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Coach and Athletic Director Magazine
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Spartan Basketball

Training With a Football Mentality

By Ken Mannie and Mike Vorkapich


It was a cold, blustery day in December, 1994, when we met Tom Izzo and became convinced that he was destined for great things.

Tom made the trek to the Duffy Daugherty Football Weight Room to welcome us to the Spartan family and watch a few of the players go through an introductory workout.

His message to us was loud and clear: "I want our basketball team to train like this - with the same intensity, the same environment, and the same mental toughness!"

We could only smile and say, "Sure thing, Tom!"

It really shouldn't have surprised us. Tom has always described himself as a basketball coach with a football mentality. After all, Tom had been an outstanding football player at Iron Mountain (MI) H.S., where he was a teammate and close friend of Detroit Lions head coach Steve Mariucci.

During Tom's tenure, Michigan State has earned national respect for playing a clean, gritty, hard-nosed style of basketball that demands great effort in all phases of the game: sprinting and diving for loose balls, crashing the boards relentlessly for rebounds, battling for position down low, and executing a suffocating brand of defense.

Tom's creed is emblazoned on a wall in the team's locker room at the Breslin Center: PP-TPW (Players Play - Tough Players Win). He constantly talks about making a relentless commitment together.

He coaches his players to coach each other, to take ownership and responsibility both on and off the court, and to make each other better.

In his words, "The difference between good players and great players is that great players make those around them better!"

The program's success hasn't been the result of any specific exercises performed in the weight room or on the court. Spartan Basketball has achieved an elite status as a result of the quality, character, attitude, and intense work ethic of the players.

All of the above have been instilled in them by their coach.

In Tom Izzo, we have a coach who isn't drowning in the mythology that strength training turns elite athletes into stiff, clumsy robots who can't drain the 20-foot baseline jumper.

He wants his players to develop strength, power, speed, quickness, calloused hands, bruised elbows, and a rainbow of floor burns. And he is well aware of the fact that increased strength will enhance their innate athletic abilities.

Needless to say, all of this makes our job a lot easier.

Allow us to share some of the training procedures we implement with our cagers.

Strength Training

We believe in an intense brand of strength training for basketball that challenges both the mind and the body. We know that below a certain level of intensity, strength training has a minimal effect.

Much has been studied, written, rationalized, espoused, and suggested in our strength-training protocols over the past few decades. One inescapable precept always rises to the top: to gain an appreciable amount of strength and power, an appreciable amount of weight must be used for the given target reps or rep range.

Scientists and practitioners will continue to squabble over the optimal number of sets per exercise, the appropriate rep duration (i.e., rep speed), free weights vs. machines, and a host of other philosophical nuances.

However, there is a fairly solid consensus that an organized system of progressive overload must exist within safe, effective boundaries.

In other words, the neuromuscular system must be nudged out of homeostasis - the body's physiological "comfort zone" - for growth to occur.

Make no mistake: We are determined to nudge our players out of their comfort zones in our strength-training sessions.

Our total package is obviously a bit more extensive (i.e., we rotate several different scripts) and is always subject to changes and revisions, but these charts offer an overview of our basic exercises and set/rep schemes.

While the three workouts noted are total body affairs, we implement a combination of total body and split routines dependent upon the time of year and the other stresses (e.g., running/agility workouts, individual/group court work, etc.) placed on the body. We pay strict attention to recovery, nutritional strategies, and preventing overtraining.

When performed in a total body fashion, these three scripts are performed on non-consecutive days. If we decide to split them into upper/lower designs, we have the option of lifting on back-to-back days (e.g., upper body on Monday and Thursday and lower body on Tuesday and Friday).

Another option is to perform a total body workout on Monday, an upper body workout on Thursday, and a lower body workout on Friday.

Again, our specific approach is dictated by the amount of running, skill workouts, and/or practices that are on the docket for that week. This is especially true of the in-season period, when we have to temper and adjust the variables of frequency, duration, intensity, and target areas due to the brutal practice and game schedule.

Toughness Training and Conditioning

Basketball is one of the few collegiate sports in which the team is permitted to work directly on game skills year-round. As a result, a great deal of their conditioning in the spring and early summer is gleaned from the numerous intrasquad scrimmages they play every week.

