July 3, 2014 10:58:04 AM
STARKVILLE -- Three years ago, weightlifting was a foreign concept to Martha Alwal.
At 6-foot-4, Alwal relied on her height and her length to affect shots in the post and didn't have the strength to use her body to carve out space in the paint because she hadn't trained in the weight room.
"My teammates would ask me, 'What days do you lift?' " Alwal said. "I was like, 'What is lifting?' I was so anti-lifting. I didn't want to be a man, I didn't want to be big, I didn't want to do all of that staff, so I was against it."
Alwal's physical transformation continues as she prepares for her senior season with the Mississippi State women's basketball team. Following an offseason filled with summer classes and weightlifting, Alwal's face looks thinner three months removed from the end of the 2013-14 season. She laughs about being able to lift "negative the bar" when she first arrived at MSU to play for coach Sharon Fanning-Otis. Entering her third year working with coach Vic Schaefer and his staff, Alwal marvels at how much stronger she and her teammates have gotten thanks to a new attitude in the weight room.
"I have realized lifting weights isn't going to make you into this huge monster," Alwal said. "It is going to make you cut and it is going to make you look lean. I have learned that since my freshman year."
Schaefer credits MSU assistant strength and conditioning coach Richard Akins for working with the staff to implement some of the strength and conditioning practices he used at previous schools. He said Akins' ability to motivate and to push the players has helped them change their physical makeup. As Schaefer has said many times in the past year, he believes his team physically looks more like a Southeastern Conference basketball team when it gets off the bus or it walks through airports.
"We play in a very physical, tough, aggressive league, so you have to have a body that can handle that," Schaefer said. "It is not just about competing on the floor. We want to compete in the weight room. We're not going to make you into Hulk Hogan, but you're going to like what you see and how you feel. I think that breeds confidence in not just your basketball, but also your life. Once they're able to see the rewards of working hard in the weight room, it really becomes a positive thing."
Akins said he incorporated Schaefer's desire to implement a variety of training on the track into the women's basketball team's conditioning work. He said change is part of his job given the numbers of coaches he has worked with at MSU in 30-plus years. He said Schaefer "pretty much left him alone" in terms of the methods he used in the weight room. Part motivator, disciplinarian, and father figure, Akins said his goal is to make sure all of the Bulldogs give their best every day. He feels the players have made a lot of progress in the time Schaefer and his staff have been in Starkville.
"The main thing is treat all of the kids the same," Akins said. "I don't care whether one of them is a walk-on or a signee. If they put the uniform on for this school, everybody is going to get the same treatment and training principles. I think in dealing with anybody, if you treat everybody the same and you are the same always, I think people know what to expect."
Schaefer said Alwal looks "great" and has added some good weight that will help her withstand the workload she could shoulder as a senior in the 2014-15 season. Last season, Alwal led the team in scoring (14.9 pointer per game) and rebounding (8.8) en route to earning First-Team All-SEC honors and a spot on the SEC's All-Defensive Team. She also was the SEC's co-Defensive Player of the Year thanks in part to 97 blocked shots, which tied the school's single-season record. She is the school's all-time leader for blocked shots (257) and the new single-season rebounding leader (317).
Senior guard Kendra Grant, who was part of the same recruiting class with Alwal, said the players' mind-set about the weight room has changed in the past few years. She said there now is a greater desire to make the most of their time with Akins because they will see the results physically and they will feel better mentally about themselves and their games.
"You can really see it," Grant said. "Every is going hard with their reps and is making sure they get all of their reps. It is amazing. Even for Martha, we had a talk a little while back and she was talking about getting bigger. It is crazy because you can see it. Everybody is taking that mentality and running with it."
Still, Schaefer believes Alwal looks "thin." Alwal, who is from Worthington, Minnesota, said she feels much stronger after another year working with Akins. Considering Alwal's lack of interest and knowledge about weightlifting prior to coming to Starkville, the progress she has made has put her in position to continue her basketball career after her senior season.
"I think I am taking (weightlifting) more seriously," Alwal said. "We really struggled my freshman and sophomore years getting along because I never wanted to do anything. It is not that I didn't want to do anything, but I never pushed myself. He is always telling me I can do this, I can do that. I wasn't believing it. The weight room was just so hard, and conditioning and all of that stuff was hard. He stays on me. Whenever we have a tough day, he tells me you are preparing for the SEC and for this and for the WNBA. You're doing all of this stuff and you need to work hard. When he says that, it makes me think about what I am doing and go harder."
Schaefer said MSU will continue to lift weights four days a week. He said it will start conditioning work with the players at the beginning of the second summer session. He said he typically doesn't do conditioning work with the players in the "offseason" because he wants to give them time to recover from a season that runs from August into April. This year, though, MSU will embark on a trip to France next month, so it will have the opportunity to practice for 10 days to prepare. MSU also will take advantage of NCAA rules that allow coaches to work with players in the summer by having two one-hour training sessions a week. Schaefer said the weight training and conditioning his players complete prior to that trip will put them in shape to seize the momentum the team built last season from a 22-14 finish and a push into the fourth round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
"(Strength and conditioning) is an important component of our program, and something we believe in and spend a lot of time on," Schaefer said. "I think our kids have learned to embrace being in the weight room. When I first got here and we went into the weight room, there were lots of kids who weren't doing what they needed to be doing. ... Coach Akins has done a great job. Those kids have really bought into being held accountable and change. He deserves a lot of credit."
Akins credits the players for their willingness to focus and to work hard once they come into the weight room. Even though the players and the methods change, Akins said he will continue to live by a motto that can be seen through the window of his office, "Don't tell me, show me." He believes many of the Bulldogs, including Alwal, have worked hard to show him they understand the importance of what the weight room can add to their games.
"These girls have a tremendous attitude when they come through the door (to the weight room)," Akins said. "The hardest thing you have to deal with with girls is you have to make them believe girls can be strong. With guys and football players, that is kind of an ingrained thing. With girls, it is not. That is the biggest hurdle you have to get over first. We have some girls who are very strong. Physically, in the last couple of years, we have gotten a lot stronger."
Alwal fits that bill, even if Akins doesn't like to use numbers to reflect the progress players have made in the weight room. He said she might have started with dumb bells on the bench press instead of a bar, but he said she "is throwing weight on there" now, which is a big deal.
"She has bought into it," Akins said. "It has been night and day with her. She comes in every day with the attitude to work. I have told her how proud I was of her because she comes in and works."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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