Basketball players fear The Workout

Basketball teams are on a break from playing because of final exams. That means running. Don Feria/isiphotos.com

When I played basketball for the University of Colorado, our preseason conditioning schedule included track workouts every Monday and Friday.

My teammates and I feared these workouts more than any others. On a basketball court -- 94 feet long, 50 feet wide -- there are fundamental limitations to the kinds of running you can do, because you can only go so far before having to turn around. But outside, on a track? The possibilities for torture felt vast, nearly endless.

And so every Monday and Friday, as we gathered to meet the coaching staff outside our home arena, the Coors Events Center, we were dreading the unknown. At the appointed time, the coaches would approach, holding pieces of white paper in their hands. My teammates and I glanced at the paper, then at one another, then averted our eyes from the coaches, as if we couldn't have cared less what had been written on those sheets.

"Meet you at the track," the coaches would say before hopping into a car. We, the players, would then begin jogging the half-mile to the local oval, free to worry about our fate in private.

"Did anyone see?" We would ask each other as we ran. "Does anyone know?"

And then, usually this: "God, I hope it's not The Workout. Anything but that."

Years before any of us had signed on as Colorado Buffaloes, coach Ceal Barry had devised a track workout that she believed "separated the women from the girls." And each year, on a day that came without warning, we endured this test -- an 800-meter sprint, followed by six 200s, followed by a second 800 -- to see who was ready, mentally as much as physically, for the upcoming season. Only a handful of players were capable of finishing that second 800 in the goal time, signaling to Coach Barry that they were worthy of trust.

(In my mind, I recall finishing on time. Thankfully, that success helped balance out my embarrassing performances in the weight room, where the strength and conditioning coach nicknamed me "Tiny Kate.")

Most head coaches have their own version of The Workout -- a go-to drill they believe is particularly challenging, that tells them something about their teams that no other workout can. As Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie explained recently, "If you have the same test, through every year you've coached, you can compare the results from throughout the years."

McCallie started her head-coaching career 20 years ago at Maine, where she started using a push-up max-out drill. She remembers a player from one of those squads doing 66 consecutive military-style push-ups, which is still the record. "If somebody had a certain showing at Maine, I can compare it to what happens now at Duke," she said. "It's that mental toughness piece."

On the college basketball calendar, there are two periods of extensive downtime, when drills, not games, serve as the primary means of conditioning: the preseason and winter final exams. We are, right now, in that second phase, which means many teams around the country have a chunk of time between games.

The players hate it. When they look at the season schedule and see such a gap, their eyes get big and their hearts race with thoughts of suicide drills and end-of-practice runs. For example, Tennessee, which beat North Carolina on Dec. 2, doesn't play again until Dec. 16. "We want to make sure we don't lose our conditioning," Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said immediately after that win over the Tar Heels. Perhaps the only phrase scarier than that is, "Get on the baseline."

Penn State coach Coquese Washington, who played at Notre Dame under Muffet McGraw, says all of her team's conditioning is done on the court. "We don't do anything on the track, and we make it as basketball-like as possible," Washington said. "When we're in practice, we try to get our conditioning in playing, not in extra running."

Then Washington paused, thinking.

"But there is one drill," she continued. "I hated it as a player, absolutely hated it, because it's a killer. But when you can do it, you're in great shape. It's one of those things we'll throw in now and then as a refresher, to make sure I'm not cutting down in practice."

Washington learned the drill from McGraw: It's called the 6-4-6. Each player sprints the length of the court six times, then turns and backpedals it four times, then turns again and finishes with six forward sprints. The drill must be completed in two minutes. "When the team hears me mention the dreaded 6-4-6, the intensity immediately picks up," Washington said.

At Colorado, we used to try to sneak a look at each day's practice schedule -- the coaches and managers tucked copies into the belt of their shorts -- and our eyes immediately darted to the day's final drill, to see what horrible fate awaited us. During mid-December, when we had a break from games for final exams, the end-of-practice running drills seemed to come hot and heavy.

"Nobody wants to run," McCallie said. "But you need to find out who is tough."

Like a lot of former players, I totally agree with that approach -- now that I don't have to do it anymore.