Jeff Capel has brought a tremendous amount of hype and jubilation to the Pitt basketball program. The Panthers have yet to hit a three-point shot or dunk a ball, yet the Zoo Era is off to a rousing start. In a sea of newly hired coaches, Director of Sports Performance Garry Christopher remains one of the few holdovers from the previous regime. Pittsburgh Sports Now wanted to discuss with him the transition from the previous regime to the Zoo Era, his assessment of the basketball team and tap into his insights in to strength and conditioning.
Let’s push the past aside the past and focus on the Zoo Era. You are one of the few left that has been around to witness the cultural change under Coach Capel. Talk about the palpable changes you’ve seen since Capel has taken over the helm of the Pitt basketball program?
Yeah for sure. As you just mentioned, I think the program did a complete 360. Coming from such a marquee program as Duke, you see things in a different perspective in life. You know what it takes to succeed. He knows what it takes from a marketing standpoint to elicit yourself to continue in that brand given the state of the nature of college basketball. Everybody is trying to transition, everybody wants their program to be at the highest of heights but you’ve got to constantly brainstorm and have ideas. For us here it’s been so amazing. Witnessing the transformation in terms of coaches’ mindset, I think that’s kind of where it all starts.
Of course, we’ve got the marketing team and our branding team and all these other separate entities, but I mean it’s all has to be around his philosophy, his culture. Coach Capel has come in and established that and I think his interaction with all the other departments, everybody has a good feel of what it is that we need moving forward to elicit out there to the general public and our fan base. It’s just a signature of who Jeff Capel is, honestly.
This is your third year with the Pitt basketball program. You have a large number of returning players with a few new faces. Have you changed up your workouts or implement tweaks to what you have been doing or stick to the same methodology?
Every coach has their set-in stone way to a certain extent. For myself, it’s honestly based around my personnel. With that being said, each individual of course has an individualized program based off of their need and their want, also their imbalances and their deficiencies. We cater (workouts) based off of each player. Of course, there’s times when I go outside my comfort zone from what I’ve been accustomed to doing if it’s going to benefit that player in the best way, shape, form, and fashion, of course we’re going to do that. Like you said we’ve got a different mix of kids this year. We’ve got young, we’ve got old, we’ve got experienced but with that being said it’s all about our playing style as well.
I have to complement the coach’s playing style. For us it’s going to be a real up tempo. I know we said that in the past of course, but just judging from the first 13 practices we’ve been in, we’re really getting up and down the court. It’s really high intensity but also paying attention on the defensive end and becoming fundamentally sound. For us we have to be able to play defense for more than half of a game. We have to have that mindset. For myself, conditioning this season was at the forefront of it all, more so than before. Of course, on our off-season strength training was key. Moving now into the in-season mode, we have a heavy emphasis on the explosion and the conditioning side of things. So yeah, every player is of course different and I have switched up my methods due to our playing style for sure.
In other words, if you’re going more up tempo, it would behoove you to have leaner team. Am I correct?
Yes, not only from the standpoint of being leaner, but from a metabolic standpoint internally, just making sure our kids are able to withstand the duration of a 40-minute game or even a 50-minute game, 45, whatever it is with overtime or double overtime. We have to be able to have those methods in place to complement that playing style, absolutely.
Addressing the needs of a 6-foot-10 inch forward would vary from that of a 6-foot-3-inch guard. Do you implement set position workouts or individualize workouts for each player?
Absolutely. Every player comes in differently. Position matters most and so it would do our kids a disservice if I had a whiteboard and I put up the exact same workout for every position and every skill player and said everybody you attack this and do the exact same thing. Why? Because we have guards, there’s a reason why there’s guards, forwards, and big men because they all have something specific that they bring to the court. We think in terms of our training, what’s going to best benefit this guard. A guard as to be able to change his hips and be able to open, have the flexibility and then explosiveness to be able to stand in front of a guard.
Big men have to be able to get down low. I’ve heard this term plenty of times before, if you can’t bend, you can’t help us win. So, with our big men, of course they have to be able to be in the stance and be comfortable, also be able to go up and snag rebounds so they have to have that power and explosion. Everybody has that plan of course based off of their position and based off of their own genetic makeup as well. Because that goes into a key factor as well. Not everybody can jump. Not everybody has those fast twitch fibers, so it’s based off of their genetic makeup but also our playing style and position.
