Badgers off 'n' running
Conditioning as much a mental exercise as a physical one
MADISON, Wis. -- It's about 150 yards and perhaps an 8 percent grade to the top of the hill in Elver Park.
To a novice, it looks like it could make a runner winded in seconds. For coach Bo Ryan, it's an offseason conditioning tradition to get the Wisconsin Badgers in shape for the long basketball season, as much a mental exercise as a physical one.
This year's hill program finished up in late September, just in time to transition into preseason camp.
"We're done with the hill, which is a good thing," sophomore forward Sam Dekker this week at the Kohl Center. "Now it's a different type of grind."
But that's on the flat surface of a basketball court, in climate-controlled comfort. Outside, Ryan's hill run can look downright intimidating.
Sounds just about the way Ryan planned when he started the regimen at Wisconsin-Platteville, where his college coaching career began in 1984.
Ryan estimates that hill was about an 11 percent grade.
"This one is not quite as steep and doesn't go up quite as quickly," Ryan said in a recent interview on the last day of hill training this offseason.
It can still leave the uninitiated out ... of ... breath.
"The elevation and the pulse. The stamina, the team building. There are days when guys struggle," he said. "We've had days where it's 90 (degrees). We've had days where it's 40, windy, blustery."
Not on this beautiful fall afternoon, when the descending sun bathed bright light on Elver Park. Some groups played disc golf, while others kicked soccer balls.
And then there were the Badgers going up and down that hill. Ryan, looking fit and rested in shorts, a vest over a sweatshirt and cap, clocked his players with a stopwatch. Midway up, a trainer shouted trivia questions.
The fastest group gets to the top in about 25-26 seconds, while the fourth group gets up in about 29 seconds, Ryan said. Generally, the guards get up the quickest, the big men the slowest.
They went about 10 times this offseason. Each time out, the reps build, from eight the first time to 22 or 23 the last time out, Dekker said.
But Dekker lucked out this offseason — he didn't have to run the hill. Instead, he did other cardio work nearby with a few other players.
A 6-foot-7 matchup nightmare, Dekker shot 41 percent from 3-point range in Big Ten play last year. During Wisconsin's Canadian exhibition tour in August, Dekker led the team in points (19.4) and rebounds (8.2).
Looks like he might have earned a pass.
"It's not like I enjoyed the hill. So not really," Dekker said with a chuckle when asked if he'd go back to run it on his own time. "Not my cup of tea."
Such training, employing tactics to build mental and physical endurance, occur at other schools. Guard Josh Gasser said he's heard of some that have "boot camps" or others that also run hills.
"I've always been impressed with how physically strong and mentally strong our players are over the years," Ryan said. "I've always felt that the hill was a big part of that."
Whatever Ryan is doing is working. He has led the Badgers to the NCAA tournament each year since he arrived in 2002, and won five Big Ten titles.
A trainer is always there for a hill session. Team assistants are stationed halfway up with water bottles.
Gasser, like Dekker, didn't have to run the hill this year. It might be one positive from having to go through rehab for a torn ACL in his left knee that kept him out of action last season.
"Once you get halfway up that hill," Gasser said, "it's all mental from there."
The Badgers hold preseason media day Friday. They open the season Nov. 8 against St. John's in Sioux Falls, S.D.