My Child Needs Better Conditioning.  Is Cardio the Cure?


One of the most frequent things I see as a coach is the parent who feels his or her child is never in good enough shape.  While conditioning woes may be the case for a handful, it’s probably fair to say that if your child is playing heavy minutes in 3+ basketball games every weekend, he or she is doing just fine.  


It is important to realize that at the end of a game, any athlete who has played significant minutes is likely a little tired.  The athlete who feels 100% at the end of a competitive game either rode the bench or put forth less than his or her best effort.  


A classic example that I like to refer to when talking about conditioning is former North Carolina Tarheel and Indiana Pacer, Tyler Hansbrough.  During his college days, he would frequently play only 2-3 minutes after the tip before taking a small break. Hansbrough required these breaks because his effort and adrenaline were so high at the beginning of each game, he would need a minute or two on the bench to catch his second wind.  With all that said, Tyler’s college teams were some of the fastest playing teams in current memory, and one look at Hansbrough is enough to tell you that he was a man amongst boys.  


If a guy like Hansbrough can afford to take a break after just 2-3 minutes of hard play, maybe you should rethink what it is that your child requires to be a successful basketball player.  Would you rather be the most exceptional athlete on the court for 34 out of 40 minutes or play a full 40 at a lesser capacity? Would you rather feel you can exert your strength against your opponent at the end of the game, or just hang on for the ride?  


The sport of basketball is highly anaerobic, meaning oxygen is expended far faster than it is taken in.  The average athletes work at 85-90% of their max heart rate at any given point that the clock is running.  When the heart is racing this fast, it is simply impossible to maintain near maximal power output for long durations.  The fittest basketball players are able to exert near maximal power for a handful of possessions and recover during short stoppages (free throws, timeouts, a short rest on the bench).  


Another common asymmetry between parental and coaching philosophy is the effect of distance running on the basketball player.  Many players like to run cross country in an effort to prepare for an upcoming season. Unfortunately, putting in heavy mileage at a relatively slow pace can have detrimental effects on power output.  Athletes who train at a slower, oxidative state are teaching their bodies that it is okay to perform at a middle-of-the-road intensity for a long period of time. The heart rate percentage of a healthy distance runner is rarely close to the 85-90% range, as performing at that capacity for a 20+ minute race is essentially impossible. In summary, not only is the athlete working at a capacity well below basketball speed, but they are also biasing their muscle fibers away from the fast twitch fiber type that is so valuable for sprinting and jumping.  


Hopefully the information above has provided better understanding of the energy systems required for elite performance on the basketball court.  Rather than quite literally running your athlete ragged, consider using shorter, more intense bursts with similar amounts or shorter rest. Also, consider the role of your child on his or her team.  If they frequently shoulder the burden of scoring heavily or guarding the other team’s best player and they consistently perform well, attempt to reframe your mindset. An athlete who carries his or her team on a nightly basis will be tired.  The well trained athlete will not allow fatigue to act as a detriment.


Seth Eash