No Days Off: Alan Stein On How Every Basketball Player Should Be Training This Summer

Basketball performance coach Alan Stein is probably best known for his work with Kevin Durant, but over the past few years, he’s been the leading strength coach with DeMatha High School, a national high school powerhouse. Now this summer, he was invited to work at the Nike Skills Academy, where he’s helping players better understand the benefits of training properly.

We caught up with Stein during some down time to talk about what players need to be doing as the summer heats up. For some, the truly lucky, it’s about playing in the NBA Summer League, and getting ready for training camps in the fall. For others, it might just be about making the high school team, or perhaps earning a scholarship. But no matter what level, they all can benefit from the offseason summer months.

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How important is the summer for the typical basketball player?
Alan Stein: Training needs to be something that kids start doing on a year-round basis because the landscape has changed to the point where there are all playing on a year-round basis. There really is no traditional offseason anymore. What used to be 15 years ago kids would have the summer off to work on their game and then show up in the fall as a more polished player and a better athlete just doesn’t happen anymore because kids are playing more during the summer than the winter. My whole goal is to give them the tools they need to be on a year-round training program and use that to supplement and build a foundation to use their skills and playing and so forth.

The summer is certainly an important time but so is the rest of the calendar year and kids really need to start taking advantage of that. They keep thinking “well I’ll work on this in the offseason” but then they don’t realize there is no offseason for them anymore. I’m talking about youth, middle, and high school age. Once you get to college, you actually have a distinct offseason because you aren’t playing AAU anymore. The college guys are actually getting in workouts in the summer, tremendous time and opportunities for them to develop. But I’ve seen that’s kind of been lost at the high school age.

You mentioned building a year-long foundation. Do the workouts differ from in-season to offseason?
AS: They will but that’s the thing. In theory, it’d be yes but the problem is kids are in-season 12 months a year now. You ask any kid right now what are they doing in June and July…they are playing games. This time, instead of playing one or two games a week like they would at a traditional high school, they’re playing six to eight games a week when they’re playing club or AAU or these traveling tournaments. That’s the part that makes it so difficult now to get this message across. If you’re playing eight games a week and you’re doing a traditional offseason strength and conditioning program, that’s just way too much. The body can’t tolerate doing that much. Unfortunately, I don’t use that terminology when I’m working with players but they’re kind of in an in-season program almost on a year-round basis.

If you were to choose not to play AAU and have their whole summer off and their own strength and conditioning, then certainly they could deal with a more advanced program. They could have higher volume of the stuff they are doing. They could tolerate doing more work. My job is to really help find that balance so that kids are not overworking themselves and overtraining because that’s one of the biggest problems now with players is they’re just playing so much and training so much and running and jumping all the time, with all the knee issues and ankle issues and back issues… For a kid who’s 15 or 16 years old, that’s completely unacceptable. The wear and tear on your body should start in your 30s and 40s, not when you’re a teenager. A lot of it is just from the overuse of doing way too much. My number one mission is to try to find that balance to give kids very purposeful and productive things that they can do in and around how much they’re playing so they can continue to get stronger, more powerful, and work on their basketball athleticism. But again with the right mixture depending on how much they’re playing.

Is that something you can tell if a kid is working too much?
AS: The warning sign of overtraining is just general fatigue. If a kid is just constantly worn out, and you can tell that with how they’re sleeping and how they’re eating, you can certainly just ask but you can certainly read it on their face and you can tell how tired a kid is. You have the acute fatigue if you go to Los Angeles and play in eight games and you come home on Monday, you’re definitely tired. But then that fatigue goes in an accumulative fashion week after week after week.

For kids who play all summer, when August hits, they are completely exhausted. They’ve been on the road most of the summer. They’ve been playing a ton. What happens right at the end of August? That’s when school starts and as soon as school starts, those high schools start that preseason program. Your gas tank is almost completely empty and then you gotta go and rev it back up and go through preseason training for eight to ten weeks and then the season starks. It’s a vicious cycle.

As much as I would love to see it change, I know it isn’t going to necessarily change. I go by the adage of “you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.” That’s the way I look at it. I know I’m not personally going to change the landscape of youth basketball culture that’s been created but hopefully I can give kids some drills and some context and some ideologies that will help them bulletproof their body on a year-round basis to stay strong, to stay fit, and do so in a very purposeful way. If you can “work on your body” 15-20 minutes a day, four or five days a week, that’s pretty sufficient, and that’s what I want most kids to do. While most of them go lift weights for an hour and a half six days a week, do all these jumping drills… you really don’t need to do all of that if you’re playing all the time. I keep using the word balance. Balance is so important. I’m painting everything with a broad stroke. You’re going to have kids on either end of the spectrum and you’re going to have kids who don’t choose to play AAU or not to go to summer camps, which again is what I wish we would get back to with more kids doing that.

