June 27, 2011

Zak Penwell: Indian Basketball’s New Workout Plan

Nothing fills a need better than what is exactly needed to fill that need. A perfect fit to an incomplete jigsaw puzzle.

Let me explain: What is the most common criticism against the performance of the basketball players in India? If you asked me, the answer woyld be fitness and athletic ability. For too long, our stars have been one step behind our athletically-charged opponents, and for too long, have Indians worldwide heard that they weren’t ‘athletic enough’ for basketball. Not explosive enough. Too Weak. Too Slow. Too Tired.

During the Asian Games basketball tournament last November, a well-coordinated Indian Men’s team showed flashes of brilliance under Coach Bill Harris, but were never fit enough to keep up their concentration for the entire duration of their games. Most recently, India’s finest women’s player Geethu Anna Jose, the only Indian to be offered trials with the WNBA, was overwhelmed by the strength of the American players she went against at the trials.

Player strength and conditioning was the great missing piece of Indian basketball’s jigsaw puzzle: it isn’t true that Indian basketball players aren’t athletic enough; we just haven’t been given the right guidance to develop our bodies to its complete potential.

Enter the missing piece: A month ago, American Zak Penwell was hired by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) as its first-ever Strength & Conditioning (S&C) Coach. Penwell comes to India after combining a world of athletic-conditioning education and experience. He was brought alongside other American coaches Kenny Natt and Pete Gaudet, who will be working with the Indian Men’s and Women’s teams respectively as head coaches. Penwell, meanwhile, will focus on S&C for both teams, as well as the players on the junior national programmes.

“A sport like basketball has certain demands that every high-level coach will make,” said Penwell on the importance of his role with the Indian National sides, “They need to be good athletes, jump higher, hold their position, run faster, handle fatigue, concentrate and be sharper… My job is to give the players all the tools they need to perform at their best.”

Penwell believes that his role is more than that of just a fitness trainer – he prides on being a coach, instead, reaching out to players to increase not only their physical abilities but also to toughen them up mentally for their challenges. “At the highest level, the players need to focus on their skill and their tasks in in-game situations. If a ball-handler believes that he or she can dribble past an opponent, their legs shouldn’t betray him. A player should focus on their skills and tactics and not be held back by physical limitations.”

As the BFI’s Strength & Conditioning Coach, Zak Penwell will be responsible for developing and implementing specialized nutritional, strength training, and conditioning programs for all Indian national men’s and women’s teams. He will also advise Indian coaches throughout the BFI system to enhance and nurture the development of top basketball talent throughout the country.

Penwell comes most recently from Scotland’s Sportscotland Institute of Sport, where he worked with athletes from a range of national teams including swimming, basketball, sprint canoe, judo, rugby, golf, curling, triathlon, and field hockey. Since 2006 he has spent over 40,000 athlete contact hours in the weight room, with over 550 elite collegiate and international-level athletes. Penwell is a graduate of the U.S. men’s and women’s college basketball power the University of Connecticut, where he earned two degrees from the top Kinesiology program in America.

Bottom line: the BFI couldn’t have chosen a better fit for its needs in India. Penwell feels that the ‘perfect fit’ was mutual. “There is amazing potential for the game here, but little in the field of Strength and Conditioning,” Penwell said, “That is why it’s an exciting opportunity to start with a fresh slate, do the things the right way, and watch the right system flourish. My strengths fit perfectly with Indian Basketball’s needs.”

“I’m here to impart a championship mindset.”

Although Penwell has experience in assisting almost 20 different sports, he is in India for basketball and basketball alone. “Everything I train the players for in the gym or on the court will have a direct, practical application during game-time,” he said, “They should know how each exercise will translate directly to basketball.”

In his first few weeks working at the camp in Delhi for the Indian Senior and Youth National Basketball teams, Penwell has learnt the needs of the players and his approach to working individually with several of the men and women here. “The first goal for us here is that the players need to get stronger,” Penwell says, “Along with strength training, we will work on improving their agility and getting the basics right.”

Being strong and fit enough to avoid injury also plays a crucial role in success in basketball – no team likes to play the biggest competitions with its best players are on the bench nursing an injury. Injury Prevention will become a major part of Penwell’s focus.

Of all of the criticisms that might befall Indian players, here’s one that we can do little about: height. But Penwell has a plan of countering height by increasing conditioning in other areas, such as jumping ability (or ‘jumpability’, as he calls it), positioning, and being fitter to simply ‘outwork’ opponents on the court. “Our players have to have the stamina to keep performing even when their tired. It’s about Total Recovery – recovering to their full ability in the shortest amount of time.”

“I have no doubt of the player’s potential,” he adds, “All I ask for is a 100 percent effort and attention to detail. The athletes we have can be made into winners.”

During his three-year stint, Penwell hopes not only to improve the strength and conditioning of the basketball players in India, but to also revolutionise the field for all sports in the country. “Once people see the changes we produce in basketball, it can be a good model for other sports in the country,” said Penwell, “It should be a success story that others can follow.”

Already, the players at the National Camp are starting to show understanding and appreciation for Penwell’s work. Both the new coaches of the Indian national team – former NBA head coach Kenny Natt and former Duke/Vanderbilt/OSU coach Pete Gaudet – are seeing a more disciplined approach to player fitness and durability than in the past.

“By the time I’m done here, I hope to see basketball in India achieve things it has never achieved before,” Penwell says.

A perfect fit, indeed – because basketball lovers in India will walk step-by-step with Penwell so that all our dreams can be achieved.

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