Orlando Magic: Coping With A Congested Return-To-Play

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Catapult reached out to its community with the aim of helping to provide guidance to coaches, players and practitioners as they prepare for the return to their respective sports.

As such, we caught up with Orlando Magic’s Head of Strength & Conditioning, Nathan Spencer, to discuss how the team best uses limited time exposures in congested pre-seasons to get players ready for the NBA season.

NBA Pre-season

The NBA is synonymous with short pre-seasons. The regular season contains 82 games and, in addition, teams can play up to 28 more games in the NBA Playoffs and Finals.

With the extensive amount of games, the length of the NBA season from pre-season through to its conclusion is almost year-round. Spencer says that “Orlando Magic’s official pre-season period is four weeks long. As a result, we have limited time doing structured team sessions and drills prior to the start of a season”.

“Our pre-season typically starts towards the end of September. In the 2019/20 season, for example, we had four full-team practice sessions, before our exhibition game against San Antonio. Then we continued to play another two games around the US, eventually landing back to Orlando ready to start the season”.

The head of strength and conditioning continues to explain that in other sports “they have time to build up their players’ conditioning, but for NBA players and teams it is completely different”.

However, given the impact of the pandemic and in almost all sports this year, pre-season periods and a return-to-play for sports, is going to be far from typical given potential player safety regulations and associated restrictions.

Player-Coach Communication

Most of the strength & conditioning work completed by NBA athletes takes place between April and May, usually considered the off-season.

“This is the period where we have the most uninterrupted time, with no competitive games”, explains Spencer. “So the bulk of our work is done during that period in Orlando with the staff or remotely should the individual players have their own staff with them”.

Since NBA athletes have a limited off-season, many of the Magic’s players decide to take a short break and choose to go travelling or start their preseason away from Orlando. “A lot of the players will be external to the organization during that time. We try to promote the guys coming in and getting their work done in our facilities, often this is not possible however”, Spencer said.

As many of the Magic’s players decided to travel out of Orlando for their short break, the head of S&C suggests that having direct, and regular contact with players is of paramount importance when building a successful preseason.

“The most important thing is to have clear communication between staff and the players, regardless of their location”.

Maintaining Aerobic Conditioning

As the pre- and regular-season schedule is so congested, ensuring player conditioning is vital for the Orlando Magic.

“The game is quicker, faster, more explosive, and incredibly taxing”, explains Spencer. “During the season, the opportunity to get real quality strength work in during the season is limited, as we can play up to three games a week. So that is why there is a huge priority for S&C during the off season”.

With games and practice sessions being so explosive and taxing, Spencer uses practice sessions as a way to establish and maintain the players’ conditioning levels throughout the year, rather than adding extra cardiovascular-based conditioning activities into the program.

“During the season there is a great need to recover quickly and a strong aerobic base allows you to recover faster and more effectively”, says Spencer. “A lot of our conditioning work gets done just in practice. Naturally through the players’ enjoyment of the game and with them playing almost all the time, they already have a really strong aerobic base. The work that we then do in the weight room, helps to build their power profile”.

Spencer explains that players should actively take part in games and practice sessions in the off-season to ensure there is no drop in aerobic base levels.

Understanding The Demands Of Sport

Before all of the previously mentioned ideas and suggestions can be actioned, understanding the demands of your respective sport is essential.

“How effectively you build your pre-season, essentially depends upon the level of understanding coaches have around the physical and conditioning demands of the game. 

“With our team in particular, our coaches have a great understanding of what is required”, says Spencer. “We consider it a marathon and not a sprint. Often a marathon runner’s time splits are consistent and that is where we try and get the guys to – a consistent level that allows them to perform”.

Interested in coping with a congested preseason and return-to-play more effectively? Click here to download our eBook for more best practice insights.

Image credit: @OrlandoMagic