How would you describe the attitude of the team this summer? Obviously, you spent a tremendous amount of time with the team.
It goes back into what I eluded to originally, I terms of that Jeff Capel swag. Coach will get out there and he’ll go through ball handling drills with guys. He’s still got it. He’ll get out there and he’ll demonstrate and I think when you have a coach who’s willing to go the extra mile to show you himself, even sometimes stepping outside of your comfort zone, it goes a long way in these young men’s minds. So, for us moving forward with our team and our guys, it’s just brought a different dynamic. It’s just a different dynamic. They had a very positive attitude. Coach did a great job of coming in and helping our guys press that reset button.
When you go 0-19, it’s tough to not think about the past. Because at some point in time you have to be honest with yourself and feel like it’s going to always be dangling over your head to some certain extent. Coach did everything he could to change the narrative of this story. He came in and helped those guys press that reset button, and the rest of our coaching staff it’s just been kind of like a different, it’s been a transition. A transitional period but it’s also been refreshing because look, we have the opportunity now to start afresh and anew. We can change what the narrative of this story, and now moving forward guys really honed in on that concept
I’ll use some examples of certain guys and I’m sure they won’t mind. It’s like Terrell Brown. Terrell Brown came in last year really skilled kid. We knew we had to work a lot in terms of different key parts of his body and things of that nature, but overall conditioning, Panther’s challenge week last year, year one killed him. Annihilated him. I didn’t know if he was going to make it. This year, his progress has been so crucial and improved drastically to where now Terrell looks like a gazelle getting up and down the court. I mean a lot has changed, and so guys understood. Our returners so to speak understood, okay a year in the weight room, a year of playing, what it did for me in terms of improving my overall ability. We had freshmen come in and the upperclassmen set the example. They had the upperclassmen to talk to and learn from. This summer, we had complete buy in from the players.
Buy in from the players was absolutely crucial. If you have kids that are skeptical who think, oh well my high school coach did it this way, different than what you told. Or actually my trainer that I work with at this facility said that … no, when you come in just trust the plan that’s set forth in front of you. I promise you that’ll work. So, no questions asked, our guys bought in. The rest of it was smooth sailing. The physiological point about training, that’s the easy part for myself. Honestly, that’s why we’re trained and we’re qualified in what we do. It’s the part of being able to break down that mental barrier, the mental capacity and get through. It’s critical for the players to be able to see themselves not only in this moment but outside of the spectrum of this moment and what that entails. I couldn’t be more pleased with their attitudes.
You probably don’t have a baseline for the freshmen entering the program, but have you seen quantum improvement from the returning players?
For sure. When they get here on campus we have a number of tests that we put our kids through. Everybody you know, we don’t have a program to where guys come in and your first day is actually actual training. No, as a professional I understand what it’s like to know that everybody’s different, like I mentioned before in terms of imbalances, deficiencies, things of that nature but also your strengths. We put them through anywhere from a week to two of rigorous testing. We perform a number of functional movements, screening systems, or power-based assessments. The next step is to take the players to a neuromuscular research lab here on campus and have them go through a baseline measurement of a number of tests from power to lower body, upper body strength, flexibility.
This helps us answer the question, can this kid move? If a kid can’t move why are you putting weight on him? That’s like a buzz term that honestly aggravates me in our profession. Kids visit and they asked how much weight I can put on them. Well, is the weight going to complement his game? Or is the weight going to be a deficiency to the deficiencies he already has? So pretty much what you’re doing if you do that is you’re masking dysfunction. Ultimately that kid is going to get hurt. We have to understand the intricacies of that and so when our kids come in, they go through this week to two long assessment, screening system, and then we’re able to kind of gaze moving forward where we need to start them.
Who would you say is the strong pound for pound player on the team?
Not even a question, Malik Ellison. Malik’s a freak. He’s a freak. Over 40-inch vertical. Anything that I throw at him he excels at. We don’t do one rep testing. It’s not applicable to our sport more so. He can do 425 lbs., I believe for about four reps on squat. I mean the kid is strong. The kid is very, very strong pound for pound. And you see it out there in his movement and even getting to the lane, he’s a force to be reckoned with for sure.
Nutrition is such a key component to peak performance. You are what you absorb. Clearly, we are talking about elite D1 athletes, but how much involvement do you have when it comes to what the players are consuming? What role do you play?
