This expansion season may appear daunting in Southern Michigan, but thanks to a story of Cancer survival the Galaxy are off to a star-studded start in The Basketball League.
He’ll tell you that himself. Just ask. It’s less about being an integral part of the expansion Kalamazoo Galaxy as the team’s Head Athletic Trainer, and more about facing the uncertainty of health and life head on.
That’s the biggest “W” there is.
Determination. The ability to overcome. Getting better each day.
These are just three of the many reasons why personally Gardner continues to push forward in preparing and caring for all members of the Galaxy. It’s the exact same guidance he gave to himself after enduring and surviving colon Cancer, while mustering the energy to return to doing what he loves: helping college and pro athletes alike reach their personal potential and professional goals in the game of life. Recently, Steven took time to breakdown his long road to reach The Basketball League with the Galaxy, the importance of rest and recovery for athletes, and the “top three” points all TBL players can benefit from during the 2023 season, and beyond.
Can you share a bit about your experience as a trainer and your career path that led to working with the Galaxy this season?
Before we get started with the interview questions I would like to say, I feel honored to be asked for an interview and thank you for getting to know me and the role that an athletic trainer can play in supporting a professional basketball team of The Basketball League’s caliber. I feel privileged to work with these players.
My career path began at Central Michigan University where I graduated in 1989 and became National Athletic trainer association certified the same year. I have a degree in Sports Medicine with an emphasis on Athletic Training and a minor in Exercise Sciences. During my time at Central Michigan my duties took me to Northwood institute (now Northwood University) which was a bit of a drive everyday to Midland, Michigan to work with their football, basketball, and volleyball players.
During my time there the head athletic trainer came down with a debilitating illness and had to coordinate from home. As a student, I basically assume the role of the head athletic trainer for those sports. I also had my classroom duties as well and travel duties with the teams. It taught me good injury and time management skills. After that semester I began my internship in Muskegon, Michigan at a physical therapy clinic. We did normal physical treatments but also did outreach and sports medicine coverage to the local Muskegon Lumberjacks of the IHL. After my internship I progressed to St. Joe, Michigan where I worked at a hospital doing outreach sports medicine to the area, local high schools and community college in the afternoon and doing sports physical therapy treatments in the morning. In 1993 I became one of the first clinicians to set for and receive Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification ( CSCS).
A short time later I moved to a hospital near me Lakeview Hospital ( eventually became Bronson- Lakeview Methodist Hospital) and became a Clinical Athletic Trainer. Doing sports physical therapy all day with a set schedule and no weekends. That freed me up to begin my personal training activities as is possible with the all encompassing Cert. Athletic Trainer background. My emphasis was on speed and agility. I also did comprehensive football combine training for all positions and had several athletes be invited back to the best of the Midwest combine high school where two achieved elite status. I have trained several players for Division I at each of the sports listed: softball, football, and lacrosse men and women players. I also had hockey, basketball, and baseball players attain scholarships in the sports they loved. I enjoyed watching all the athletes achieve Division I, II, and III status, along with NAIA schools as well. During that time I coached age group football, baseball, travel hockey, soccer, and Varsity and Middle school Lacrosse.
You also received some serious health news at this time in your personal life?
I was diagnosed with colon Cancer and unfortunately got sepsis as well. I had to have several emergency surgeries, and spent many weeks in the hospital. I decided at that time to work on getting stronger and ended my personal training and coaching careers. I then got a position at an orthopedic surgical clinic at Bronson Methodist Hospital outreach clinic. During my time there I helped with patient intake, injury assessment and education pre and post-surgically.
The opportunity then came up to work at a local community college with their sports programs. I was then later asked by my supervisor if I would be interested in an opportunity to work professional basketball with the Kalamazoo Galaxy team. I felt it was a great opportunity to return to professional sports. I am so glad I took the opportunity. The Basketball League (TBL) is a wonderful league and I get to work with fantastic athletes, coaches and management alike.
That is an impressive journey with a lot of obstacles to overcome. What did I enjoy most about working with young athletes at the college level?
They are driven to get to the next level. They have focus and have heart. I have to do the best job I can when they’re injured because they can feel like it’s the end of their athletic career and they haven’t even attained the level that they’ve wanted to. Over all, the best thing is watching most of them achieve and move on to the next level.
What were some of the things you wanted to emphasize for the Galaxy preseason training, and the start of the regular season?
The biggest thing I wanted to emphasize was the fact that they needed to get good rest, good nutrition, and plenty of water and electrolytes. And begin a cold plunge or ice tub regimen after the final practice to help decrease the inflammation and soreness from the twice-a-day practices and the grueling performance training being done between the practice sessions led by another contracted group.
How does the approach to training, conditioning, diet and nutrition, recovery, mental health, and other facets of being a “professional basketball player” differ from player to player. Where do you start as a trainer?
Many of the players have their own training and conditioning regime. However, some do not. There’s a contracted group within the building before I got there that did strength, mobility, and endurance testing. Much like I had done at the professional hockey level years ago and similar to the preseason physicals at the junior college and college levels that I had been involved with. The key is getting everyone on the same page. Assessing their nutritional needs for example; not everyone can eat the same foods and get the same results. It’s a blending of what works best for their own system. We are all chemically different and we need to approach the food, and supplements ingested ( breaks down into chemical building blocks) as unique to the individual themselves. Some people have allergies to food. Some people have sensitivities to foods but not necessarily allergies: different height, weight, and muscle mass. That all needs to be taken in consideration when considering nutrition ( protein, carbohydrates, fat, and hydration/electrolytes) for each athlete.
