Basketball Practice Facility Design Addresses Athlete Needs
By Paul Steinbach
The University of Utah men's basketball program was the 1998 national championship runner-up — its lone Final Four appearance in the 32 years prior and 21 years since. That said, one could argue that in 2015 the university opened a basketball practice facility that's second to none.
The $36 million, 101,000-square-foot Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility features three players' lounges — one each for the men and women, and one that encourages comingling. There are hot and cold plunge pools not only in the training area, but just off each team's locker room. The four-story building's rooftop terrace overlooks Salt Lake City and the Jon M. Huntsman Center, where the Utes play their games, and the mountain views are truly one of a kind.
Basketball practice facilities have become the norm for doing business at the Division I level over the past decade, as a means to better accommodate student-athletes' schedules, coaches' practice philosophies, and any given program's culture.
"When I go in to talk with a client and program the building, we basically ask the questions that are going to create the sizes of boxes," Krug says. "One of the first questions we would always ask administration is, 'Do you want a men's basketball gym and a women's basketball gym?' "
"If you ask coaches, that's what they would generally prefer, that there is a court or a court and a half dedicated to each of the programs," Appleman says. "There are instances where there's just one big gym and it's got two courts in it, and then it's just a scheduling thing between the men's and women's programs as to how they utilize it."
Utilization begs additional design drill-drown in terms of each program's gym space. "We always say designing a basketball practice facility, obviously, starts with practice and the size of your practice gym," says Krug. "How many goals do you want? A standard court is two, as we know, but sometimes you might have four on the sides, so you have a total of six. At Utah, we have a total of eight because of the way that they just want to function and have enough shoot-around and warm-up area. It becomes unique. It's basically its own design strategy right there around the practice itself."
At minimum, gyms will have one NCAA-regulation court on which to run full practices, but often that space will be complemented by two or more separate half-courts or "functional arcs," as Krug calls them, where drills can be conducted. These smaller surfaces may be oriented perpendicular to the main floor. "That's always the diagram that makes the gym volume a little bit bigger," Krug says, "but it also helps at practice if we don't have shooting guards running into each other on one basket."
When sizing court spaces, schools should also be cognizant of the facility's off-season potential. "The other question that comes up is high school camps," Krug says. "We want hundreds of kids to come through these programs, so the size of those gyms should accommodate the maximum amount of youths coming through to practice in June or July."
In addition to the courts themselves, the gym volume may accommodate ancillary elements. Says Krug, "You might have a coaches' wall off to one side that might have a TV or a whiteboard, because we don't have the time to go back into a film room or a coach's office. We'll always have satellite training, so we have rehab elements right off the practice court for injured athletes. So there's a lot that's designed around the practice court itself."
A primary goal of any basketball practice facility is the re-creation of arena conditions. "You want to replicate everything that you can from their home court in their arena into the practice gym," Krug says, "so we'll get all those specifications, and that way there's nothing different from me going to practice and me going to compete."
Specifying the same basketball goal models and wood floor systems in the practice facility as appear in the competition venue is typically not a challenge, and goes a long way to prepare players for the feel of their arena. A school might even put an identical scorer's table in the practice gym. But trying to match an arena's light levels and the "shooter's eye" are where things can get tricky.
"They want to re-create that environment as much as they can, but a big box, which is effectively what the gyms tend to be, is not a very good representation of what an arena feels like — with the seating going back and the center-hung scoreboard. The ceilings tend to be a lot higher in arenas than they would be in a basketball practice facility," Appleman says. "It's difficult. Even the lighting is different. Practice facilities tend to be a bit brighter because there's a desire to include natural light — certainly indirect natural light, so you want to get north light in there if you can. But a lot of schools want to bring that natural light in just to lighten up the space and just have a more pleasant environment, and arenas tend to be dark, with the lighting really focused on the court — that Staples Center effect."
Krug feels faithful lighting replication is a must. "That's one of the first questions we'll ask: 'What are the light levels in your arena, and how can we design the same for the practice gym?' " Krug says. "The paint scheme and everything else is just kind of your connection as far as where you are on the court, and it's also for recruiting — that when you walk through and sell this practice gym, it looks very similar to the arena."
Maybe it even sounds like it, too. "Acoustics is big in these practice gyms, because we might have three coaches with whistles and a lot going on, but they always ask for a sound system so that they can easily pipe in crowd noise," Krug adds. "Anything that we can do to re-create that environment of where they're going to compete only helps these student-athletes as they practice."
Duplicating depth perception, however, is the most daunting task of all. "That's the one missing piece, I would say, when trying to re-create an arena setting. It's four vertical walls, 12 feet off the baseline, and we know there's not an arena in the country that looks like that," says Krug, adding, "We've even looked at technology as far as LED boards to re-create that depth or that distraction — for instance, stepping up to shoot a free throw in front of a student section — so you're not just shooting on a vacant goal."
Player areas Practice routines are top priority, but greater emphasis than ever is now being placed on student-athlete recovery. That's why an increasing amount of square footage in dedicated basketball practice facilities is being carved out for such things as fueling stations, sleep areas and hydrotherapy. Says Appleman, "Those kinds of recovery areas are sometimes part of the player lounge, where kids can go in and put on the NormaTec boots and have that compression to help them recover from their workout."
Fueling stations in practice facilities typically stop short of a full kitchen, which is instead reserved for the economies of scale (chefs, staff), not to mention the socialization, afforded by full training tables. Fueling stations may range from a Gatorade machine right off the practice court, weight room or training room to a small snack bar "that's fruit, nuts, bagels, Gatorade, water, chocolate milk. It's just quick, easy access," Krug says. "You might have multiples of these areas that could be a hundred square feet, could be 400 square feet. It depends on the refrigerators, the sinks, the storage and everything else."
That kind of convenience is echoed in onsite sleep spaces, which may house two or more sleep pods, recliners or bunk beds, or any combination, within 300 to 400 square feet. "Sleep is a big trend right now," Krug says. "If I'm coming to one facility, I don't have to go back to my apartment or my dorm to take a nap for 20 or 30 minutes before practice."
Hydrotherapy options are now commonplace, as well. Says Krug, "We normally would have a hot and cold plunge pool, and a HydroWorx 2000. That's your underwater treadmill that basically gives injured players the ability to still condition, take all the weight off of their body depending on the depth, and it also gives them video to see how their muscles and joints might be reacting when they run."
It's all part of a new focus on student-athlete wellbeing. "When we talk about mind, body and soul of human performance, we need nutrition and we need proper sleep, and then we also need to watch film and practice," Krug says. "Essentially, these practice facilities are trying to check all of those boxes in terms of student-athlete needs, and really are trying to consolidate the time that it takes to go from one spot to the next."
Even spaces that are underutilized by comparison are no less essential to the basketball practice facility's alter ego: recruiting attraction. Appleman points to players' lounges in particular, which serve as metaphor for the bigger picture.
"We used to laugh about football facilities and the players' lounge. Everybody would complain about the fact that nobody would ever use the players' lounge," says Appleman, quickly adding, "If you didn't have one, though, you were negatively recruited against for not having one, even if nobody uses it. Basketball practice facilities are very similar in that if you don't have one, you better have a pretty damn good story to tell, a really great arena and really great exclusivity in terms of the usage of that court in order to justify not having a practice facility to show recruits. It's kind of gotten to the point where it's a must-have."
This article originally appeared in the November | December 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Designing basketball practice facilities that check all the boxes." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry.
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