At the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season, Travis Knight reunited Gonzaga’s undefeated men’s basketball team on a Monday. Knight is, by business card at least, the Zag’s “assistant strength and conditioning coach.” But as he demonstrated on Monday, like most Mondays, his job title is as underrated as the power of basketball that sprouted in eastern Washington more than 20 years ago.
There were no coaches at this meeting, no administrators or university staff, and the group was designed that way, to be small, exclusive, and open to new ideas. That afternoon, Knight stood before the Bulldogs and a projection screen, on which a YouTube video had been stopped. Several players cast curious glances in their direction when Knight said he wanted them to learn about vibrations and their inherent power, through this exact clip, which showed someone spreading sand on a metal table and then vibrating the table with something called “tone generator”. The higher the pitch, the more the sand is divided into patterns; Higher still, these patterns became increasingly intricate. “It felt like discovering the secrets of the universe,” says junior guard Joel Ayayi with a smile. “Or something.”
Knight, as usual, attracted the attention of the Zags. He told them that vibration is something that is felt, experienced and understood, but not really talked about. “And,” he says, “our vibe had to be more about dominance than trying to meet the expectations of others or worrying about rankings.” If Gonzaga could set a higher tone regarding basketball dominance, it followed that the Zags would become the arena of the stage, forming together, in increasingly elaborate configurations, to feel and understand. Or something.
If this meeting sounds unusual, consider what happened next: Gonzaga recalibrated, ran through a brutal conference-free schedule from mostly ranked opponents unscathed, won all 15 West Coast Conference games, and reached another men’s tournament. in the NCAA, his 22nd consecutive appearance, with 26 wins. Good vibes all around (and apologies for dad’s joke).
The Zags are still undefeated, in large part due to Knight, his innovative training methods and what the Gonzaga program calls Personal Growth Mondays, a Spokane staple for the previous three seasons. If the Zags become the first undefeated men’s basketball team in more than 40 years, they can thank both the PGMs and the PPGs.
“The most important thing in that space that is really developed is to help them be more connected, not only with each other, but with the moment and this surreal year,” says Knight. He points out that college students exist in a perpetual state of distraction – classes, friends, dates, futures to be discovered – and that’s before taking into account a global pandemic, a national recession, and a much-needed racial awakening. It’s easy, Knight says, “sometimes you lose track of how special it is – what you’re doing.”
BISHOP: How Gonzaga Zagged
Monday’s meetings began in 2018, when Knight sought to develop a “soul-level connection” on a schedule defined by both the million games he had won and the one he never had. The Bulldogs had already begun beefing up their mental performance training, after a string of early tournament exits, the worst of which was a fall in Wichita state in 2013 that prompted coach Mark Few, Knight and others to seek further growth. of simply finding more or more talented players. diabolical offensive and defensive schemes. Players retreated together and competed to see who could unlock the escape rooms the fastest. And those events were great and necessary as they strengthened ties and made those teams more cohesive. But the exercises, given how few there were, felt more like injections, Knight says, rather than systematic and methodical follow-up. Gonzaga advanced to the national title game in 2017, only to lose in the final minutes. Close, but not yet arrived.
For all this, Knight came to visit Brett Ledbetter before the 2018-19 season. Ledbetter created the organization What drives you to win and Knight wondered if he could implement the principles of Ledbetter’s philosophy on the basketball court, as teams from all sports have more frequently in recent years.
Ledbetter details the first steps of that partnership in a video on his company website. In the clip, he shows a slide of Few’s record per season, the worst: only 23 wins and praises Knight’s “vision.” The performance consultant met with Few and Knight before that season, helping them set four core goals that came together: developing internal leadership, defusing resistance to growth, being ready to respond to adversity, and managing high expectations. All of that may seem simple. It definitely isn’t.
Ledbetter then recommended to Knight that his players list the three things in their life that most got in the way of success. They then divided those lists into groups, one for “human” topics and one for “sports” topics. There were dozens of human problems. In sports? Not a single one that anyone has listed. That reinforced Knight’s need for comprehensive and consistent care, and PGM was born.
The form took various forms. Knight didn’t want to overwhelm the players, so he started by limiting the meetings to about five minutes. It soon became clear that he would need more time to allow questions and a deeper dialogue. Most Mondays they talked for about 15 minutes, sometimes longer. Thus, the day of the week known for depression came to “set the tone,” Knight says, for the rest of the week for the basketball team.
