No Days Off: The 4 Things That Turn a Pretender to a Contender in the NBA Playoffs

CONTENDERS vs. PRETENDERS

Hi everyone!

My name is Steffi Sorensen and I am absolutely thrilled to join the team at The Drop. You can currently find me on ESPN and FOX as a college basketball analyst and reporter, but my expertise in sports runs much deeper than that.

Steffi Sorensen workout
Steffi Sorensen

My life has been one incredible journey, a journey that took me from AAU ball in dinky gyms to being awarded Miss Florida Basketball in 2006. Coming out of high school, I didn’t have any big offers, so I signed to Florida Gulf Coast. (Some of you might know it as “Dunk City.”) My freshman year was a success: We lost just one game–the Division II National Championship. But despite the success it just wasn’t doing it for me, so I requested permission to transfer. Next stop: Juco.

My dream growing up–besides the obvious Connecticut, Tennessee dreams–was being a Florida Gator. I wasn’t offered a scholarship to UF out of high school, and still wasn’t coming out of Juco. But I took a chance as a preferred walk-on for the Orange and Blue. And guess where the first game of the year was? None other than…FGCU. As a walk-on, I didn’t start that game, but ended up starting every game after for the rest of my career. Pretty sure no one saw that coming.

I ended up graduating with honors in 2010 as team captain and team MVP my senior year. From there I spent training camp in Atlanta for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, and eventually moved on to Europe where I spent half a season abroad in France.

Basketball at the professional level was much different than anything I’ve ever done. It was no longer just a game. It was my job. Some people think playing at the highest level is glitz and glamour. Maybe so, for an elite few. In reality, it’s a business. And if you ain’t bringing it, pack your bags. Everything at the professional level revolves around your mind, body, and soul.

Coming back from Europe in 2011, I began training again in hopes I could get picked up by a WNBA team in the summer. When I failed to make a team, I went through an oh s***, what do I do now? transition. Many athletes can relate to this. I am no different. What I did know was training, and training at a high level. (On an “Oh, that girl is crazy!” level.) After getting certified in personal training, I was eventually in sports commercials for Gatorade with soccer pro Abby Wambach, and swimming commercials with Olympic legends Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin.

During my 27 years, I’ve competed against and reported on the world’s very best athletes, and with the NBA Playoffs here it’s important to dive into what separates the pretenders from the contenders. As a professional athlete, your world revolves around the game. Your training, eating, even your life is all geared toward competing. The NBA season has been criticized for being too long, too detrimental to players’ bodies. Teams have some of the world’s best trainers and staff to keep players physically up to speed, but the psychological grind that comes with it can truly take a toll. Believe me, I’m talking from experience.

That being said, here are the 4 Things That Turn a Pretender to a Contender in the NBA Playoffs.

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TRAINING
It can take three days for someone to get out of shape, and three months to get in shape. After 82 games, players are in shape, and doing any extra training or conditioning isn’t going to give any type of edge in the fourth quarter. In fact, it could do the opposite. No extra suicides. Let us rejoice. That’s why we did those in the preseason. Strength coaches specifically tailor a player’s training regimen on how many minutes their logging and their specific needs. Maintenance is the name of the game as the season winds down. No one’s going to make enormous strength gains midseason or late in the season.

ACTIVE RECOVERY
I can’t stress enough the importance of active recovery. Rehabbing, cold tank–although cold tanks are absolutely awful–you do what you gotta do. Shoving teammates in isn’t out of the question. Foam rollers become your best friend. Stretch bands, too.

I will never forget training at this high-intensity center in high school where several high-profile athletes would come and absolutely destroy workouts. I was in awe. Until it was my turn. Please God, don’t let me look stupid. After one sand pit workout, seeing stars, I thought I might pass out. Two days later, I could barely walk. I thought I had torn every muscle in my body. No hyperbole. The training staff said if you skip you’ll feel even worse. It was hard enough to sit down, but I showed up at the facility anyway to do some active recovery. Sure enough, that moment has stuck with me ever since.

Staying off your feet is one thing. But getting up and moving around, and taking advantage of the resources around you that can freshen legs is vital.

NUTRITION
Now, more than ever, is the time to keep the diet in check. If you can afford a chef, great. If not, become a great chef. There were days I ate great and I played great. Pasta can help propel your body for a longer duration. Then, there were days I ate poorly and played poorly. The two are synonymous. Cheats here and there are great. But as a professional athlete, it’s your responsibility to take care of that aspect.

Drop. The. Fast. Food. It’s for the better. Can’t ball so hard on a fast food diet.

MENTAL CLARITY
I saved this one for last because I think it is undoubtedly the most important aspect. Mental clarity can come in so many different facets. For me, to avoid getting burnt out, I had to escape the basketball world. If that meant skateboarding for an hour and listening to music so be it; watching reality TV and sitting in the dark so be it; walks with no music and just thinking so be it. Sure, you want fresh legs as the playoffs approach, but what separates the best from the rest? They are mentally clear, and mental ready when the time comes.

Follow Steffi on Twitter at @steffisorensen