Blog Four: Twenty in 20 drill is as hard as it sounds, but the players fight through
Having already done the ODU men's basketball fitness test, with predictable results, one more athletic challenge awaited me, in my quest to prove that the Monarchs basketball players are great athletes ... and I'm not.
When I first started following the team for this blog, I promised Coach Blaine Taylor and the rest of the team that I would try to run the torturous 20 in 20 drill. The news elicited raised eyebrows and small smiles every time I mentioned it.
If you've played basketball, you know that a suicide is a run done in the gym. You start on the end line and run to the foul line and back. Then to the center line and back. Then to the far foul line and back. Finally, you run from end line to end line and back. That's one. Twenty in 20 is as gruesome as it sounds. It's 20, timed suicide runs in 20 minutes.
"It's about toughness. What you've got in here," Taylor told me, pointing to his chest. Toughness is a specialty of junior forward Ben Finney. I've found myself watching the six-foot-five Portsmouth native when the team does its battery of conditioning work. When the drills are the hardest, Finney claps his hands, seemingly in glee. He loves the pain. "Ever since I was little I just like stuff like that. It makes me feel like I'm getting better, I'm accomplishing something," Finney said. "When times get hard, that's when I feel like my leadership comes out."
For those players who don't draw enjoyment from inside during the pain of a drill like 20 in 20, assistant coach John Richardson is there for a little subtle encouragement. "GET YOUR BUTTS DOWN!!! WORK!!! DON'T CHEAT THE DRILL!!! YOU'RE QUITTING OUT THERE!!!" That's Richardson's typical refrain of encouragement. The team assistant coach acts as a bit of an enforcer during drills, making sure players are giving their all. "It's kind of a microcosm of the game," Richardson said of 20 in 20. "When you get down to the last two minutes of the game, or the last two runs in 20 and 20, it's more of a mental ability than a physical ability.
"You've got to be able to push through that wall, push through that pain." Coach Taylor said he learned 20 in 20 from itinerant basketball coach John Calipari, now at the University of Kentucky. Calipari used it with his players at the University of Massachusetts. "The interesting thing is, I talked with Kenny Gattison, who played here," Taylor said. "He was an assistant for Calipari with the Nets. Kenny said the Nets refused to do it. Egos too big." ODU's players haven't had that luxury. Taylor brought the drill here after he used it at the University of Montana, and the team does it every year. "My first year here, only two guys could do it."
Now, completion of the drill is a rite of passage for ODU players. Taylor said late in last year's CollegeInsider.com tournament final at Bradley University, which ODU won, the players reminded each other of the effort required to do 20 in 20, as proof they can tackle any challenge. I watched the team do the drill a few weeks ago, and soon realized how evil it truly is. Running a single suicide doesn't take a good athlete anywhere close to a minute. But the players don't have a minute. The first four of the 20 runs, the forwards are allotted 45 seconds, the guards 43 seconds. The balance of the minute, the players get to rest. Then after four suicides, time gets taken away. The next four runs, the players get 43 and 41 seconds respectively. Then 41 and 39 for runs nine through 12. For the final eight suicides, when legs are rubber and lungs are burning, two seconds are taken away every two runs. Guards must run the final two suicides in 31 seconds apiece. Like I said. Evil. Nevertheless, I volunteered to take my medicine on the first Friday in October, one of the last times the team would run 20 in 20. But late the day before, I found out from head strength and conditioning coach Paul Helsel said the team would be doing another drill. I went home thinking I was off the hook. No such luck. I arrived that morning and found out I'd be running with the two players who hadn't completed the drill, junior forward Frank Hassell, and freshman center Anton Larsen. A few stretches, and I'm suddenly standing on the end line in the gym, hearing "Start the clock!" from assistant coach Jim Corrigan. I looked over at the other players, who were getting ready to do their own drill. Silently, Keyon Carter gave me a little nod. And we were off!
I was pleasantly surprised at the first one. Forty-five seconds was longer than I needed. Finishing in plenty of time, I stood on the end line, hands on hips, feeling very jock-like.
Note: Although I'm only six-foot-four, and shorter than Finney and Kent Bazemore, who run the drill as guards, I arbitrarily ruled myself a forward, because I needed those extra two seconds per run.
Two more suicides down, breathing a little harder, but still comfortable. After number five, the first one with 43 seconds to finish, I found myself hunched over.
"Hands on your knees already, Brendan? A long way to go yet," Corrigan said. One thing I noticed right away - the players change direction way faster than I do. After every reversal, and there are seven per suicide, I found myself having to catch up to Hassell and Larsen.
"That's the key. This is a change-of-direction drill," Taylor told me. Number six down. Then seven. Really blowing hard now. I glanced over at Anton and Frank. They didn't seem to be in any kind of difficulty. I looked at the clock. More than 12 minutes left. Uh-oh.
I pushed through number eight, the last 43-second suicide. Two fewer seconds for the next one. I fought back in the last length of the court to make number nine, but my luck ran out on the 10th. I had fallen too far behind the pace, and I was about five feet from finishing the sprint when my time ran out. I was done, and the drill was only half over.
So I stepped aside and watched the other two players keep fighting, and a wonderful thing happened. Frank missed one in the high teens and was eliminated. However, Larsen, who's struggled with the speed of everything since arriving in Norfolk a few months ago, kept knocking them out. Sixteen. Seventeen.
"C'mon Tonn! Get it done. This is it." The rest of the players started shouting encouragement. Eighteen - two runs left. Now Larsen teammates had come over to the end of the gym where he was running.
Nineteen. There was a din in the gym as Larsen's teammates exhorted him. For his last one, senior Marsharee Neely joined him on the end line to run it. With a half-second to spare, Larsen flung himself across the finish line, colliding heavily with the wall. The rest of the Monarchs crowded around the freshman center, giving him high fives and hugs.
At the end of practice, Coach Taylor looked Larsen in the eye and shook his hand, something he does with every player who completes the drill. "How does it feel?" he asked. "Awesome," Larsen said.
I asked the big Dane about finishing the drill which had wiped me out halfway through. "I had never heard about such hard drills before. I know a guy who had played over here, he told me about it, but I didn't really believe it," Larsen said. "I've never worked hard like this, but the whole team was around helping me out, so it was easier to do." Easy isn't the word I'd use. Congratulations Anton.
Brendan O'Hallarn is an employee in the office of University Relations at ODU.
Brendan's Blog 46