Being an NBA Strength Coach

Lakers strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco is about to embark upon his second full season with the team, with his ultimate goal not only to get L.A.’s players as strong as possible without losing functionality on the court, but also to keep them healthy.

As head athletic trainer Gary Vitti likes to point out, DiFrancesco is uniquely qualified to do both since he owns a degree in physical therapy on top of his strength and conditioning background. He’s also no amateur in regards to nutrition.

DiFrancesco took some time to discuss his approach to his craft, the balance between building muscle while not pushing too far, why Kobe Bryant is who he is, the incredible care Metta World Peace takes with his body, what it’s like shopping for groceries with an NBA rookie and more:

MT: How would you define your approach to being an NBA strength and conditioning coach?
DiFrancesco: My overall approach is to try and keep everything as simple as possible. In our industry, there is a lot of crazy, YouTube training going on. An exercise becomes popular because it looks cool, and it spreads on social media and trainers decide to try it with their athletes. But for me, I need to know why I’m doing every single thing I’m doing. There is always a risk/reward. Anything you do in the weight room poses a risk of an injury if you do it wrong, if it’s too much or too heavy, but can also benefit an athlete if done correctly. If I can’t immediately find an answer for why I’m doing a certain exercise, I won’t do it. Fundamentally, with my background in physical therapy, I’m always looking at basic movement patterns. Can they do a basic squat? Can they do a basic single-leg dead lift patter? That gives me a road map with every player I’ll work with, and I’m not going to do anything extreme until I really figure out the movement patterns.

MT: You hear stories about athletes squatting absurd amounts of weight, only to injure themselves in the process. Where’s the balance?
DiFrancesco: That’s back to the risk/reward. Do we blow out a guy’s (back) because he wanted to squat 400 pounds? Congrats, but you won’t be able to do half of that for the rest of your life. We’d have to take a huge risk to get there, and an injury could result. Typically there aren’t bad exercises, there is just bad application of exercises. Especially at the NBA level, I cannot afford to injure players on my end. If a guy gets really sore on a given day and all he did was lift and shoot, then that could mean I (pushed too hard). What I do or don’t do can either protect the players or make them more susceptible to an unnecessary contact injury. I’m very cognizant of players improving performance wise and physically, but just not at the expense of an injury.

MT: Anybody watching these players glide and explode up and down the floor can see that they’re among the world’s most impressive physical specimens; but what is it like to specifically train an NBA athlete versus a football player, for example? Aren’t they doing different things in the weight room?
DiFrancesco: NBA athletes are really, really good at making their body do amazing things … within the scope of basketball. That’s what they love to do, what they crave doing. They want to play, on the court. Football players are very different, because they play only once a week. They do what the sport requires to build themselves up from a strength standpoint. Now, NBA players are of course genetic freaks, but doing basic level functional patterns is not typically as easy for them. They struggle with that at times. When you can clean that piece up for a player, it only enhances their already off the charts athletic ability. In other words, someone may have a great vertical and great speed, but what would happen if we added really clean movement patterns to that and got a guy stronger? Well, your career gets extended and you perform at a higher level. The levers of basketball players are a lot longer, and strength training isn’t as ingrained in professional basketball players as it would be in football players. Especially if some of our guys only went to one year of college and just started lifting there, that’s hardly any experience practicing such a skill, which takes time to develop like anything else.

MT: We know how manically Kobe Bryant has attended to his physique and fitness over his 16-year career. Is this an ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ situation for you?
DiFrancesco: With a situation like Kobe’s, I never came in saying I want to get my hands on him and mix things up and put my stamp on it. The stamps are already there, and we all know the results. I don’t need to mess with something that’s being done so well at such a high level. That being said, at certain times that allow for my expertise to assist in what’s already there in his foundation, I enjoy that opportunity. Just from having been around him, a word that comes to mind regarding his approach to taking care of his body is ‘obsessive.’ I think it’s important that using the word obsessive doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. Most people that are exceptionally great at what they do for a long period of time are obsessed with what they do, and to me there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. He understands as well or better than anybody what it takes to fine tune, to maintain or improve the function of his body and he’s constantly obsessed with that. He knows more than anybody that his weapon is his body and he maintains and cares for that weapon fanatically. That’s why he does what he does.

