On the last Thursday before their most important stretch of the season, the Maryland women’s basketball team held a brief practice and then scattered across the country. Guard Kristen Confroy visited her brother and his two kids in Nashville. Scoring star Shatori Walker-Kimbrough went to see her family in Pittsburgh. Destiny Slocum headed home to Idaho. Head coach Brenda Frese went on a weekend getaway with her husband to Miami, where they drank red wine, read books and walked along the beach.
This is the time for a frenetic overdose of basketball, not the time for wine and beaches, right? Why not stay in College Park and clean up some defensive principles?
“All you can do is grind your kids more,” Frese said by way of explanation. “We’re getting ready to grind them next weekend, right? They’re going back into that high-intensity mode. I think you can get driven by ‘You’re supposed to do this; you’re supposed to do that.’ And I don’t have to question do we work hard. I know we work hard. I know what we do. And I think we work even better when we have great balance.”
Taking a breather the weekend before Selection Monday is perhaps not unusual. But for Frese — whose team received a 3 seed on Monday night — the weekend was of a piece with her current coaching philosophy, which stresses work-life balance and time away from the court. Throughout her career, she has forsaken two-a-day sessions, and insisted on a five-to-seven day break around Christmas. About a decade ago, she converted this last weekend before the NCAA tournament into a mini-bye. Sometimes during conference season, she’ll spend just one day preparing for an upcoming opponent even if there are two open dates. And four years ago, she changed her team’s approach to late-season practices, drastically shortening their length to try to keep players sharper and more engaged. Before the switch, February practices could last two hours, two hours 15 minutes, or longer. Now, they’re usually over after 75 or 90 minutes.
“There are definitely teams having two-and-a-half or three-hour practices,” said Eric Thibault, an assistant with the Mystics who has observed practices for many college teams, including the Terps. “You see a lot of college coaches obsess over covering everything possible. And I think [Maryland has] prioritized making sure their kids are mentally and physically fresh.”
Leaving your work at the office seems lovely in practice, but there’s always something else that needs doing, another piece of film to watch, another opponent to scrutinize. When she was younger and single, Frese had the same struggles that gnaw at ambitious up-and-comers in every field: “Very driven and no balance,” she said.
Getting married and having children helped change her perspective. So did the injury-plagued 2013 Maryland campaign. With just seven scholarship players late that season, coaches were forced to cut down on practice time. They noticed that the remaining players would pour themselves into those sessions, because they knew they wouldn’t last long. So the following season, and every one since, Frese brought back those shorter sessions as the postseason approached.
Confroy said her high school practices lasted longer than these late-season sessions at one of the best NCAA programs in the country. “For sure,” Walker-Kimbrough agreed. And you probably won’t be surprised to learn their reaction.
“I think it’s awesome,” Confroy said. “I don’t know the broad scope, but I do have a couple friends at other programs that just get run into the ground, and by March they’re exhausted. This should be the time that you’re most excited to play and most fresh. So it just seems backwards.”
“Sometimes coaches and players get locked into certain goals and they really really want to attain that goal, and they kind of forget about everything else,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “Like, this is supposed to be fun. This is supposed to have balance. We’re away from home, and we do want to see our families.”
Thus, after winning the Big Ten tournament last week, Frese gave her team Monday and Tuesday off. Confroy studied for the MCAT, which she is taking in May. Walker-Kimbrough went to the campus mall and studied for a test (and then went to a different mall, Montgomery). Assistant coach Shay Robinson studied film at home, and also went shopping with his wife.
Frese also said she tries to live out the same principles she preaches to her team, showing them “how much happier you are in your life” with a bit of balance. She prioritizes having breakfast with her sons and husband in the morning. She aims to have dinner at home as well. She tells her assistants, “work where you work best,” whether that’s at Xfinity Center, at a Starbucks or in their living rooms. When they have to come in on off days, she tells them to do what they need to do and then leave. “Work plus rest equals success,” she tells them.
“Every team in the country does not manage itself the way she manages it,” Robinson said. “It’s unique, that’s how I would say it. It’s a unique situation; it’s a special situation; it’s a special thing to be with a coach who runs a program that believes in and understands balance.”
Of course, having shorter practices, longer breaks and a mentally healthy lifestyle would seem a lot less charming if the Terps were now 2-30 instead of 30-2. But in the four years since Frese started shortening practices, her teams have gone 49-7 after Feb. 1. (In fairness, that’s partly a function of running roughshod over the Big Ten since switching conferences three years ago. Also in fairness, second-seeded Maryland was upended in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament.)
The risk, if there is one, might be atrophy. Could shorter practices and time away from the gym lead to sloppy habits or a lack of focus? Frese doesn’t buy it.
“These are high-level, high-powered athletes that get in the gym all the time on their own,” she said. “If you want to instill toughness, recruit the right players. If you want kids to be disciplined, recruit the right players, recruit the right staff. I just have a ton of trust in what we’re doing. Our kids are obviously in really challenging majors. And when they get their time back, they’re really, really good.”
And so on Friday, they’ll start their next postseason adventure with a game against Bucknell in College Park. But first, they left.
“Getting those days off and getting away from basketball and just enjoying life a little bit makes you come back more refreshed,” Confroy said.
“You have a chance to breathe,” Robinson said.
“Just getting rejuvenated,” Frese said, “for what’s out ahead.”