Many players use track & field as off-season training, which makes sense: a basketball player who gets faster and jumps higher will be an improved player. However, is it that simple?
Before I continue, let me clarify: if someone runs track because he wants to play a second sport, be a part of a team, join his friends, be good at something else, learn something new or any of the numerous reasons that one gives for playing a sport, good for him. I would never tell a player not to play a second sport in order to train for basketball.
However, many players choose to join the track & field team to train for basketball, and this might not be the best decision, depending on the player’s strengths and weaknesses and the track coach’s knowledge. If an athlete wanted to play a second sport and sought my advice, I would advise a basketball player to play soccer, field hockey, lacrosse or water polo as a second sport because of the crossover of skills and conditioning.
I enjoy track & field and I am a certified Level I coach through USA Track & Field, so this is not an anti-track rant. However, track & field is a sport. Running hurdles or sprints or doing the high jump is a new discipline. Is a basketball player’s time better spent learning a new discipline or improving his basketball skills?
In high school, the assistant varsity basketball coach convinced me to run track instead of playing baseball. I did the high jump to work on my vertical. We warmed up for an exceedingly long time and then we high jumped. We practiced for about 90 minutes. We probably had 20 jumpers, so we alternated. We probably took 20-50 jumps per practice. I would have taken more maximum effort jumps playing pick-up basketball games for 90 minutes! We never lifted weights, nor did we do any high-force plyometrics.
This practice posed three major problems for me as a basketball player: (1) As a left-foot jumper, I never practiced a right-foot jump, meaning I increased the strength and power differences between my two legs; (2) We never lifted weights or did general jump training, so I did not enhance my general strength and explosiveness; (3) Jumping higher is only a small part of improved basketball performance, yet the practice left little free time to work on the other aspects.
Basically, my coach assumed that by doing the high jump more and more, we would jump higher in competition. Our competitive improvement came from some technique improvements as well as confidence gained through more familiarity with jumping. The technique improvement and confidence did not lead to improved jumping or athleticism on a basketball court.
If I had spent three months playing pick-up games, I would have made the same or better progress in terms of conditioning and jumping ability. If I had complemented my pick-up games with a well-written resistance training and plyometrics program, I guarantee my athleticism would have improved more.
With a good track program, the player is likely to lift weights and do plyometrics, and this training will transfer. A good track coach also will teach players better running technique, which will lead to improved speed on the court and potentially prevent injuries if a player has poor technique that could lead to an overuse injury.
However, the improvement is not automatic, and it depends on the athlete’s efforts and the coach’s effectiveness. The general work will transfer to the player’s basketball performance more than the event-specific technique work. If players want to improve their basketball performance, they can do this general strength and explosiveness training on their own, leaving more time for basketball skill workouts or pick-up games.