good to play multiple sports. Kids today that play a sport 24/7, they develop overuse injuries because of similar movement patterns and you see the wear and tear, like with tennis and tennis elbow due to the constant repetition.

Strength and conditioning helps prevent acute injuries  and overuse injuries, strengthens the hips and feet, and athletes are less likely to develop injuries. The number one thing about specific training is it keeps athletes safe, healthy and on the court so they can play — and players want to do this because it improves their performance on the court. If you can make your body stronger, quicker and more explosive, you can play at a higher level.”

Okay, here’s a hypothetical. I’m an athlete who’s playing basketball now and just getting into strength training for the first time. What do you recommend for me to get started at a beginners level?
“It’s a common misconception that strength training will stunt growth. Also, recent trends show there’s more female participation in strength and conditioning training, and overall participation is younger, and it’s great. But things are different for 18 and 10 year olds. Things have changed in the field.

For instance, coaches and parents often picture squats and barbell squats and 10 year olds doing these in the gym. But it’s morphed into something broader and now it’s about teaching coordination and flexibility and body weight strength.

We’ve developed safe programs for beginners. First, they need to be able to go through all major types of movements, like squats, lunges, step-ups, pushups and pull-ups, plus learn to twist and crawl — trying to get back to kids knowing how to move and control their bodies in space. When they can handle all of these with their own body weight, that’s when we add resistance and more traditional exercises. We work on things like conditioning, acceleration, deceleration, proper footwork and getting into proper basketball shape.

Everything is so much broader now. It’s much easier to teach a 9 year old from a movement standpoint because they haven’t learned any bad habits yet. So working with young kids is the perfect time to teach these things. It’s also important to make creative and engaging exercises so kids feel they can make some progress. That sense of satisfaction gets them hooked and continuing to do it. By getting kids in earlier and teaching them proper movement, it will be so much easier to teach them basketball skills as they get older. Strength and conditioning is the foundation and the base of the pyramid for a a basketball player. And if we can teach them basic skills, it will enhance everything else.”

The basketball season is well underway at every level now. Can you recommend some in-season training routines or workouts for coaches and players?
“The key is balancing intensity and the frequency of games and practices with the intensity of the workouts. If you have tons of games in a tournament over a short period of time, you certainly won’t train as hard as it’s not in your best interest. But if you’re playing fewer games, then that’s the time to ramp up workouts.

Sometimes I recommend doing 1-2 strength workouts in season per week, usually 25-30 minutes long and primarily focusing on the upper body. Your legs are worked hard enough during the season. The goal is to supplement and make you better on the court, so you must balance things out. Sometimes, you don’t have to do too much. For example, 3 sets of pull-ups and pushups may work for an upper body workout. It’s a balancing act and the key is to maintain the strength you built in the spring, summer and fall.”

Can you recall any huge success stories you’ve had — perhaps with a player who came into a program skinny with average speed, but left much stronger and faster? What was the difference?
“Overall, we have a high success rate. You have to be careful though. What we do is a small and important piece of the overall puzzle and there are so many other factors. Average kids come in and eight weeks later, they have more muscle and more flexibility. A big part of all of this that shows up on the court is the mental aspect, like improved confidence. Athletes can do things they didn’t think they could ever do. They play harder defense and have a little bit more of a swagger now.

I’ve been fortunate to work with the likes of Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Nolan Smith and they have gone on to become successful players. But I do think the stuff I did with them was a small stepping stone, and I believe it’s a balancing act. I don’t take full credit for them, but this stuff contributes to that. We do the same stuff with Durant as we do with all players. You often measure a program by reduced injury and most players in our program have a much lower injury rate as some other programs and similar ages.”

Are there any misconceptions or superstitions when it comes to strength and conditioning?
“That more is better. If you want to be a good free throw shooter, shoot more free throws. On the skill side, to some degree, this is true. But it’s the opposite for strength and conditioning. Some kids think they should be in the weight room 6 days a week. Our goal is to maximize results in the minimal amount of time. Everything we do is intense though. It’s all about what you do and how you do it. Society preaches more is better. But you can be done effective workouts after 2-3 hours a week, but it all depends on how it’s done.”

Do you have an all-time favorite drill or workout?
“I use tennis balls with a series of reaction drills. You get with a partner and do a series of things and bounce it and you have to react to it. The tennis ball is fun and engaging and works on hand-eye coordination, acceleration, deceleration, and vertical jump. The workouts use basic equipment, and you’d be hard pressed to find any kid who can’t find access to a tennis ball and there are a million drills you can do with them. My NBA guys and 10 year olds love working with the tennis ball.”

What’s some of the best advice you can give to coaches?
“If anything looks dangerous, it probably is — like an exercise. Just avoid it and stay away. I can’t tell you how many programs I’ve observed where there are borderline criminal things going on. Coaches may be doing it for the right reasons, but they just aren’t using common sense.

Also, the basic stuff still works. Even if you are a novice or new coach, ignorance should not be an excuse. The same goes for basketball. If you are coaching 10 year olds on a youth team, but you don’t know much, Championship Productions and others have tons of resources. So aside from common sense, reach out and find some basic resources to help you do what you have to do.”

What’s some of the best advice you can give to players?
“Focus on doing things you can do to be the best player you can be. Players often look up to the best players and want to be like them, and that’s perfectly healthy and normal. I get emails that ask, “What drills can I do to be like Derrick Rose?” But you can’t do specific drills to be like him. Kids need to do things they can control and be comprehensive. Stay focused on improving your body and being in shape and the fundamentals, like jumpers and accepting coaching and learning how to play the game.”

Alan Stein is the owner of Stronger Team and the head strength and conditioning coach for the DeMatha Catholic High School basketball program. Stein has teamed up with Championship Productions to produce 19 strength and conditioning videos. To check out his entire catalog of DVDs, click here.

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