Kawhi Leonard Trained Like An NFL Cornerback to Enhance His Already NBA-Best Defense

In the second installment of The Offseason, we've got another Kawhi Leonard share in honor of his return and my being a Spurs fan (I know, I know...). 

I share these pieces here because of the trickle down effect-that being that everyone can learn from the best-in context, the professional athletes.  In my case, I'm a geek for this stuff-I'm going to read it anyway.  I've always found it fascinating, dating back to when I was a teenager, just getting into health and fitness; I used to read the Muscle & Fitness magazines with the purported true training regimens and philosophies of athlete X, Y, or Z.  Flash forward to the present, and some of my clients are professional athletes, which means I have an added incentive to read this material.  Truth be told, I still approach it with the childlike wonder of a beginner's mind.

This info is sourced from a phenomenal full piece on how The Klaw has given a major second wind to the most successful franchise in American sports of the last couple decades, and is penned by SI's Lee Jenkins.  Check it out HERE.

There are some choice quotes to pull from the article that both describe Leonard's approach to training, how he views the game, and even who he is (something most of you probably don't get to see).

kawhi leonard training

With Leonard's background, he's the sort of guy you'd picture prioritizing defense and the dirty work over offense, even if he's morphed into the closest thing to Kobe on offense we've seen since The Black Mamba himself graced the hardwood.  Not as prolific on offense, but more efficient with better defense.  That's the trade-off.  In addition to his personality, his defense is really what sets him apart from the other superstars of the league, and is his calling card to date.

"You'd think we were talking about a starving journeyman in the D-League," says Randy Shelton, San Diego State's strength and conditioning coach, who trains Leonard every off-season. But the player's hunger is real. He is the rare professional athlete who distinguishes between greatness and stardom. "He wants the greatness badly," Popovich says. "He doesn't give a damn about the stardom." You won't find him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You probably won't catch him in a photo shoot, on a red carpet or at an awards ceremony, even if he is the guest of honor. Check that—especially if he is the guest of honor. "He loves the game," Popovich continues. "He ignores the rest of it."

Yup. Sounds about right.  For at least one summer, Leonard's offseason strength and conditioning program featured a host of drills that you'd likely see in an NFL cornerback's regimen.

"Popovich informed Leonard that his defense would determine his minutes. [San Diego State University strength coach Randy] Shelton, who also trains professional football players, treated Leonard like a shutdown corner. Shelton made him backpedal through speed ladders, wiggling his hips and cycling his feet, as if shadowing a receiver running post patterns. In his second season, Leonard averaged more than 30 minutes as he began to anticipate sets and diagnose pick-and-rolls. "I look at film," he explains, "but more than watching individual players, I'm trying to watch a team's whole offensive scheme. I'm trying to know their tendencies so I can ... guess. That's what it comes down to, really, making the best guess. I'm trying to change up their scheme."

Does morphing training from another sport into your own work?  Probably not in most cases, but here?  It makes sense.  The last statement rings true-a shutdown corner tries to guess a receiver's routes.  True shutdown corners guess right more often than the rest and are able to stay glued to their man the entire time-ultimately shutting him down.

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As Jenkins notes, some of the top scorers in the NBA still try to go at Leonard and he makes them pay.  Look at the stats of every superstar cover he's tasked with locking down, and sure enough-most of their stats not only drop-their probably lowest in the league vs. Leonard when compared to other individual defenders.  Of course, the Spurs almost always boast the league's best defense (top 3-5 at worst), and part of that is phenomenal team defense.  Still, Leonard is the captain, and is usually tasked with guarding the opponent's best non-big scoring threat (or sharing the honor with Danny Green).

basketball sport science

The mark of a great defender, however, can be how little players go at them on defense, much as how a cornerback can prevent a quarterback from even throwing in his direction. Jenkins reinforces this, as KL ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in "prevent" defense, which measures how players smother for ball denial to stop opponents from getting touches, shots, and points. Because of this, Leonard has guarded in isolation for only 58 possessions this season because people simply refuse to go at him.

Other times, he snuffs them out so there's simply no opportunity.

 So what's the other reason that this could work?  Motor learning.

Motor learning is the process of programming the brain to carry out movement in a specific way.  This is why in youth athletics, one of the best things you could do for your kids is have them play multiple sports and activities-even simple games like hackey sack, instruments, wall ball, and others.

As we grow, we tend to stop this habit.  In reality, continuing to mix it up and add in details (doesn't have to be a different sport) of new skills drives our plasticity (our brain's ability to learn said skills) and keeps our brain young.

"We don't stop playing because we grow old.  We grow old because we stop playing." -George Bernard.

There you have it-Kawhi Leonard always expanding his game.  That's the goal-to come back each year with one additional skill.  For everyday athletes, this shouldn't stop just because your athletic career wraps up.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The Offseason.

Interested in setting up our own training regimen?  Whether you're local in Southern California or The Bay, or even remote, let's talk.  Click below to schedule a free consult or session.

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