The best NBA players are always looking for an edge. Not only are they some of the most competitive people in the world, they’re also rewarded with increasingly enormous contracts if they perform at a high level.
This has led some athletes to take an all-encompassing approach to their development. In addition to working on their game in the offseason, they’re improving their sleep schedule, dietary habits and mindfulness among other things.
David Nurse has created an “athlete-of-the-future” training regimen for players who are willing to make extreme lifestyle changes in hopes of tapping into their full potential. David, the nephew of Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, uses wearable technology and customized plans to ensure that each player he works with is “functioning at optimal capacity.”
Nurse played college basketball at Western Illinois and then had professional stints in Spain, Greece and Australia. After he finished his playing career, he became a highly respected shooting coach. Nurse, a HoopsHype contributor several years ago, holds two Guinness World Record for three-point shooting: most threes made with one basketball in one minute (20) and in five minutes (81). He worked with players individually, helping them tweak their jump-shot, and hosted clinics around the world. He also consulted with UCLA’s basketball teams and ran shooting clinics for USA Basketball (and many other national teams).
In 2016, the Brooklyn Nets hired Nurse to work with their players and improve their shooting. The Nets went from being one of the worst shooting squads at the start of the season to ranking first in the NBA in three-point shooting in February and March of 2016, but Nurse left after the campaign concluded.
That’s when Nurse decided he didn’t want to be viewed as a one-trick pony and decided to broaden his training. When he made the switch to developing all aspects of a player’s game, he decided he wanted to help his clients off the court as well. Now, he struggles to find a label for this role, arriving on “life coach” as the simplest description.
“I used to only train players on the court and focus on their individual skills in the basketball realm, but after working with many guys, I started realizing that there’s so much more that goes into their success and development,” Nurse told HoopsHype. “The on-court stuff is a small piece of the puzzle. There’s much more that determines how an athlete can perform at their highest level every single day. That’s how it started. I became a nut for self-improvement. I wanted to know: How can I make myself the very best version of myself and reach my full potential? And how can I help others do the same thing?”
He has worked with many players over the years; this summer, he’s focused on training Jeremy Lin, Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis, Aron Baynes, Bismack Biyombo and Kyle Singler among others. He wants clients who are willing to completely buy in to his athlete-of-the-future protocol because he believes it will increase their production and extend their career.
“Why not enjoy every minute of life at your optimal capacity?” Nurse said. “If a player’s mind and body are functioning optimally, they can make sure they are reaching their potential. This is about helping players be their best selves every day. You won’t wonder, ‘Will I feel great today?’ You confidently know you will.”
Nurse’s athlete-of-the-future regimen involves working with players on the court and studying film with them (like most skill trainers). But he’s also helping players with four key off-court components, using the help of “top experts in every field of personal human optimization and development” whom he’s met in recent years. Below, Nurse describes each of the areas he focuses on with players:
“I don’t get a ton of sleep – I’m really busy and work long days with a full schedule – so I needed my sleep to be completed dialed in. I started researching this and became friends with some of the top sleep coaches in the world like Patrick Byrne, who has worked with Dirk Nowitzki, and Nick Littlehales, who has worked with Cristiano Ronaldo. I picked their brains on the most important factors in getting great sleep. What I learned is that sleep may be the most important factor in a player’s regimen, even more important than their workout and nutrition. If you aren’t sleeping right, you’re running on empty fumes and you aren’t able to function to the best of your ability.
“After realizing the importance of sleep, it made me want to become a human guinea pig. I wanted to perfect my sleep and get it down to a science to see how much it improved the way I function. Over the past three or four years, I’ve been able to tinker with my sleep and find out exactly what my body needs. Now, I fall asleep within one minute and after 7-to-7.5 hours, I’m awake without any grogginess and I have a ton of energy the entire day. I just had to do a few little things. I sleep with a thing called ChiliPad, which chills my bed to the optimal temperature that I want my body temperature to be at, which is 65 degrees. I make sure that I eat my carbohydrates later in the day, which helps me fall asleep and get a deeper sleep. I make sure my room is completely blacked out – no light – and I don’t have use any blue lights, like from a phone or laptop, in the two hours before I’m going to bed. These are things that worked for me and now I’ve locked them in so I sleep great every night.
