MISSOULA — For the regularly composed Fabijan Krslovic, it’s his breathing.
For the fast-paced Ahmaad Rorie and Mike Oguine, it’s their hips.
For the fleet-footed Sayeed Pridgett, it’s his feet.
And for the 6-foot-8 Jamar Akoh, it’s his back.
The Montana Grizzlies basketball team has used a combination of yoga during the offseason and strength and recovery work throughout the nonconference slate to help keep the players mentally and physically fresh throughout the grind of the schedule.
They head into conference play on Thursday at Northern Arizona, and several players said throughout the past two weeks that feel better than they normally do at this point in the season. Staying in good physical condition and mental space has been key for the team since it primarily uses an eight-player rotation.
The primary purpose of the yoga classes was to release tension and optimize rest and relaxation through the use of breathing techniques. It’s a way to release stress from the body and counter the fight-or-flight mentality in order to bring a higher degree of resiliency.
“For them to have the presence of mind and the freedom of movement to live their chosen life is what I care about,” said Marina Zaleski, who ran the yoga classes.
Krslovic has seen the payoff of what he learned in yoga at the free-throw line. This year, he’s shooting 78.9 percent on his free throws, which is 22.6 percent above his career average coming into the season (56.3).
“I’m getting more composed, focusing on the right things,” Krslovic said before the UC Irvine game. “The breathing is something I’ve been focusing on. That helps at the line; it’s all mental, so getting in the right frame of mind when you approach the free-throw line.”
In their quiet meditation time, they’d do light movements to release tension around their neck, shoulders and hips. They also did 20 to 30 minutes of breathing practices to get their nervous system into a restful space.
“I feel a lot more relaxed,” Pridgett said early on in the season. “She doesn’t use the term ‘stretching.’ We can’t use that word when we’re in there. She calls it 'relaxing your body and rejuvenating yourself.'”
The Griz started doing yoga during the summer of 2016 when the coaches got the team together for free sessions of yoga in the park. They tried to do some on their own last preseason, but it faded.
During this summer, the Griz started mandatory yoga classes at a Missoula yoga studio two times per week for five weeks. Based on their schedule during preseason practices, they went at least once a week, usually right after practice.
As the Griz have hit the break between semesters and have more free time, they’re looking at picking up the yoga again after positive feedback from the players.
The biggest difference Rorie has noticed from yoga is how his hips have loosened up. If he feels himself stiffening up, he’ll occasionally do some of the techniques on his own.
“It allows me to be more flexible, more agile, especially on defense,” Rorie said before the UC Riverside game. “On offense, it helps me with being more elusive, being able to move better.”
Akoh uses a core exercise he learned in yoga of laying on the ground, pushing up with his hip flexors and tightening his core while focusing on breathing to help with minor back problems.
“It engages your core and takes pressure of your back and glutes,” Akoh said on Dec. 15. “Whenever I get tight, I usually go to that.”
With all the running Pridgett does on the court, sometimes his feet swell up after practice. He learned from the yoga instructor to lay on the ground and raise his legs up against a wall at a 90-degree angle for a few minutes to get the blood flowing away from his feet.
The Griz also mixed in mandatory ice baths after practices. They came in the day after yoga to focus on recovery with their athletic trainer, Justin Hunt. They focused on stretching and used compression pants to get knots out of their legs and the blood flowing more easily.
“Those two back-to-back has my body feeling like we didn’t even practice that last week,” Pridgett said early in the season.
The Griz have also been working with strength trainer Brandon Ronan, the interim director of the Athletic Performance Center, since September. In the weight room during the season, he focuses on movement and flexibility, similar to yoga but specialized for the type of movement basketball players do.
Their sessions average 45 to 60 minutes, about two times per week. They focus on mobility and range of movement to start off and head into weight lifting.
They work on trying to maintain strength without pushing the players’ bodies too far but making sure they go enough so they don’t lose too much body weight. It’s about staying healthy as they get toward the end of the season.
“It starts with my hips being more flexible,” Oguine said after the Griz returned from Georgia State. “My knees haven’t been as painful. All the way down to quads, hammies and calves.”
They close their sessions with soft tissue work, which Akoh, Krslovic and Oguine highlighted as benefits. They use foam rollers, lacrosse balls or kettlebells to massage nagging areas of their body in order to break up tissue or adhesion.
“The stuff we did in the summer, fall and now has helped us keep our bodies loose, fresh because right now we’re doing a lot with traveling, practicing long,” Akoh said before the Griz hosted UC Riverside. “I think all that stuff benefited us for sure. I’m feeling alright. The season’s a grind, and everyone has knick-knacks, but we’re relatively fresh.”