Is there anything specific that every player should be doing in the summer?
AS: Flexibility and mobility. Making sure that there body is strong and powerful and then joints in their body that are supposed to be mobile, particularly the ankles and hips, those are things that take up the foundation of everything. When you think about the game itself, basketball consists of running and jumping when you’re playing these games. You don’t need to do running and jumping in your training. You’re already getting that portion. But you’re not really getting a ton of direct strength work and mobility work when you’re playing.

To find that balance, I think over the summer if you’re playing a lot, you really don’t need to do a ton of plyometrics or a lot of conditioning drills. What’s more important at that time is getting your body strong and working all of your muscle groups equally and not just doing some bench presses and some curls because that’s what you see at the beach… but really training all of the muscle groups in your body equally and your joints, especially ankles.

Does training differ depending on the age?
AS: That’s a great question. I really want kids starting—and it can be a little less structured when they’re young and make it more fun—when they’re 9, 10, 11 years old. That’s when they really need to start doing some bodyweight stuff and learning how to control that body. That can be with traditional strength exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, but controlling your body also has to do with jumping and landing and cutting and planting and decelerating and being able to put the breaks on. That type of stuff kids need to start doing even at 8, 9 or 10 years old. Again, it’s all bodyweight so we’re not adding any external resistance at that point.

Kids’ chronological age and their physical maturity aren’t always congruent. Sometimes you’ll see a 12-year-old who has the physical maturity of a 16-year-old. Sometimes you’ll see a 16-year-old who has the physical maturity of a 12-year-old. That part can vary greatly, but for the most part, once players have proven they have full command of their body, that they can land without their knees going in, they can decelerate and stop on a dime without their upper body swaying or twisting, they can do 10-15 perfect pushups and they can do 10 perfect pull-ups and they can hold a plank position for a minute and they can lunge properly and squat, once they can show they can do all of that stuff, regardless of age, they can graduate and start doing more traditional type stuff: medicine balls, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, and that type of thing.

Generally, it’s rare to find a kid younger than 11, 12 or 13 who has that full command of their body. You might find an exception here or there but for the most part, once you hit 12 or 13, that’s typically the stage where they have the requisite strength to do those things and then you can start introducing some of the more traditional exercises.

But once again, I’ve seen some 10 and 11-year-olds who can do that very efficiently, and I’ve also seen some 16 or 17-year-olds at DeMatha that can’t and then you stay with the body weight stuff even longer. That would be my biggest recommendation to players so they have full control over their body from the start from a strength and power standpoint before they even think about picking up a weight.

Do you have a lot of experience training college kids who are about to go to the NBA?
AS: Jerami Grant is a former DeMatha kid who just finished his sophomore year in Syracuse and is in the draft and he’s projected to go anywhere from 12 to 25 from what I’ve heard and he was at DeMatha the whole time I was there. He had a great early career at Syracuse. He’s someone who has really bought into the strength and conditioning stuff. When he was younger in high school, it was almost like he was allergic to the weight room. Obviously you can picture him. He’s really long and slender with really long arms so he doesn’t have the leverage to be a very good bench presser or do a lot of pull-ups because his arms are so long. He didn’t like being in there because it was something he wasn’t very good at it, but as he’s gotten older and more mature and realizes how much that will help his game, he’s really bought. That’s something that’ll continue to help him at the next level.

Then even here at the Skills Academy camp, Anthony Davis is one of the returning NBA players working with the kids and helping. He’s another long and slender guy but I saw him today and I’ll tell you what, I just patted him on the shoulder and he is so much more solid than he was a couple of years ago. He’s probably put on 30 pounds since he was a high school senior and even though he still looks long and slender, that extra 30 pounds is necessary when you’re playing at that NBA level. He jumped in some of these drills with some of the college guys and it was obvious how much that added weight and that added strength and power has been able to help him out. Again, that’s a testament. As you go up every level, from a jayvee high school player to a varsity high school player, from a varsity player to a college player and the very, very small percentage that go from being a college player to a pro player, your body and your strength and your power make an even bigger difference.

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