“When I’m working with one of my players who’s using the athlete-of-the-future program, we analyze every area of their sleep and piece by piece, I slowly build their sleep [formula] so they can lock in just like I was able to do. And everybody is different, so these things vary from people to people. We all have different chronotypes, so someone like myself functions at their best early in the morning, but some people get their best work done late at night. We have to figure out the player’s chronotype, so we know when he functions the best.”
“When it comes to helping a player master their nutrition, I’m breaking their diet down and seeing what their direct needs are. Everything is super customized to the person and to the specific goals they’re trying to hit. Some players are trying to lose weight or stay at a certain weight, while others are trying to gain weight. There are a few things that are staples, that are consistent across all of the nutrition plans. For example, I always cut out sugar and I always cut out processed carbs – we want everything to be natural.
“I traveled to the Blue Zones, like Okinawa in Japan, where people live the longest and I studied what they eat on a daily basis. I looked at what people in Africa and South America eat for recovery. I saw what the top-level soccer facilities for soccer in Spain instruct their players to eat on a daily basis as well as for recovery. I studied a lot of different cultures to see what foods work best for them and I’ve also talked to experts such as Cate Shanahan, who has become a close friend of mine. She helped Dwight Howard get off his 24-candy-bar-a-day diet and she was Kobe Bryant’s personal nutritionist who got Kobe into making bone broth.
“I’ve been interested in nutrition for a long time; over the last 10 years, it’s something I became obsessed with because I wanted to figure out what would make me feel good and function at my highest level every day. I decided, ‘I’m going to treat my body like a Ferrari and only put great things in it so it runs perfectly.’ But I also wanted to figure out what combinations work well together. For example, I learned that a mix of turmeric and pepper reduces inflammation, so I put that in all my salads. Just like with my sleep habits, I tested all of this stuff on myself before I started doing any kind of nutrition help with players. Once again, I was the guinea pig. I wanted to figure out which foods were the best for me, which foods would provide mental clarity so I’m sharp, which foods would give me the most energy and which foods would keep me lean and in shape to defend these NBA players in our workouts.
“With nutrition, I want my guys to buy in completely because that’s how they’ll see the best results. You can make small adjustments and those are great too – I’ll never knock someone for making small changes because it’s progress. But for what we’re trying to achieve, total buy-in and constantly learning what’s right for you nutritionally is important. Players need to make the right nutrition choices because those decisions have such a huge impact on their career.”
“Sleep and nutrition factor into recovery and longevity, which is why I try to get guys to completely buy in and do all of these things. But in addition to those two things, I make sure my guys are always pre-recovering, whether that’s their roll-outs, stretches, yoga, etc.
“Then, we’re also focused on their post-workout recovery. For example, using a red-light charger to recover their mitochondria at a higher level. My post-workout recovery isn’t just icing your knees or jumping in an ice bath. I’m looking at helping them recover at a cellular level too. Mitochondria are basically your power cells. You can ice something, but that’s acute recovery. We’re building from the inside-out. A red-light charger is recovering your mitochondria and infusing energy in you. A virtual float tank is going to help your body recover, but it also helps you get into a relaxed state and helps your mind recover and be present in the moment, which are some things we also use in mental training that we’ll get to later. There are a lot of different things that I have access to for my players. There’s this place called Upgrade Labs [which is described as a biohacking health and fitness facility’] that has equipment that NBA teams won’t be getting for another five years. I’ve taken some NBA coaches in there to show them this stuff and they’re just blown away when they see these things, like atmospheric cell trainers or cold-hit recovery. I can dive into the science into those things, but it’s basically understanding that the recovery process is more about cellular regeneration than just icing or stretching. It’s very in-depth.
