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Thoughts on Basketball Conditioning by NBA Coach Paul Westhead

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"How Former NBA Coach, Paul Westhead, had so much success at Loyola Marymount because of his intense focus on conditioning"

While I was playing high school basketball a team came out of nowhere in California to catch college basketball by storm. Loyola Marymount University was an amazing team to watch. I grew up in Utah and would stay up as late at night just to watch them play on television. It was a show. The thing that made them most unique was their desire to score lots of points and to put lots of shots up.

They wanted to average a shot every 6 seconds. They had great players like the late Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and a baseball player named Terrell Lowery. They would full-court press, run as fast as possible and score lots of points. They had a shooting guard named Jeff Frier and he was my idol. He was my idol because he was able to shoot whenever and wherever he wanted to. It was crazy to watch.

They were coached by  Paul Westhead who used to coach the Los Angeles Lakers when Magic Johnson was playing. Westhead was interviewed on ESPN and gave his secret to how his team could play this way.

It was no surprise that the answer was conditioning. How he conditioned them was what set them apart from all the other Division 1 college basketball teams.

Westhead described making conditioning something that wasn't associated with punishment. Instead he tied it to playing time. Nobody could play on his team if they weren't in shape. If you ever watched them you know what I'm talking about. His off-season workouts were grueling, but the players knew if they wanted to play that had they had to sacrifice.

In-season was just as bad, but the key to truly conditioning players is to make certain that it isn't a punishment but something that is directly tied to playing time. Nothing impresses a coach more than a player who is in shape. It shows dedication, responsibility and that the player cares about his or her basketball career.

Then he focused on the conditioning not being strictly lines or ladders, but associated directly with basketball. Meaning that many of the drills for conditioning were done while backpedaling or doing defensive drills or running fast breaks. Players were asked to jump rope because of its direct correlation to basketball.

I thought often about all the conditioning that I did that wasn't basketball related and it made me understand the true point behind conditioning. The best coaches I ever played for were coaches that timed drills and segments of practice and everything was done full speed or as they called it "basketball speed".

Last thing he mentioned was to really ensure that each conditioning drill had a benefit to it or included some form of competition. Everything in basketball is competitive and the conditioning drills should be also. Players enjoy competition. I loved racing other players for loose balls or for anything. I enjoyed knowing that there was a purpose for my running or conditioning.

Once, I remember a coach asking me to run against the fastest player on our team and if I beat him then we would be able to go home early from practice. He also told the kid that if he won he didn't have to run anymore.

Not the greatest strategy when I look back but I gave everything I had. It had a purpose and a point and because of that I beat him. I wanted my team to see the benefits and that's what it should be about. If you are a coach and reading this, then please use competition in your conditioning.

Paul Westhead went on to coach the Denver Nuggets and attempted to use the same style in the pros. What happened were some of the highest scoring games in NBA history. However, the style simply wasn't as effective in the pros.

One of my favorite memories was watching that Loyola Marymount team beat the University of Michigan in the NCAA tournament. Afterward they interviewed Jeff Frier and asked him why anyone wouldn't want to play ball at Loyola. He laughed and said "they need to come see us in the off-season." He was right. The best players are made in the off-season. They beat Michigan in the off-season and the win that night was a result of that.

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