The Villanova Wildcats men's basketball team is one of the best in the nation. The 31-5 Wildcats reached an Associated Press No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history this season. They are back in the Elite Eight for the 13th time.
The Wildcats understand that their game-time strategy goes well beyond X's and O's as they chart their path to Houston to compete for the NCAA title. Villanova's coaching and training staff take a meticulous approach to nutrition, recovery and training during the season.
We spoke to head coach Jay Wright about how the Wildcats fuel their performance for every practice and game.
"What we do, we have a short film session, a heart rate session to get their heart rate to a certain spot, a stretch session, a cold tub session, and we have a leg movement session," Wright said. "And we do it the same way every day after a game. We have nutrition drinks and all of our meals are done by our strength coaches and nutritionist. It's big to us."
The timetable for meals (customized for each player) and the rest schedule contribute to the Wildcats' success on and off the court. Wright explained how they set individual goals for each player:
"We take everybody's body fat and weight once a week, and we have goals for them to reach by their diets," he said. "We eat well, serving a certain type of meal before a game. So it's a meal and then a snack with multiple essentials nutrients, and it's important to hydrate. Hydration gets tested before every practice and before every game. And they can't practice unless they have a certain pH level. Our strength and conditioning coach sets certain hours, like 10 hours of sleep. We put them to bed at a certain time, like 10 o'clock, and make sure they have breakfast in the morning.
Nutrition philosophies among top athletes tend to be complex. Villanova strength and conditioning coach Josh Shackleton prefers to keep it simple. Medical assessments for muscle recovery are essential to attaining the highest results for every workout and game; and the quality of the food is more important than the quantity—as it is for their training exercises.
"Eating right, eating properly and hydrating. Obviously, we help the guys recover with compression boots and stuff like that. That stuff's all good, but with nutrition it's what you put in your body to heal from the inside," Shackleton said. "You know what I'm saying? So we're giving the guys clean foods—grass-fed beef, free-range chicken. So the quality of the meat and fish is very high, [and there are] tons of veggies. I spend a lot of time with these guys, so I watch what they're eating and we monitor all that stuff on the road. During the season, it all depends on where workouts fall. There's circuits that we do. It doesn't beef up their legs, but it gets them working. It conditions you without taxing your legs. We put time on the clock, and we're moving according to how the clock is timed, so it's not self-paced. It's just like working your motor. Around this time, it's about maintaining good habits—no processed food, no high sugar, no fried foods."
Nutritional values, medical research and technology have combined to change how basketball players are evaluated and trained. One person who can vouch for Shackleton's philosophy is legendary Villanova shooting guard and former NBA player Kerry Kittles.
"When I played, nutrition wasn't that big," said Kittles, Villanova's all-time leading scorer. "At that time, honestly we just had to stay away from fast foods. That was what they told us. But now I think with the [rest culture], these guys have so many pills they can take from over the counter that're good for recovery. They have all these training gadgets that can help their legs, oxygen and stuff like that. These guys are great athletes, and they're young twenty-somethings or whatever, so they will keep getting better. When it comes to training, I see they are using more bands now. I think band training is becoming more popular. Before, we used more machine weights, and they didn't want us doing squats back then. Now you see players doing all this dynamic movement stuff in their training. Stretching now, you see different angles because they are changing up and working on their hips more. A lot of work with the trainers and the foam rollers, there's a lot of stuff out there. Acupuncture all the time, and that keeps the body open. Medicine and advanced research rule, so it's surprising to see so many athletes getting caught doing PEDs. Why? There's so many great things that are natural to help you even more to not have to worry about taking stuff that's illegal."
Villanova has only one NCAA championship banner hanging high above their Pavilion home court, commemorating their win in 1985. Now, they are the one remaining Big East conference team in the NCAA tournament. This year's squad, with their military-type training, strict nutrition regimen and athletic run-and-gun style of play, is really impressive. With their on-court leaders—senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, junior forward Josh Hart, and forwards Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu—they could go all the way.
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