MT: Darius Morris has been a constant presence in your weight room since last training camp, and he’s gotten quite noticeably stronger and bigger. What’s been the key?
DiFrancesco: Darius bought in. He said, ‘You tell me what you want and I’ll do it.’ For example, contacted me at 8 a.m. on the day of Game 5 at (Oklahoma City) last year in the playoffs. He knew he most likely wasn’t going to play in the game, and it would have been easy to take the attitude of, ‘The offseason is coming soon, I don’t need to lift today.’ Instead, there we were getting an early work out in.

MT: Morris is clearly a gifted athlete; how has he developed since the first day of training camp last season?
DiFrancesco: Darius came into the league with pretty decent movement patterns, which saved me the time of cleaning much of that up, and let us get after it right away. Since he’s a point guard, we really focused on putting some additional lean mass on his already athletic frame. That can help at a position where you take a beating going into the paint, with that lean mass being bulletproof. So we got his weight up while adding in the right amount of protein to help him recover, and he really did a great job. I never had to follow up on him; he did everything I asked for.

MT: How much does nutrition come into play, using Morris as an example?
DiFrancesco: It’s generally a matter of being able to get away with not paying much attention to one’s diet thanks to being athletically gifted. But at some point, a player realizes that if he’s trying to put a puzzle together of being the best player he can be — and he takes care of his skill and lifting workouts — the other piece is nutritional. Many NBA players aren’t doing as well as they could there. Darius, this offseason, has started to realize that. He and I actually went grocery shopping the other day.

MT: Please, tell us more…
DiFrancesco: He showed me what he normally gets, and I tried to provide some better options.
For example, in the produce section, he said, ‘I don’t usually get much from here.’ I said, ‘OK, if these were in your fridge, what would you eat?’ We determined that he’d eat oranges, some mixed veggies laid out on a platter and pre-packaged salads. But he just hadn’t thought about having that stuff available. Moving on in the store, he said he likes honey mustard, so he showed me the kind he usually gets, but sugar was the first ingredient: high fructose corn syrup acts as sludge in the blood stream and makes everything less efficient. It’s never a malicious intent to eat badly, it’s just a habit, and it’s my job to show him the kind of mustard that’s more healthy.

MT: Still enjoying this. What else did he buy in the past to which you gave him a more healthy alternative?
DiFrancesco: He loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches*. Many of the ‘classic’ peanut butter like Jif or Skippy is nothing but saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup, and one of the last ingredients is peanuts. If you can instead get a whole wheat bread, a peanut butter like Justin’s (which has three ingredients, peanuts, salt, small amount of unprocessed sugar) and a better jelly, the PB&J can be much more healthy for you. So Jif to Justin’s is a simple change, but it makes a big difference.
*Editor’s Note: Show me an NBA player that doesn’t love PB&J and I’ll call you a liar. It’s definitely the most consumed item on the Lakers team plane every year.

MT: How about the things we drink? There’s Mountain Dew (my personal favorite) and other soda, Snapple and so on available on the team plane after every road game…
DiFrancesco: I’ll have a Diet Coke once in a while because I want the carbonation, but I try to keep it to water as often as possible. There’s no way for me to justify drinking calories. I want calories to make me feel full by eating them. It makes a big difference, especially in athletes, who don’t realize the impact that the nutrition piece has. It’s one thing that I can really bring to these guys to help them perform at their best, the knowledge when it comes to nutrition.

MT: Won’t Steve Nash help you push that nutrition mission, based on what we’ve heard about how great he takes care of himself?
DiFrancesco: Second hand, the information I have suggests that nobody gets that more than Steve Nash, so I’m really excited about it. Somebody that has that much credibility makes my job a lot easier when I’m trying to create good habits for Darius. It’s one thing coming from me, and another coming from a two-time MVP in this league.

MT: Apparently, nobody comes close to Metta World Peace in how to take care of one’s body?
DiFrancesco: He was extremely helpful for me last year because he does a great job with his nutrition and recovery habits. He takes that stuff very seriously, and younger guys in our locker room started to see that. (CLICK HERE for more on MWP’s fitness habits).