Same with training and conditioning. It can’t be a one size fits all type of plan. They all come in in different states of strength and condition. You can’t push all athletes the same or risk over use to some before the season starts. Recovery and overtraining can also be a product of too much too soon for those that aren’t ready. I work closely with those involved in the conditioning and strengthening portion by assessing the training and recovery needed and then making recommendations and/or holding athletes from certain activities until they are ready. As I did sport physical therapy for over 25 years: protecting from injury and rehabbing during recovery and returning the athlete to full competitive play is what I am best suited for. Once they have returned to play. The extra conditioning and strengthening (coordinated daily with me) is a great plan to implement whether done by me or other individuals of the athletes/managements choosing.
As far as the mental health aspect; just being available to listen and understand without judgment is a huge part of what I do every day. I don’t often give advice but more like help them to see more clearly. Sometimes talking things through just makes sense. I always have a listening ear, and they all know I care about them and coaches too. I think that’s what helps with all facets of the mental health side of professional sports.
Everyone needs a safe outlet.
What’s been your biggest message to the guys and team knowing this is a short but intense and physical season?
Get plenty of rest, maintain your endurance and strength through light strength training and cardio (not looking to build during in season that leads to overuse injuries), find time for extra stretching and or massage and heat modalities ( hot tub, sauna, steam room) and cold tub several times a week. Daily if recovering from injury. Don’t let the little nagging soreness become something that gets more insidious and stops your ability to play.
With your bout with Cancer, what helped you get through that time. How much of your own story about that time do you share with guys during training or away from the gym?
Wow, that question has such a long story to it. I will try to shorten it a bit. When I was diagnosed with colon Cancer (and subsequently ended up with sepsis throughout my internal organs), I lost over a foot of my digestive tract and spent a long time in the hospital. I ended up with an ileostomy for a while, and a drain outside my body draining the infection from me for many months. When I returned home, it was difficult to exercise. I was weak, I had the ileostomy bag to deal with, and the infection drain with the tube coming out of my body and the collection bulb.
I was embarrassed to return to the gym with all that stuff attached to my body. But I did recover faster than the doctors thought I should and progressed myself as quickly as I saw fit. I am a go-getter, a doer, someone that does not let things get in my way. I have also had an achilles repair and a triceps repair before, and I choose to face things head on and I plan to come out victorious. I built my body back in record time from all those afflictions. I’m really not supposed to even be here, but I look at everyday as a chance to be 1% better and make a difference in others’ lives as well.
What helped me get through all of that was an internal drive to be healthy, strong and independent. I don’t really lean on others as many have told me. I take care of myself. I’m kind of stubborn that way. I always figure someone needs help more than me. Or maybe someone has been through worse. I always say, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”. That is where growth begins. I ask the players and people I work out with as me how I work out with such intensity. I say: are you uncomfortable; if not get uncomfortable and grow.
Even the name of my Instagram account: survival_of_the_fitness23. The reason for that is if I hadn’t been in as good a shape as I was prior to my Cancer diagnosis and the several subsequent emergency surgeries, I would not be here today. I tell a little about my story to some of the players when they ask about injury and recovery. I have had to recover from multiple catastrophic injuries as the surgeons tell me. The players are surprised at all I have been through and the shape I am in now. I tell them I am not here to inspire you. I try to live my best life everyday and put my best foot forward every day to be healthy and strong. No excuses to not become 1% better everyday. When I do share a little they are amazed at where I am after all I have gone through. I do tell them you are stronger and more capable than you know you are. Don’t let others tell you can’t do something. If you believe you can, you will find a way. Just see it in your mind and believe with all your heart and achieve. I’ve been there, I know. I hope and I feel my overcoming injury and Cancer allows them to believe they can achieve.
I will be 58 years old this year. I workout weights, cardio, and agility and plyo-box jumps and such. I am at the gym seven days a week for 2-3 hours or more each day and I challenge them to out work with me, especially in the offseason.
What are 2-3 quick training tips players can utilize when it comes to taking care of their bodies and minds this 2023 TBL season?
- Get plenty of rest: It doesn’t just mean sleeping time; however that is important. Everyone needs different amounts of sleep studies have shown, so get the sleep you need. I am also talking about a “rest” from the game as well. Take a mental break. Go bowling, to the movies, read a book, call your family and loved ones, ask about their day or week. Mental and emotional strength is almost as important as physical strength.
- Take the plunge: Cold plunge, ice tub, or some kind of cryo treatment as directed and needed the day after each game, or hard practice whether or not you have an injury. We have all read or heard about the many studies that prove its benefits. Do it if you are injured or the first few days after injury for sure. Aim for 3-4 days during a non-injury week.
- Manage your diet: Eat a balanced athletic diet that fuels your body and does not cause food sensitivities. Know your body. Know what foods balance best and make you feel more energetic and stronger. It’s not the same for everyone; learn and know your body. Drink plenty of water and electrolytes as needed, especially at night if you are cramping.
Wendell Maxey is the author of Around The Basketball League and has written about professional basketball and sports for 20 years. He’s been featured on NBA.com, ESPN.com, USA Today, FOX Sports, and SLAM Magazine among other publications and media outlets. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or read through his archive on Linktree.