Basically, these are pick-up games that are devoid of coaching and are played for skill enhancement and fun. Additionally, they provide anaerobic conditioning in a task-specific manner, which we believe is a critical component. While we will occasionally perform general "agility" drills for overall conditioning and mental toughness purposes, we prefer to marry conditioning with skill specificity.

Since mental toughness is high on Coach Izzo's priority list, we perform some early morning "toughness training" bouts during the late summer and early fall. Unlike the specific conditioning that constitutes the brunt of our training, these sessions have absolutely nothing to do with basketball, and everything to do with their degree of difficulty and in challenging the players to push themselves and each other through competitive situations.


  • Driving a football sled in an interval fashion up and down the indoor football field.
  • Pushing/pulling large wooden or steel sleds in relay races.
  • Tractor tire flips in relay races.
  • Pushing 2x4's in relay races.
  • Pushing a 45 lb. plate for laps around the weight room.
  • Sprinting and jumping drills in a sand pit.

Some conventional conditioning drills include the following:

Up-backs: This is a court drill that starts on the baseline. Sprint and touch the near free-throw line with a designated foot, return to the baseline and touch with the same foot, and continue the sequence by touching the mid-court line and back, and the far baseline and back.

The players are timed and given a 3:1 relief to work ratio. Ten to fifteen total bouts are performed. Various movement techniques can be incorporated for variety, such as defensive shuffles, backward runs, and crossover runs.

Width Sprints: This court drill starts on the sideline. Sprint across and back for nine total reps (once across equals one sprint) in 30 seconds. Again, a 3:1 relief to work respite is allowed and 10 to 15 total bouts are performed.

4 in 22: This is undoubtedly the toughest drill, and it is one we use for a conditioning test. The players are required to sprint four full lengths of the court in 22 seconds or less. Twenty-two total work bouts are performed. The players are split into four groups for the test, with one group running while the other three rest. This arrangement permits the necessary 3:1 relief to work ratio.

Backboard Jumps: Standing on one side of the basket, the player jumps and slaps the backboard with both hands. Upon landing, he slides across to other side of the bucket and performs another two-hands slap. The drill continues back and forth at full speed for 15 to 20 seconds. This is a great "finisher" at the end of practice or a conditioning session, with each player performing at least ten reps in a 3-4 man rotation.

Targeting the Anaerobic Energy System

Anaerobic training is the most critical component of our conditioning program. This is due to the fact that sprint training develops the specific energy pathways the body depends on to execute the movements, skills, and grueling pace of practice and games.

As with all forms of conditioning for basketball, a systematic game plan for anaerobic fitness is paramount for a high level of proficiency.

We hope we've given you some insights into the genesis of the philosophy and a little taste of the daily operating procedures of the Spartan Basketball strength and conditioning program.

It all starts at the top with Tom Izzo and players who have a great work ethic and are outstanding student-athletes.

We are fortunate to be a small part of it.

Tip From the Trenches

Trans fat; maybe the worst fat of all. Trans fat is a monounsaturated fat that occurs naturally in low levels in milk and beef. However, 80% of the trans fat we consume is in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Hydrogenation is the process of heating an oil and passing hydrogen through it, which makes it more dense. Full hydrogenation creates a solid fat out of the oil, while partial hydrogenation creates an oil with the consistency of butter.

Because of its consistency, palatability, and the fact that it is relatively inexpensive to produce, partially hydrogenated oils have found their way over the years into a host of processed foods. The most common culprits are snack foods (potato chips, cookies, cakes, and other "goodies") and deep-fried foods.

So what's the problem with partially hydrogenated oils? Research has shown them to be at least as bad - and even worse, according to some scientists and doctors - as the dreaded saturated fats. So bad, in fact, that an FDA regulation takes effect in 2006 requiring food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fat in their products.

There is scientific evidence that trans fats have all of the artery-clogging effects of saturated fat while also preventing some of the "good" fats from doing their jobs. Some information suggests that HDL (the "good" cholesterol) is negatively affected as well, giving trans fats a long, sinister rap sheet.

Our suggestion: When grocery shopping, check the food labels for the words partially hydrogenated next to any type of oil. If you find them, put the item back on the shelf.

Look for labels that read "0% trans fat!" Your heart and arteries will thank you.

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