Countdown to the Women's Basketball season: Power and explosiveness
Countdown to the Season Series: As the Longhorns coaching staff and players gear up for the official start of the 2005-06 season, TexasSports.com will go behind the scenes and help you get acquainted with the players and coaches and give you a look at what's going on as the team prepares for another year of challenging for championships.
Quick quiz: What is a major component of the Texas women's basketball program which is invisible to the eyes of opponents and fans and coaches - yet an incredibly important asset for wins, dominance and championships?
If you answered "off-season strength and conditioning", then consider yourself a winner - just as each Longhorn player is, due to their superb strength and conditioning program under the direction of eighth-year basketball strength coach Todd Wright. This is the first year that Wright is directly overseeing both the men's and women's basketball strength programs; previously, he worked with Rick Barnes' men's squad.
National championships are won in the weight room and on the track before a team ever hits a game-winning shot and hoists a championship trophy on a basketball court. That's the message that Coach Jody Conradt, her coaching staff and Wright send all year long to the Longhorns.
Strength and conditioning is an area of preparation so discreet that it often goes unnoticed by casual basketball fans. As subtle as it may be, it is crucial to a team's development. The ability to make shots and play intense, harassing "D" all game long begins in the off-season with lots of running and strength training.
And Texas has a model strength and conditioning program under Wright's direction.
"We really focus on the movements that they use on the basketball court," noted Wright, who is a nationally-renown strength coach and lecturer on basketball training who has a roster of college and NBA professionals who have made vast improvement while training under him. "We want our players to be strong in their movements and for everyone to use excellent technique in weight training. There are fundamentals that go into understanding how to use your body and perform those movements. We need each player to have explosiveness and power on the court."
"Right now, their excellent technique will carry over into their athletic performance," Wright added. "If you give up technique in the weight room, it can really hinder an athlete's performance - they will over-compensate and their body will not function properly."
Senior Nina Norman is noticing the improvement in her conditioning as she runs the team from the point guard position - where superior conditioning is essential.
"I'm in great shape and I can really see the differences in my conditioning this year," Norman explained. "Being a point guard - where you're running the offense and creating opportunities defensively - you have to be in great shape. I have to be able to get through a 40-minute game, but I know that won't be a problem because of the work I've put in with Todd. I've been working really hard on my explosiveness, and can feel the effects with my shots, which are quicker and stronger this fall. He helps you learn how to get in your defensive stance and use the floor and your hips to your benefit."
"Todd is one of those guys who knows how to push you," noted fifth-year senior guard Coco Reed. "He won't let you slack off at all at any time during your workouts. He's just a hard-nosed guy who knows how to motivate you. And it is paying off for us."
With such a young roster this season - a freshmen class of seven, the largest rookie class in Conradt's coaching career - Wright had his work cut out for him in terms of teaching the young players about the importance of weight training.
"We've got some young players who need a lot of teaching and foundation work, and they've done a great job in grasping it all so far," noted Wright. "All of the freshmen have improved tremendously. The older players also have done an excellent job. Their training is a little more advanced, as they're doing a little more strength training than the younger players. This is a very, very coachable group."
Yet, the transition from high school conditioning and weight-lifting to Division I college training is a huge adjustment for the young players.
"It is a real hard adjustment for the freshmen," Wright admitted. "None of them have ever worked this hard before. It's one of those things...if you educate them on how their body works, hopefully they'll be motivated to work and improve upon the things they aren't very good at. The days that they're going good, the positive encouragement, especially for younger players, can go a long way."
And freshman Earnesia Williams echoes Wright's observations.
"Working with Todd is great - he is a real upbeat kind of guy who pushes us to work hard every minute and who answers all our questions," said Williams, who came to UT with All-America accolades and 2005 Gatorade Oklahoma State Player of the Year honors.
"College weight training is so different than what any of the freshmen are used to!." Williams continued. "I am learning different things about my body - what muscles do what. As far as movement on the court, and I am learning why I can do things now that I couldn't do before."
One area of emphasis early on in pre-season workouts is lateral movement (moving side to side). An athlete with quick lateral movement can become an effective defensive presence who can play better man-to-man defense, steal the ball and draw offensive charging fouls.
And, for those who have followed Conradt's Longhorns throughout her storied career at the Forty Acres, they know how important rapid, up-and-down court play and smothering defense has been.
"We've taken the time to teach the fundamentals of how to move laterally and how to accelerate your body in a linear manner", Wright stated. "We've seen some real positive results with the team so far. Their hips are a lot stronger, and as a result, the players quickly learn how to get in their defensive stance and use the floor and their lower body to their benefit. They've really improved in their defensive footwork."
Beyond work on linear movement, every Longhorn player has taken steps to improve her acceleration and conditioning.
"We have looked at their acceleration mechanics - like running in a full sprint from a dead stop - and it is evident they have improved in that area," stated Wright. "Their conditioning has progressed because their acceleration has improved. The more efficient you are with the movement you create, the less stressful it becomes on your body, and, your conditioning levels come up a bit."
"Working with Todd has been a blessing. I'm in great shape and I can really see the differences in my conditioning," noted Norman.
Reed also knows she has come a long way in her conditioning since arriving on campus.
"I didn't know what to expect when I got here, but I understood very quickly that you work so very much harder at this level in your off-season workouts," said Reed. "But, it pays off, because your quickness and endurance really benefit from training so diligently."
The team typically conditions with Wright and graduate assistant strength coach Chris Braden at least two or three days per week during the off-season. A given week's work might consist of linear movement on one day (doing floor and ladder work) and weight-lifting and conditioning the next day.
"Strength is a component that enhances performance, and conditioning is a huge factor in allowing our athletes to play harder," commented Wright. "Everyday, they utilize one of the speed systems we have, they lift weights, and on other days they focus on conditioning drills. Their movement mechanics are a lot more efficient, which has allowed their conditioning levels to get a lot better."
During the season, the core components of strength and conditioning remain the same, though the emphasis on strength training will vary.
"By the time the season comes, our players' movements will be laid down and they will be ready to compete on the floor," noted Wright. "During the actual season, we work more with stability and mobility and keeping them healthy."
As important, all this preseason strength and conditioning work is beneficial to the mental and psychological outlook each player has.
"Being in this field for 12 years, I understand there will be days where you don't feel good and you either do your job or you don't," Wright said. "Each athlete has some kind of performance issue that limits his or her performance Making our players understand and work through them is part of the job."
"I speak for the freshmen in saying that most days we finish work with Todd and go into the locker room a little exhausted," Williams laughed. "We might have an easy day with him, but usually we hit it and go out hard. We all feel really good about how we've stepped up and worked hard. We know it will make a big difference in how we play."
And Wright sees all the positive signs of their hard work coming to light.
"I'm expecting really good things from the team this year," he said. "They all have God-given genetic talent and I've been so impressed by how hard each one of them has worked in the weight room. My job is to get things ready for Coach Conradt so that when they travel to Tennessee or Oklahoma or K-State, and they're not feeling real good or they are tired in the last minutes, that they can get their minds and their bodies ready to perform at a high level.
"Again, I think their attitudes have been great," Wright concluded. "As I've pushed them harder, they've bonded really well with each other and pulled together as a team. That's the kind of chemistry you need if you want to win championships."