ORONO, Maine — Basketballs are bouncing, whistles are blowing and coaches are again barking out instructions inside Memorial Gymnasium.
That’s because the University of Maine men’s and women’s basketball teams have begun full-squad practices.
However, the Black Bears already were plenty busy during the five weeks leading up to the start of practice. Under the guidance of their respective sports performance coaches, UMaine basketball players have been working and preparing for the long season ahead.
Those efforts are paying off, according to senior Anna Heise.
“We look like we are in better shape,” she said of the women’s team. “I definitely feel like I’m in good shape and in a good place right now to kick off the practices.”
Men’s basketball head coach Bob Walsh also has seen evidence of the same.
On Monday, to conclude a 2½-hour practice, the team performed “8-6-4-2,” a series of partner-based sprints that must be completed by each duo within 9 minutes, 45 seconds.
“This is the first team I’ve coached where everybody on the team made the time the first time we’ve done it,” Walsh said.
“It’s hard to draw a significant conclusion from such a small sample size [of practices] but our guys have bought in and they’ve put in the work,” he said of preseason workouts.
Shortly after their arrival on campus last month, UMaine coaches began putting the basketball players through their paces.
Jon Lynch handles the men’s squad, representing UMaine’s sports performance staff. The women’s team is for the first time under the direction of Mallory Benard, a member of the women’s basketball staff who handles sports performance and other administrative duties.
Benard, who was hired this summer, conducted a week of testing for the women covering power, power capacity and conditioning to establish a baseline of their individual abilities.
“[We were] really focusing on movement and mechanics, teaching them how to move efficiently and properly and how that translates on the court,” said Benard, who recorded many of the sessions and provided the players with clips to show points of emphasis.
Lynch, who is new to the sports performance staff this year, made neurology (base of stability), conditioning and strength priorities with the men’s team.
“If an athlete has a great motor pattern that’s going to work their joints and muscles efficiently, that’s what we care the most about because that’s the kind of training that’s going to keep guys on the court and out of the training room,” Lynch said.
The sports performance coaches work closely with the basketball coaches to achieve the kinds of results they would like to see from the athletes through their preseason and continuing strength and conditioning work.
Benard’s relationship with head women’s basketball coach Richard Barron benefits from the fact they already work together and share the same office space.
“She’s got more expertise in that [sports performance] area than I do, so a lot of it’s trusting her and communicating,” Barron said. “She’s part of the staff, so as we plan things out, she’s part of that process.”
Lynch sat down with Walsh early on to find out what was important to the staff in terms of preparing the athletes.
“He let me know what his philosophy was,” Lynch said. “I need to deliver the same message he’s delivering.”
While Lynch balances his time between men’s basketball, baseball, softball and the track and field athletes, Benard works exclusively with women’s basketball.
“She’s working with all 16 and knows them pretty intimately, is with them every day, so is able to tailor what they’re doing to their needs and understands by watching our practices what the demands are,” Barron said.
Heise said having a full-time performance coach has been a welcome and beneficial development.
“She takes the time to go through each exercise, explain every single step,” she said. “I feel like I got so much out of those last four weeks of preseason just learning new stuff. I think it’s been really helpful.”
For Lynch, training methods for the men’s basketball team are tied directly to the on-court approach implemented by Walsh and his staff — a desire to play a high-intensity, fast-paced style.
“Conditioning is a big point of emphasis, always has been, for me as a coach in our programs for our style of play,” Walsh said.
Lynch has been helping the players build their stamina by maximizing their cardiac output.
“We want to be able to run harder, run faster and play at a faster speed than our opponents,” Lynch said. “The conditioning base is huge.”
The coaches also attempt to tailor exercises or drills to individuals to address specific issues affecting their performance. The athletes also are counseled on maintaining proper nutrition.
However, both Benard and Lynch pointed to the importance of providing the athletes with sufficient rest periods as part of their training regimen.
Workouts in the gym, on the track and in the Latti Fitness Center are staggered so they complement each other but don’t overtax the players.
“It’s a lot of monitoring stress versus recovery, so we want to make sure that there’s a balance,” Benard said. “As a coach, it all comes down to getting to know your team.”
The strength, speed and conditioning component that begins during preseason at UMaine is intended to be an extension of the basketball experience, one that generates an added element of camaraderie and purpose as the athletes prepare for their season and later work through it.
“There are certain things that we can quantify, measure and test, but I think it’s just as important that the players are confident in what they’re doing,” Barron said.
Benard and Lynch strive to help the basketball players get stronger, quicker and more efficient, all while helping them avoid injuries. Their overriding goal is the same as that of the players and coaches.
“If we’re not winning games, then I’m probably wasting time,” Lynch said. “We’re building connections with athletes, keeping them healthy while they’re here, but what we care about is winning, so that’s our No. 1 goal.”