During three decades working within some of the world's most iconic basketball clubs, head coach Ettore Messina of AX Armani Exchange Milan has witnessed a revolution in preparing players to perform at their best and extend their careers.
From tipoff to final buzzer is when the games are played, but what happens after the final buzzer and before the next tipoff in the burgeoning field of player recovery can greatly influence a team's competitiveness.
Messina's approach to that crucial time between games has evolved with the times.
"When I grew up as a young coach in the 70s and the 80s, we were especially following the Yugoslavian school, let's call it," Messina explains. "We all grew up assuming that practice had to be hard, demanding, more demanding than the game itself. And you know, two-a-day [practice] was something normal."
In recent years, as schedules are fuller and the physical demands on players greater, the recovery process between games – everything from physical therapy to sleep, diet, load-monitoring and mental rest – has become integral to pushing individual and team performance to a higher level.
"People have started to understand that rest and recovery are part of practice, that at some point, if we all believe that practicing people and working people hard was a way of mentally challenging the players in order for them to develop, then we started to understand that sometimes it was like beating a dead horse, and we were just taking a chance on more and more injuries," he said.
What's more, the same injuries now are often more costly.
"Having an injury for one of your top six or seven players, it's a huge problem," Messina points out.
"Two weeks out of action back then was maybe skipping four games. Now, you might skip eight games."
Injury prevention and performance optimization at Milan requires a two-track set of recovery programs, one for every player and another for each one individually, that is tweaked and adjusted depending on how many games are played and how much travel is required in a given week. For a EuroLeague double-round week bracketed with two Sunday games in the Italian League, Milan's planning usually works as follows:
Monday is recovery day. The players who were on the floor most in the previous day's domestic game will have therapy, massages, gym work, light shooting and a walk-through of tactics for Tuesday's EuroLeague game. Those who didn't play much the day before will practice harder on the court in two-on-two and three-on-three situations.
"We usually keep a rule that if you played less than 15 minutes, you take part in this practice," Messina explains. "If you played more than 15 minutes, you just do the recovery and the light shooting. And of course, there is a team meeting with some film or whatever."
Tuesday morning on game day consists of a shoot-around and the complete tactical preparation for that night's game.
Wednesday repeats Monday's recovery day scenario depending on each player's workload in Tuesday night's game. If the team needs to travel, all work will be done in Milan, where the therapists and players are used to working on their recovery routines. Messina likes for the team to fly mid-afternoon and avoid rushing to fit in a practice the night before the next game in a new city.
"I believe that if you work at noon and then you just rest on the plane and get to the hotel around dinnertime, your mind is a little bit rested – for 12 hours, maybe more – until you have shoot-around the day after," he says.
Returning on Friday from the second game, the team will do a recovery workout if, due to the schedule, Messina can give them the following Monday off. If there's another Tuesday game, however, the previous Friday becomes the day off and the next Monday turns into a new recovery day.
Messina learned through his work with San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovic that teams need days off, with the gym locked and no one allowed in, to balance their home lives with their work lives.
"We spend so much time together that at some point, you need a day off when we don't see each other and they just see their families and they don't see the teammates, they don't listen to the coaches," he explains. "Too many meetings. Too many practices. Too many recoveries. Too many games. Sometimes you need to back off. I learned that, at my expense. Sometimes, you need to back off and just give them a little mental free time."
Lest anyone think all this amounts to coddling players who are not as tough as in the old days, think again.
"It's not that people, because you do all this recovery, will be fresh all the time. But you limit the situations where they played very tired," Messina says. "At some level, players have to learn to play when they are fatigued. You have to push yourself through that. You will never play fresh once the season is in full mode. But if there is a chance to give a better quality of basketball, I think this subject is huge. The attention to the recovery and the protection, the prevention, and everything else. Everything that has been done, all the money that as an organization you invest, will come back to you. And that for sure increases the quality of the game. There's no doubt about that."
Not to mention the fact that when their time between games is optimized, players and teams gain a competitive edge, particularly when so close EuroLeague games are decided by mental and physical freshness at the end.
"We're talking about small, small details," Messina says. "It gives us – those who can have that, because you have a practice facility, because your owner is willing to spend money on that, because maybe you invest in having one extra physiotherapist for example, or you buy a machine that can help you more with recovery, or you have one more assistant coach or one more strength coach who can individualize better the workloads for the players – all these things will surely give you an edge compared to those who don't have that."