CHAMPAIGN — Adam Fletcher’s early social media posts from his time as Illinois men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach captured the attention of the Illini fan base.
They were an inside look at the results of his work with the team.
The photos were compelling. Before and after, side-by-side comparison of how the players’ bodies had changed. They were leaner, stronger. Ripped, basically.
Fletcher’s social media posts now are a bit infrequent. Still, they provide a peek behind the curtains on Illinois’ off-the-court preparation.
A series of nine short videos Fletcher posted on Instagram in late October showed a different side of his strength and conditioning program — tumbling. Nothing too dramatic. Nothing comparable to what Justin Spring and Nadalie Walsh’s Illini gymnastics teams do across campus at Kenney Gym.
But still important in its simplicity.
Somersaults, forward and backward. Cartwheels. Lateral rolls where arms and legs don’t touch the mat.
“We work low-level tumbling every day in our warmup,” Fletcher’s Instagram post read. “The focus is mobility, balance and kinesthetic awareness. A lack of kinesthetic sense can lead to poor coordination, fear of movement and lack of agility.”
Fletcher’s approach to strength and conditioning is different. Squats and sprints still have their place. But so does the science of sports. Fletcher has broadened his approach in his quest to help athletes build their bodies the right way, and then keep them as injury-free as possible and able to play at their peak best on the court.
It’s why he pursued a master’s from Edith Cowan University — world renown for its exercise and sports science program — in Perth, Australia. It’s why he spent a year taking classes at Parkland College to become a licensed massage therapist in order to help with the Illini’s recovery.
“I think he’s an innovator,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I think he’s super creative and very smart. I think he likes to add the technology piece, but not lose sight of how guys get bigger and stronger and that’s hard work. Yet, he is very much into developing the whole body, the whole mind, and he’s the best at it.
“Whether it’s guys doing somersaults sometimes and landing on one foot or under a squat rack, in my opinion, he’s transformed how men’s basketball players train. He does it in a way that it transfers to actual basketball — the running, the jumping, the twisting, the turning. He’s found a way to maximize all of those things.”
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Fletcher’s original plan after graduating from Miami (Ohio) in 2010 with a bachelor’s in kinesiology following his basketball career with the RedHawks was physical therapy school.
His interest made sense. He’d had enough physical therapy himself after five surgeries on his right knee and two on his left ankle during his five seasons at Miami.
“I had good experiences with physical therapy because it allowed me to get back,” Fletcher said. “But then I started thinking, ‘Well, if I get into strength and conditioning, maybe I can be on the other side of it and help prevent maybe some of the injuries I went through as a player.’”
Fletcher’s first job post-college was two years as assistant strength coach at Michigan. He had the flexibility with the Wolverines to also pursue his master’s in person in Australia. Sports science was always an interest. His time at Edith Cowan only reinforced that.
“It’s challenging to get accepted into the program,” Fletcher said. “When I got accepted, it was almost a no-brainer. All the research is coming out of there from a sports science standpoint. It’s an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, and very grateful that I was able to get over there and experience that. ... Obviously, being around that caliber of sports scientists really made me think differently as a practitioner.”
Fletcher spent three years at Towson before he was hired at Illinois in August 2015. His background as a Division I athlete, at least in those early years in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Towson, Md., lent him a little more authority as a strength and conditioning coach.
“I think early on in my career it was very important that I was a player,” Fletcher said. “When I got my first job, I was the youngest Division I basketball strength coach in the country. Then a half a year later I was the youngest director of strength and conditioning in the country at Towson. Early on, it helped me establish credibility.
“Now, not so much. There’s times where I have a specific conversation with a guy about how they feel because of the game, and I think it gives me a little bit more in depth as to the way they think. As a true practitioner, being a basketball player really hasn’t changed much for me other than those small, but big, conversations because I’ve been there and I have a little bit better understanding of what they’re going through physically and mentally.”
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Fletcher has brought more of a sports science approach to his job in the last year at Illinois. While it’s always captured his interest, the application piece is still new. The installation of ShotTracker technology at both Ubben Basketball Complex and State Farm Center last year provides real-time data for every moment the Illini make on the court.
The players wear tags on their shoes. The balls they use are connected to the system.
The Illinois coaches can use that data to track, as one example, every shot that’s attempted in a practice or game. Fletcher can use it, too, since he can see how much ground individual players have covered in a session along with how much they’re jumping and how it all affects their heart rate.
Fletcher also uses a force plate on a daily basis. Each player jumps on the two-plate system. The information gathered relates to the force of their jumps, how high they jump and if the player favors one leg over the other.
Load management isn’t just for NBA stars like Kawhi Leonard. The data Fletcher gathers every day — every practice, every game — tracks individual player load and gives him a guideline for how to manage it.
“We track player load over time,” Fletcher said. “As that starts to trend up and it gets higher and higher and higher, that gives me the opportunity to have a conversation with coach about, ‘Hey, Trent (Frazier’s) player load has spiked. We need to bring him back down a little bit.’”
