Preparation “Championships are won in the Offseason.”
Stacey King, at the time, a young backup center on the then reigning N.B.A. Champion Chicago Bulls, said that to me and my great friend, the late Johnny Balano, back in 1992 during a break in a Bulls’ offseason training session. Johnny and I were visiting Strength Coaches hosted by Hall of Fame Strength & Conditioning Coach, Al Vermeil. Al, who served as the Bulls’ Director of Strength & Conditioning, was amazingly gracious as a host to us numerous times during his tenure with the Bulls.
As Johnny and I both shared a voracious appetite to learn and Al and his crew based at the Berto Center (the Bulls’ old training facility in Deerfield, Illinois) represented an epicenter of strength and conditioning knowledge. The Bulls were just starting their run of six N.B.A. championships. Led by all world players, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, their management team was assembling a roster of guys who for the most part shared the same perspective as that which Stacey King talked about that day in Deerfield.
Now, I don’t know if all the Bull’s players had that same attitude prior to joining the team but as history shows they all seemed to get on board. However, I do know this. When you walked in that black door of the Berto Center you could feel it, the intense commitment to being a champion. As an outsider entering the lair of champions the energy was just different. People, players and coaches alike, were very cool and hospitable but they were there for a purpose. To win.
No doubt they had amazing talent led by Michael and Pip—perhaps what people do not realize is that their champion attitudes extended to preparation off the court and not just game time. Therefore, when playoff time arrived they were prepared to battle for a championship. They were healthy. They were strong. They were fit. N.B.A. seasons are long and grinding. They can wreak havoc on players' bodies and minds, especially the untrained, unprepared ones. To win a championship? That demands an entirely whole other level of commitment and determination whose seeds must be sown in the offseason. You can't just turn it on in the Finals. You must be prepared to do it.
Al definitely understood this and thus committed a lifetime of learning and continuous improvement to honing his craft. He was on a constant mission to build his knowledge base. Consulting with experts from all over the world from myriad disciplines, Al’s was a steady quest to learn, to get better so that he can best serve his Bulls players. Humble to a fault, he would downplay his ability as a coach. To this day, his “manual” remains unfinished. Not because of laziness or lack of commitment. Quite the contrary, it’s due to Al’s insistence that it still needs tinkering, it can still be improved.
This drive to be better, this zest to learn more and keep improving formed the bedrock of the Champion Bulls’ strength and conditioning program and thus laid the very foundation for their six championships. For young Strength Coaches like Johnny and myself, fortunate enough to spend time around this culture oozing with a collective will to win, the experience was awesome! Al’s program represented a cornucopia of strength and conditioning knowledge. Every visit presented an amazing learning experience not only about the science of our craft but about the culture of a champion.
No question the Bulls were immensely talented. They most definitely were. But more importantly they were committed to win and to the preparation winning demanded.
So whether your game is hoops, another sport or a different vocation entirely, attack your “offseason” and start preparing to be a champion. Because as Stacey King and those Bulls teams proved, that is when championships are won.