When teams around the world had to cease practices and official matches because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we could only speculate how this forced, unexpected inactivity would affect the athletes’ physical and mental condition. It was the first (and hopefully the last) time that all training had to stop for a period that turned out to be, in many cases, more than two months.
For most players, the only option to exercise was doing something at home, using any means available, which of course, was insufficient for maintaining the shape required to play basketball. Moreover, players left for their home countries or hometowns right before the imposed travel bans making efficient communication between them and their coaches hard. Fortunately, technology offered some solution as online training platforms, live programs through Zoom and other apps etc., became popular and played a key role in helping coaches stay in touch with the athletes and guide them through these difficult times.
Gradually, as the pandemic continued to cause global concern, most leagues announced that their championships would not be continued and that there would be no more official games until the following season. All summer national team tournaments, including the Tokyo Olympics, were cancelled raising a new concern amongst coaches: How to keep their players fit throughout this unprecedented, for European standards, three-month off-season.
Including the two-month quarantine period, the total time that athletes did not participate in any organized training was five months. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a unique opportunity for them to work on their bodies, their basketball skills and dramatically improve their game. But circumstances were far from normal. Most training facilities and gyms around the globe were still in lockdown. There were restrictions on group gatherings and it was hard for any team activity to be organized. Players had to find ways to train in their unique environment based on the local circumstances. Coaches had to rely on the player’s professionalism and love of the game to ensure that they would do what was required to maintain or even improve their physical condition.
Stemming from these uncertainties, coaches were worried that their athletes would not report to their respective pre-season training camps at the end of summer in an optimal physical state. The general assumption was that, after such a long, relatively unsupervised off-season, there would be a need of a longer pre-season period. The thought was that most players would need extra time to allow for a smoother adaptation to training loads. Indeed, many teams added additional days to their usual pre-season, starting their training camps in early August.
But when official training for the 2020 -21 season started, reality appeared to be different. It turned out that most players returned to action in a surprisingly good shape compared to the previous years. In fact, some of them looked better than ever! This became obvious after our initial testing and through their performance during the first few team practices. We observed lower body fat, increases in muscle mass, in strength and power. Importantly, almost all athletes started their season “pain free”, having successfully handled injury problems they plagued them during the previous season.
The value of a long off-season
It seems that the long “forced break”, even though it was mined with adversities, gave athletes the chance to rest properly, recharge and focus on their personal development. They could eat better, sleep more, train with precision and spend quality time with their families and loved ones. Moreover, they were accountable for their own success, being away from their team and coaches for a long time. Not playing basketball for months, made them “hungry” for the game they love and gave extra motivation to compete and to win.
In short, what we are experiencing is the aftermath of a well utilized off-season, with no summer national team obligations combined with a relatively short season (most teams stopped competing and practicing in mid-March). This is probably one of the biggest differences between the NBA and European basketball. European athletes at the elite level lack the opportunity to work during the summer and improve. They must struggle with long seasons and continuous competition that wear them out and offer no chance for personal development. Injuries never fully heal, and it becomes increasingly harder to remain healthy throughout the season. This of course is a difficult problem to solve, as national team competitions also add great value to the game, enhance national pride and fan experience. But it’s clear that players need to find more time away from competition for their own sake and the sake of the game itself.
There are two more closing points I would like to address: First, all that I described is what we currently observe. We will have to wait for the season to start and progress, monitor injury rates and team and individual performance before we come up with a definitive judgment about the combined effects of the quarantine and the long off-season. Second, these are empirical observations from our team and from personal communication with other strength coaches in the Euroleague. We have no systematic data analysis – at least yet – and it remains to be seen what the final outcomes will be. However, the benefits of longer rest times and the application of an organized, well-planned training plan are well -documented and unequivocal.
• The views and opinions of the author do not reflect those of the Club or Employer.