The left-right differential data Fletcher gathers from the force plate testing also helps Illinois in injury prevention. If a player is favoring one leg over the other consistently, that can either lead to an overuse injury or is an indication of one.
The latter happened this summer when Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk arrived on campus. Fletcher recognized an issue in the freshman forward’s left-right differential just three days into his time on campus. That led to getting an MRI, which revealed a lower leg injury and put Bosmans-Verdonk on the treatment path with athletic trainer Paul Schmidt.
“Ben’s probably out for the year because we don’t catch that until it becomes severe,” Underwood said would have happened without the new technology-based approach. “With Ben’s type of injury, that would have probably been surgery. We recognized it, and now we can manage the problem, manage the issue, before it becomes severe. Now he’s back out on the court instead of in a boot or with a pin in his leg.”
The technological advances in the strength and conditioning field have been vital. It allows Fletcher the ability to better understand the different body types on the Illinois roster. From long and rangy, like sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, to a bigger body in sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili to an even bigger body like freshman center Kofi Cockburn.
“They’re all three very different,” Fletcher said. “The technology bridges the gap from what I’m able to see with my eyes to what’s actually happening. That really generates the exercise selection to be able to create the change I need to create to keep them on the court.
“People are starting to understand the body at a higher level. There’s been a lot more science that’s driving change in the industry. I’ve always had a science background, and it’s what’s driven my program for a long time. But the true application of it has been the biggest change. I think there’s a lot of people that work in the science of it and read the science of it, but there’s still a gap that needs to be bridged by true application of the data.”
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Count the Illinois players as on board for Fletcher’s wholesale approach. Even the sheer volume of data generated by the ShotTracker system and force plates.
“I like to know what I’m doing,” Dosunmu said. “I like to know the results and what it’s helping. He’s got an answer for me every time. When I see that — when he’s showing me what he wants to do to improve my body and he’s showing me the data — it just makes me trust him more.”
Fletcher said the buy in from the players has been exactly what he’s needed. The players have to work with intent so he has true data to be able to help them change their bodies and, in turn, their play on the court.
“They all understand it, and they’re all very interested in it because it’s their body,” Fletcher said. “They know that, long term, keeping their body as healthy as possible is what optimally is going to give them the biggest chance to play for multiple seasons. That part’s really important.”
Kipper Nichols wasn’t as sure about Fletcher’s data-driven efforts. At least at first.
Then, the now redshirt senior forward saw how that data changed during the course of a season. How it related to how his body felt and how he performed during practices or games because of that.
Consider Nichols fully bought into the system. Especially the way Fletcher runs the program. He values variety. It’s not all squats and sprints. Strength and conditioning — the latter in particular — can take on many forms. Like tag. Or frisbee. Not to mention fairly regular yoga.
“I can’t speak for anybody else around the country who does that stuff, but I know the biggest thing for me that’s helped since I got here was not just the weight-lifting but the body movement and working on my flexibility,” Nichols said. “Fletch put a big emphasis on that. Especially with the way the game is changing with position-less basketball and guys having to move.”
The Illinois players value the variety of Fletcher’s program just as much as he does. It’s hard, serious work, sure, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be some fun in the mix, too.
“It keeps you fresh mentally,” Nichols said. “It keeps you engaged. Obviously, coming in every day and doing the same routine, even with basketball, it’s real mundane. Doing the same thing every day, you’re not even thinking about it. When you add something in like that to sprinkle a little fun in the day, it always helps.”
Underwood sees the benefit of that approach for his players, too.
“It keeps them excited,” he said. “It’s never boring. They find a lot of different ways to do exactly what he wants. He doesn’t just have to do the same thing in a repetitive fashion every day.”
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Underwood calls Fletcher “100 percent bought in to Illinois basketball.”
It’s why the Illini’s strength and conditioning coach, in his fifth year with the program, decided on his own to become a licensed massage therapist. He spent a year — August 2018 through August 2019 — ultimately getting his associate’s degree from Parkland in massage therapy because he felt the next step for him professionally was understanding how he could help players recover from practice and games better.
“I started studying soft tissue work and really trying to understand it,” Fletcher said. “One of the things I never want to do is do a modality — do something that is soft tissue work — and I’m just trying to piece it together. I want to be a professional in everything I do.
“If you look at massage as an industry, Doug Nelson at BodyWorks is one of the best researchers in massage that there is, and he’s right up the road. A lot of the people he brings in have gone through the program at Parkland.”
Fletcher’s “all in” nature for Illinois basketball also extends beyond the weight room or practice court or training room. He’s developed a trust in the players beyond the work they do together.
“There’s never been a time when I’ve asked him to get some work in and he turned me down,” Dosunmu said. “Fletch, he’s the best in the business. ... He’s a really good guy, and I love him as a strength coach. Not only is he a strength coach. He’s more of a mentor. He’s just here for us.”
“Fletch will talk to you about life before the lift,” Nichols added. “This is more important than what we’re going to do today. He’ll tell you about life lessons — things he’s been through. Even things outside of basketball. He does a great job of grooming young men in there and not just physically.”