The group photo, captured on an iPad for nothing more than posterity’s sake, was staged about how one would expect.
Eight Crystal Lake Central basketball players posed in T-shirts, shorts and bare feet behind mixed martial arts fighter Jeff Curran. Most of them smiled.
Players stood against the wall of Curran’s MMA gym in Crystal Lake, where they had worked out once a week for the previous eight weeks. Most of them, like senior guard Kenny Vesely, had never seen the brand of fighting Curran made a living at for the past 17 years, let alone endured the rigors of training that professional fighters go through on a regular basis.
But that’s what Central coach Rich Czeslawski had in mind when he opted to put his players through fight training rather than sticking with a more traditional preseason conditioning regimen.
For Czeslawski, building chemistry and teaching discipline on a young team that lost six seniors after reaching the Class 4A sectional semifinals last season was at the top of his list of preseason priorities. The Tigers discovered both inside Curran’s gym.
“We’re always looking for a way to keep or gain an edge,” Czeslawski said. “Obviously, we’ve had success the last three years and we could very easily sit back and say, ‘Well, what we’re doing is working.’ But I’m not wired that way.
“I want to keep finding things [and asking], what else can we do? What’s different? What [is something] no one else is doing so we can stay ahead of the game.”
For eight weeks during September and October, 10 Central players worked out with Curran and Dave Davis, who owns Davis Speed Center and counts several of Curran’s fighters among his training clientele. Over the two-month program, players were instructed in basic jiu jitsu movements and sparring techniques.
Each movement has a distinct purpose and a carryover to the court, where Czeslawski expects to see the benefits of the MMA-style preseason workouts pay off.
“It’s been good to watch how they handle something completely foreign – something they’ve never done before and that takes them out of their comfort zone,” Czeslawski said.“Those are things that we were concerned with for this year.”
Knowing his time was limited, Curran kept the workouts simple, teaching players basic body movements and mechanics. He used fundamental fighting and defense principles, allowing players to learn body control. As the weeks went on, Curran turned to strength exercises, using sparring pads and heavy bags, expanding methods players would find in more traditional weight room workouts.
The players were immediately sold, although they quickly learned there was much more to Curran’s program than perhaps they initially expected.
“It was different – I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” Vesely said. “Then it really started to kick in and I was like, ‘Wow – this is difficult.’ I have gained a lot of respect for some fighters just because of what we went through.”
Expanding players’ training horizons along with building some mental toughness in them was Curran’s plan from the start.
“There’s nothing more challenging than doing something that you don’t know how to do physically, let alone doing something that takes the level of coordination that fighting does,” Curran said. “There’s a lot of coordination and body awareness that you understand after training like this.”
With more high school athletes choosing to train year-round while often specializing in one sport, Davis said workout routines can become mundane. But placing players in a new environment – such as the ones Central players found themselves working with Curran and Davis – can keep things fresh, keeping players focused on conditioning themselves for what can often be a grueling four-month basketball season.
Davis has worked with Czeslawski’s players on speed and agility drills for the past six years. But he chose to introduce them to more of a kickboxing and mixed martial arts approach in his preseason program.
Davis created five-minute conditioning rounds for Central’s players similar to the ones he uses to train Curran’s professional fighters. The high-speed workouts, Davis said, will carry over to the court, adjusting players’ bodies to push hard for short spurts, getting them used to playing in waves to fit the Tigers fast-faced style of play.
“I think they had a lot of fun,” Davis said. “They were doing things they’ve never done before. Even though it’s strength training, it’s something the guys haven’t seen before.”
As difficult as the workouts were, Vesely said the fact the Tigers went through them will pay dividends that early morning weight lifting sessions necessarily wouldn’t. By learning new methods, the Tigers helped create unity, especially among seniors and underclassmen who traditionally have difficulty finding common ground.
For Vesely, the workouts also brought an unexpected benefit to Curran’s students.
“I’ve never watched an MMA fight prior to this class,” Vesely said. “Now, I’m pretty sure I’m going to start watching them.”