We have a number of measures here in place to help our kids with that. It’s key because when we’re talking about individuals coming from high school, or even some of our kids coming from transfers, whatever it might be, they don’t truly have a baseline of what nutrition really means. And I think that process is an ongoing process for all four, three, two years, however long it is in terms of coming from high school and AAU programs where everything’s on the go. And it’s let me grab what I can. As a rule of thumb, basketball players typically don’t like to eat a lot. Whether it’s before practice or even in the morning, we usually skip breakfast and our first meal is a lunch of some sort which is usually terrible. Then they go into practice without being fueled so your performance is going to be affected by it.
So yeah, there are a number of measures getting back to your question in which we have a nutritionist here on staff that does a good job of helping our kids and educate them. She and I work in conjunction daily honestly in terms of trying to put the best plan of action moving forward and to optimize and improve performance. So that can entail a number of things, whether that’s supplements, whether that’s our training table in which our guys are privy to have a couple of meals made for them each and every day of course based around performance. We have a number of measures in place to try to help them, but that’s one with your knowledge and your past, you understand there has to be a balance there.
It’s really an educational process. A lot of kids when you get them in and you talk to them, nutrition essentially it becomes this negative connotation where they think it means a diet. What is going to help fuel my performance is how you have to think of it. What’s going to help better me as an athlete? Athletes always have this connotation that it’s green this, green that, restrict myself from this. It’s not that at all. So, educating them first is key. They have to start from the beginning and understand the parameters and what exactly nutrition means, then you can get a little bit more buy in on that spectrum.
Everybody can improve at their craft. What do you personally do on a year to year basis to keep up with the latest workouts and trends?
That’s a great question. I think it’s incumbent upon us as strengthening, post-performance professionals are to always continue to try to better ourselves in our craft as you just mentioned. A lot of times we get caught up and the profession can become old and mundane. You have to take it upon yourself to be able to get out there and see different things and explore different corners. Talking to different colleagues and coaches and see what the new edge is. For myself personally, number one is I can honestly say is my brother.
My brother Nicodemus Christopher who is the director of swift performance at the University of Missouri for the men’s hoops teams as well. He and I, we got into this profession together and so he’s got that but when I can always turn to rely on. He’s the one who asks the hard and the tough questions in terms of training and application and nutrition and those things of why you’re doing it and why it makes sense. We talked on a daily basis. So, having somebody like that, and I have a few other guys in the profession in which of course … I have a number of colleagues, let me say that, but you don’t call everyone for everything of course. I have a few other individuals in which I can turn to and rely on and they ask those hard questions as well. But first I couldn’t say anything without giving homage to my brother for being there and vice versa.
Myself, going to clinics are very key to say the least. I typically try to go to three or four each and every year from you name it, from perform better, to there’s a basketball performance floor clinic for all the high-level basketball coaches in the country. I even went to a TSAC, which is tactical strength and conditioning conference which was mostly military based, but I wanted to see training from a different perspective. How they bring injured warriors back and their implementation of their methods. It’s not necessarily just going to a conference and seeing a three by ten, no. For myself, I think it’s incumbent that we kind of look outside the spectrum of that. If it’s not something you’ve done, okay why not hear the perspective on it because there might be something there that you can implement yourself.
If there’s a conference out there that’s all about professional development, I think that’s key for all of us to try to embrace that in some capacity. As for myself, I love educating. Honestly, I have a journal I take with me everywhere. If there’s ideas and concepts, they’re always brewing. You know, ad for myself, even not just during the work hours. It’s late hours of the night at home, and traveling, or if I’m out walking out and about. I’m always jotting down ideas and I’m always coming back and refocusing and reflecting on them and asking myself, okay what can we do? How can we make this plausible of course for our team? How is this specific? So, I’m reading daily. I’m a huge reader. Our kids will tell you sometimes they’ll catch me around the facility just reading.
From a professional development standpoint, I always have to remain a student of the game. I think unfortunately in our profession that’s kind of where certain individuals lack is that once you think you’ve arrived, you’ve arrived. I feel like you can never ever know enough. I want to become the best sports performers director that there is out there. For myself, I have to educate myself on a daily basis of course. And not just myself but of course having great professionals around me to help even makes it better.
Harry Psaros can be found on Twitter at @PittGuru