“I’ve been able to develop a friendship with Ben Greenfield, who I think is the best human optimizer. He works with some NBA teams [including the Miami Heat] and I learn so much from him. I have a few other people in my network who are all about optimizing recovery and I’ve learned a ton, which has been fun. Again, I’ve done all of these things myself, so I can tell these NBA players what I’ve experienced, exactly how it’s worked for me and figure out what they need. One player may need PEMF recovery on their knee if it’s inflamed. It can make some players recover three-to-five times faster. I customize everything for each player because everyone is different in terms of their recovery needs, but we’re working with cutting edge stuff that offers the best recovery accessible to humans at this moment.”
“I’ve been so blessed to work with over 100 players over the years and I think one of my gifts is being able to form close relationships with people, so they feel that they can trust in me and be comfortable with me. The mental training isn’t something where we’ll sit down and I’ll say, ‘Alright, guys, it’s time to do 30 minutes of mental training.’ The last thing I want is for guys to be combative toward it. Again, I want them to be in a relaxed state, to constantly focus on the present. Mindfulness is important. But the majority of the mental training that I do is through infusing confidence in players, and it’s done in a lot of different ways. What I am – and this is honestly what I tell people – is that, yeah, I’m a player-development coach, but I’m also a motivator who will infuse confidence into you. I’m also their ‘confidence coach,’ I guess you can say. I do a lot of talks on how to increase confidence and how to motivate people.
“A lot of the mental training is based on a player’s situation. If a player is struggling and going through a rough stretch in their season, I’ll fly out to them and be with them. Just being with them and having them know that they have someone they trust, who’s in their corner, who they can be real with does wonders itself. It may sound cheesy, but it really does help them.
“With the mental training, the idea is to allow players to get to that point themselves – whether it’s in the locker room before a game or in practice. And I’m always there for guys throughout the season if they need me. Sometimes, I’ll tinker with a player’s mental training throughout the season to help them with something specific. Honestly, a lot of it comes down to our relationship and them being willing to put their trust in me.
“One thing that I’ve started using more and more is virtual reality. There’s a company I use that’s able to cut game film up and the players can watch it from their perspective and go through all the decisions they made. One of the toughest things to teach is making quick decisions in the moment and you can only be on the court to practice this stuff for so long because it’s taxing. But with VR, you can watch it for as long as you want. It’s like you’re back in the game, back in the practice, spotting the right decision and what you could’ve done better. I don’t know if any NBA teams are using it, but I’ve been testing it and it’s been great with the players who have used it. But, basically, the mental training is all about increasing their confidence, positivity and mindfulness.”
Nurse practices what he preaches and says the results have been excellent, which is why he’s so excited to introduce this program to more and more NBA players.
“I feel better than I felt when I was in college. I’m about to be 32 years old and I tested my telomeres what tell you your ‘actual age’ based on what your body is like and I tested at 21, which means my body is functioning like a 21-year-old’s body,” Nurse said. “And I know it wasn’t like that a few years ago, before these changes, because I feel so different.”
Initially, Olynyk came to Nurse strictly to work out, as he would with any other trainer. He wasn’t aware of everything Nurse could provide off the court. But he was open-minded and once he started to realize just how much knowledge his trainer had and how these lifestyle changes could help him, he bought in 100 percent and he’s been very pleased.
“He’s really been able to help me this summer, in all facets of my game and life,” Olynyk said. “He really helps his players squeeze out every last drop of their potential, whether it’s by working with them on the floor – where he’s helped me expand my game – or by helping with sleep, recovery, nutrition or helping you have a clear mind. He loves diving into other people’s minds and seeing what he can learn from them. Then, he loves to not only implement that stuff into his own life, but also spread that knowledge to the people around him. He always want to make other people’s lives better and help them. I think David attacks basketball and life in general in a way that’s different from most trainers, and it’s really refreshing.”
Olynyk also confirmed that Nurse does a great job of instilling confidence in players and keeping them engaged throughout all aspects of their sessions.