That first year, with a talented team but not many vocal leaders, the PGMs helped the Zags communicate with each other in ways the players probably wouldn’t have done on their own. Knight showed them clips of Daniel Coyle, the author who wrote The talent code: greatness is not born. It is grown. That is how. Coyle cited a research study that compared why Japanese students scored better on math tests than Americans. Researchers found through a video study that in US classrooms, students were “actively fighting” for only 2% of their class time; Japanese students, by contrast, recorded 40%, and their teachers often gave them wrong answers, so the students actively fought plus. The PGMs, then, helped the Bulldogs fight to better understand each other, along with the world around them. “The stability they have is due to the way they are connected to something bigger than themselves,” says Knight.
That ’18 -19 team, by the way, defeated No. 1 Duke and Zion Williamson at the Maui Invitational, reunited with Ledbetter again after two close losses that followed a knockdown at PGM, and advanced to Elite Eight, where they lost to Texas Tech, the eventual runner-up. Players referred to the skipped sessions as PGM – TBD, which spoke of how much those meetings had come to mean to them. They wrote reports on leadership styles, breaking into groups to analyze schools controlled by coaches, teams, or themselves, and the conclusion was that they needed all three.
Ahead. Upwards. Players never enter Monday’s meeting knowing what to expect, what Ayayi and others say only adds to the reasons why they are looking forward to those short segments. They read and discussed The Mamba mindset by the late Kobe Bryant and watched video clips of him saying that he was not defined by being happy to win or hating to lose. “I play to figure things out,” he told an interviewer. “Game to learn”. The Gonzaga players listened to two of Bryant’s former teammates, Adam Morrison and Robert Sacre, both former students, after Bryant died in January 2020 from a helicopter crash. They studied Alabama soccer team dynamics when Tua Tagovailoa replaced Jalen Hurts at quarterback. They spread a 60 minutes segment on Rafael Nadal to persuade the Zags to play with more emotion, I learned how LeBron James took care of his body to star year after year at the highest level and watched the Toronto Raptors videos from the 2019 title season to understand how it happened the story didn’t matter, not for the teams that went out and overturned everything that had historically plagued them.
“We have been in growth mode,” Few told SI earlier this season.
For Ayayi, the way Hurts handled the loss of his starting job in Alabama resonated in particular. Ayayi had also faded into the background, unsure that he would ever play meaningful minutes at Gonzaga, only to seize his opportunity, like Hurts at Oklahoma, once the opportunity opened. “Alabama needed both to be great,” Ayayi says. “And look what happened.” Meaning: 2017, national title.
Anyone who feels a theme here is not wrong. The Zags present an interesting case study where they won’t define the success of the show based on how many championships they’ve won, and yet winning their first national title also drives everything they do. It’s just that the focus remains on the process rather than the outcome, which is the most likely way Gonzaga would win his first ring anyway. “The value of those PGMs,” says Knight, “is that they are a reminder of what really matters.”
The technique doesn’t always work. Another day earlier this season, the Zags tried improvising, on Zoom, to improve his communication skills. The workshop, the stage, the virtual nature, that experiment failed. But the need to better connect was sunk anyway, after a trip to a nearby zip line park.
After the Bulldogs won their conference tournament in early March, securing their automatic NCAA nomination and keeping alive the dream of the perfect first season of this millennium for a men’s college basketball team, senior forward Corey Kispert appeared on on national television and told ESPN that all the Zags have to do is “be us.” That notion vibrated deeply with Knight. “That’s the message,” he says, and it’s one defined by PGM and often deployed by Few. PGMs help tell Bulldogs who they are. Few ask them to be that, the best of it.
Like at the halftime of the WCC final against BYU, when Gonzaga found himself experiencing something weird: a really close game. “We’re going to start playing like us,” Few said in the locker room. And they did, to win No. 26.
Now, after the early NCAA exits, after the race for second place, after the season canceled by COVID-19 and the season immersed in a global pandemic, the Bulldogs remain five wins from that perfect season. They know as well as anyone how far those five victories are from being guaranteed. But they are better prepared, for this particular season, because of the game days. Y because of Mondays when off-court growth leads to on-court variety. Or something.
The SI tournament newsletter looks at everything you need to know about the Big Dance – what just happened and what will happen next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.