Playoff ready: Properly preparing athletes for the postseason
By Henry Barrera, columnist
In gyms across the country, teams are making one final push to reach their state or national tournaments. As conference play comes to an end and the postseason ramps up, what are you doing to give your team the edge?
There are three areas from a performance perspective that will pay dividends to coaches down the stretch. First, I’d like to give you a bird’s eye view of what I refer to as our “performance model.” This is the foundation for how we assess and prepare to train, and for how we compete throughout the year.
The model is made up of five performance pillars that are essential for optimal performance. When all pillars work in unison, you’ve created an optimal environment for improvement and performance, especially tournament time. Every player will battle three things throughout their athletic career, including fatigue, inflammation and immune defense. Our jobs as leaders in our programs are to put our players in the best position to succeed.
Here are our pillars:
• Mindset. The psychological framework within an athlete or program.
• Sleep. The key to recovery.
• Nutrition. What players require to fuel performance.
• Training. Properly preparing for the game.
• Readiness. What players and coaches do the other 20-plus hours away from training makes the difference.
Sleep has increasingly become one of the hottest topics in sports and for good reason. Research continues to show the tight correlation between cognitive function, physiological recovery and performance. Dr. Cheri Mah, a sleep researcher at Stanford, showed increases of up to 9 percent in free-throw and 3-point percentages after five to seven weeks of sleep extension (Mah et al., 2011).
As we coach and train high school and collegiate athletes, it’s important that we offer systems and strategies that are practical and actionable. From a maintenance perspective, the three most critical factors for the brain operating at full capacity are sleep, nutrition and hydration (Sullivan, J. P., 2015). There are three practical and actionable steps to optimize overall performance.
• Prioritize routine. Power down 30 minutes before bed. I define “sleep hygiene” as the choices and practices that promote recovery. Just like brushing your teeth every day.
• Sleep for eight to 10 hours. That means every day, not just the night before the game.
• Stay consistent. Playing catch-up is a losing battle. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Consistency is king.
Do not underestimate the critical role that sleep plays in recovery and optimal performance. Continue to promote ways to educate and engage your athletes, especially when traveling. Work to maintain a consistent practice schedule and prioritize sleep amongst your players.
Movement is the common language that crosses all barriers and boundaries. It comes easy for some, and it might even look natural in elite athletes. The way Russell Westbrook handles his body is otherworldly, and the way Steph Curry can handle his body in space is phenomenal. What is the common factor among the most robust and resilient athletes in the world? It’s movement.
What I refer to as “economy of motion” comes from a body that is finely tuned. It’s a body that’s highly aware of how it functions in space. Players who master movement earn the right to maximize power. Improving performance and decreasing the chance and severity of injury are byproducts of training. By no means am I suggesting that strength and power are less important, but I am stressing the importance of freedom of movement at this stage of the season.
A staple in our programming when preparing for practice and games is a very specific movement protocol. I believe every player should be able to squat, lunge, reach and rotate with and without weight. Here are two practical and actionable steps to optimize movement.
1. Squat patterns. The game happens at multiple levels and multiple planes. We use at least seven different foot patterns including a regular, wide, narrow, stagger right, stagger left, internal rotation and external rotation. We also include everything from a full squat to a quarter squat.
2. Lunge matrix. The game takes place at multiple angles at multiple speeds. My aim here is to put our players in every position imaginable that they could see on the court. We use multiple tempos to progress through at least nine different lunge patterns at various speeds.
One of the most neglected aspects for high school and college players is their priority on nutrition. When we don’t give our body the fuel it needs, it becomes catabolic, stealing and taking from your lean-muscle. That’s the exact thing players are working so hard to have. So when players don’t give their bodies what it needs to train or recover, they compromise performance.
This affects the big three: immune system, energy levels and inflammation. Fundamental day-to-day nutrition should be about keeping a constant supply of energy to your brain and body. Carbohydrates are our primary source of fuel, as they provide energy for muscle function and act as the main fuel for the brain. When carbs are broken down, it produces glucose — the primary fuel for the brain and body.
One easy and actionable step is to travel with quick hitters. In addition to pre- and post-game meals, we travel with a couple of loaves of bread, peanut/almond butter, jelly, fruit, almonds and other simple options. It’s also important to travel with a blender and good carbohydrate/protein blend.
One non-negotiable for us is a post-game shake — all players must have it. After every game, players will begin the recovery process by drinking an 8- to 12-ounce shake. It has been tough at times, but this is very doable. The number one principle in nutrition and in life is to plan ahead when possible.
Keep these principles in mind as you embark on your postseason tournaments this year.
— Henry Barrera, CSCS, is the director of performance for men’s basketball at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @hoopdiaries.
Mah, C. D., Mah, K. E., Kezirian, E. J., & Dement, W. C. (2011). The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players. Sleep, 34(07), 943-950.
Sullivan, J. P. (2015). Brain always wins: Developing successful mind management.