“He’s definitely a confidence-builder,” Olynyk said. “The first thing you notice being in the gym with him is that his energy is always up. He always brings the energy and he never has an off day. And that’s not easy to do. No matter what your job is – whether you’re a basketball trainer or you’re working a desk job or you’re delivering mail – your days can get kind of monotonous and repetitive. You may find yourself sort of going through the motions.”
Jeremy Lin started making healthy lifestyle choices before Nurse started training him, but once he and Nurse started working together, they came up with a plan to continue focusing on those good habits and take them to the next level. Lin is excited about his results and believes his lifestyle changes are having a major impact on his game.
“It feels like I’ve pushed my ceiling higher in terms of peak energy level, explosiveness and performance,” Lin told HoopsHype. “I feel like I’m consistently performing at a higher level. I feel a lot better after making these changes.”
Lin turned 30 years old last week and he was just recently traded to the Atlanta Hawks, which will be his seventh team in nine NBA seasons. As an NBA player, you can only focus on the things in your control and that’s exactly what Lin has done.
“In terms of sleep and nutrition, I feel like I’m pretty on top of those things now,” Lin explained. “I have a sleep doctor and a nutritionist.”
And while Nurse is proud of the habits he’s helping players create off the court, one of the biggest areas where he’s been able to help Lin is in his film study. As Lin said: “David has been very helpful to me in terms of film. He takes a lot of time to watch games, cut film and help in skill development.”
Some teams have tried to implement similar programs that monitor players’ sleep and other personal information, but some players are hesitant to hand that data over to the organization. Even if the team employees have good intentions, there’s fear that the info could be used against the player when coaches are determining a game-plan or when it’s time for contract negotiations with the front office. Players (and their agents) point out that they have a lot to lose if the team sees something they determine is concerning. Ultimately, some players feel more comfortable giving this information to someone like Nurse, who isn’t affiliated with a team.
“Most players don’t want teams to know this kind of information,” Nurse said. “If I’m a team and I have every single players’ sleep information and I see that Player X got just two hours of sleep the night before our game because he was out partying all night in New York, I’m not going to play him in that game. But if they don’t know, the guy is going to get his usual playing time. Teams try to do this stuff, but it’s going to be a continued struggle. It has to be an outside entity, and that’s where I’ve come into the picture. There are coaches and GMs who have recommended that one of their players come work with me and they have that trust in me, knowing I’ll get the player’s sleep schedule under control so they don’t really need to worry about it [even though they aren’t the ones seeing the data]. They can get their peace of mind, without the player battling it. When teams try to do this on their own, the players are always going to battle that.”
Lin said that trust is “very important” whenever a player is giving up information about their private life, adding, “But I trust David with this info.” Olynyk completely agreed.
“In today’s day and age, with sleep and nutrition and wearable technology, the teams are trying to do a lot of it, but you don’t want that stuff to be held against you in certain situations and that makes it tough,” Olynyk said, “Where David comes in, he’s a great guy to bridge that gap.”
Lin, Olynyk and Nurse all believe that in a decade, most athletes will have a regimen like this.
“I think the game will become increasingly scientific and objective-data oriented,” Lin said. “And as sports science and analytics progress, so will this stuff.”
“Not only is that where the game is headed, that’s where the world is headed,” Olynyk said. “Whether you’re a basketball player or a CEO or you’re working a 9-to-5, whether you’re young or old, whether you’re a man or a woman, a lot of people are trying to find the healthiest ways to live their life. People want to know how to get the most out of their mind and body and meld those things with their soul. That’s part of what David is about – bringing all of this together into one, all-encompassing thing that will help you get the most out of your life.”
“I think 10 years from now, the things that I’m doing with players will be the norm; that’s why I named it ‘Athlete of the Future,’” Nurse said. “I think people will look back and think, ‘How did players not realize they needed to get the correct sleep or the right nutrition to get their body to function at the highest level?’ Just like we look back at some players from back in the day who treated their body horribly and wonder what could’ve been, it’ll be the same thing. As time goes on and people are more knowledgeable about these areas and there’s even more information accessible, this will be the norm.”