Playoff Preview: NBA Star Trainer Tim Grover On What It Takes To Win

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With the start of the NBA playoffs looming in the week ahead, renowned trainer Tim Grover isn’t concerned about the dunking power or shooting efficiency of his top players. Instead, Grover, best known for his work with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade, is more worried about his players’ mental attitude than about their physical aptitude.

“Everybody can work out and work hard—working hard is not a skill,” says Grover, CEO of the Chicago-based training facility, Attack Athletics. “Working smart and working on the right things is a skill, and in order to have that skill, you have to have the mental component.”

Much of that “mental component” is outlined in Grover’s recent book, Relentless: From good to great to unstoppable, published last year as an Everyman’s guide to being tenacious in everything you do. The Cliffs Notes are straightforward: Never be satisfied with your results. “These guys have no ceiling—they always want more and more and more,” says Grover of Wade, Bryant, and Jordan, the last of whom he worked with for 15 years. “They could have a perfect game, but when they look at the stat sheets, they won’t look at their points, rebounds, or assists—they’ll look at the mistakes they made, so they don’t make them again.”

Although the NBA’s most illustrious players may be determinedly aware of their mistakes, they don’t dwell on them on game day. “When they play, they play with only one emotion—it’s not up or down. They have no expression,” Grover says. This ability to “get into the zone,” he says, has pushed many of his players to phenomenal feats. Take, for example, Bryant’s impressive 81 points in 42 minutes when the Lakers trounced the Raptors in January of 2006. “If you asked him what he was thinking during that game, he’ll say, ‘I wasn’t thinking about anything. My mind was totally clear,’” says Grover. “Everything was going at a fast pace for everyone else, but for him, it was moving very slowly.’”

Michael Jordan worked with Tim Grover throughout his career, enhancing his game with Grover's competitive mental approach to training for the NBA.

Michael Jordan worked with Tim Grover throughout his career, enhancing his game with Grover's competitive mental approach to training for the NBA.

The Injury Equation

No amount of psychological preparation can help a player if he can’t actually play—a real possibility as the playoffs approach for Wade, who has battled injuries this season. “The first thing I work on with any athlete is injury prevention, because it doesn’t matter how high an athlete can jump or how fast they can run if they’re injured,” says Grover, who’s currently focusing “around-the-clock” on Wade.

The trainer’s protocol for injury prevention starts with building the body’s smaller muscles—the ones that can weaken through repetitive play and cause physical imbalance and stress. “You have to pay attention to the small muscles—the muscles that don’t show through your shirt,” says Grover. “Not the beach muscles, but the muscles that stabilize the knees, hips, ankles, and wrists. These are the joints that have a tendency to wear out over time, and you have to keep them strong as you get older so you don’t get hurt.”

But getting hurt is also part of being great: It’s how you deal with that injury that separates the Dwayne Wades of the NBA from those with far shorter careers than the 12-year guard. “Different things happen throughout the season when you’re a basketball player, and you got to deal with it,” says Grover. “But when the playoffs roll around, I’m expecting [Wade] to be 100 percent—no excuses. Michael [Jordan] always would say, ‘When I put on my jersey and step on the court, I’m always 100 percent, no matter what else is going on in my life.’”

Grover didn’t become basketball’s most eminent trainer by doing what everyone else does with an injured player like Wade, who is anxious to make a speedy comeback. “Most trainers like to test the injury in the sport the athlete is playing as part of their rehab, but I like to take them to a totally different sport,” he says. For example, when Grover was working with Scottie Pippen and the forward suffered a back injury, he made Pippen rehab on the baseball field before moving him back to the court. “We got him out doing some baseball movements and throwing a ball, which puts more stress on your back than playing basketball,” Grover says. “He was working in different angles and different planes, and he couldn’t think about his back. Once I got him to doing that without thinking about it, I knew he could play basketball again.”

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The Physical Element

There is, of course, a huge day-to-day training component in Grover’s role as trainer—a process he begins by analyzing each step that athlete takes on court. “I started counting how many steps Michael took in a basketball game in the early 1990s so I could determine what kind of anaerobic and aerobic activity he’d need—I didn’t want to overtrain or undertrain him. Because unless you have a plan for how you train, it won’t do you any good,” he says.

These days, Grover doesn’t have to count steps—courtside cameras and other devices do it for him. But with that data, he develops a highly customized and scientific training program for all his athletes. “You just can’t go out there and count the steps they do,” he says. “You have to see how much force and velocity is being put on each step, and base their training on that.”

After Grover crafts a careful regimen for a player, physical consistency becomes the key to that athlete’s success. “The thing about Michael [Jordan] that stands out among any other individuals I know is that his skillset was so good, playing wasn’t reaction with him, it was instinctive,” says Grover.

The trainer says that Jordan developed this intuitive tendency only through a repetitive compulsion for mastering the basics. “He never wavered from his routine,” Grover says. “He had a ritual of training every season and every off-season. I mean, religiously. He always made time to get his work out in no matter what.”

You can stay up-to-date with renowned trainer Tim Grover on Twitter for workout tips, inspiration and other information at @ATTACKATHLETICS.