Basketball has a remarkable level of popularity all over the world with both men and women. The game is physically demanding, requiring players to participate in repeated bouts of intense actions (e.g., sprinting, shuffling, and jumping) separated by short bouts of low-intensity activity (e.g., walking, jogging) and recovery (8,43). As a result, basketball players must draw on many fitness components including muscular power (30,32), speed (29,43), agility (29-31,40), and aerobic-power (8,31,32,40,43,64).
In the international scientific literature many studies address the physical characteristics of men and women playing basketball of different competitive levels (3-5,9,18,23,30,54,56,60,66). However, they failed to compare within the same research design populations having as covariate of competitive-level age (47,68). Recent soccer studies using cross-sectional mixed designs (i.e., age × competitive level) were successful in evidencing fitness determinants of success (47,67). Unfortunately, to this study authors' knowledge, no similar study was carried out in basketball. Consequently, the physical and physiological competitive prerequisites of elite basketball are currently unclear. Information in this regard would be of interest for those basketball coaches and fitness trainers who are concerned with talent development and selection (47,68).
Basketball team positions can be mostly classified into 3 groups reflecting positional similarities (guards, forwards, centers). Furthermore, with the evolution of rules and tactics, team positions are classified according to the specific individual role (point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center) (26). Time-motion studies have shown that in basketball, match activity depends on players' playing position, with centers involved in significantly less high-intensity movements than both forwards and guards (24). Additionally, evidence showed that forwards spend the greatest amount of time running during competition (46). These findings demonstrate that in basketball a wide range of skills and physiological demands exist for different playing positions (28).
Previous studies in men's basketball senior players have shown significant differences among playing positions for height (1,4,18,49,50,56,60), body mass (38,40,49,56), body fat (38,40,49,56), maximal aerobic power (18,49,50,56,66), speed (60), agility (26), and muscular strength (26). Although these studies have provided important information on the fitness of guards, forwards, and centers, to date, information on the physical prowess of the specific individual roles in basketball players are not available.
The purpose of the present study was 2-fold: a) to compare the anthropometric and physiological characteristics of elite basketball players of different competitive level and age and b) to conduct a detailed analysis of the physical profile of the various specific individual roles. Information in this regard may be helpful to trainers and strength conditioning coaches for enhancing players' specific performance and talent selection.
A working hypothesis assumed the existence of physical and physiological differences related to age and competitive level and positional role among basketball players (28,47,62,68).
Experimental Approach to the Problem
Although talent selection is an uncertain procedure because many factors are involved in the development of a prospective player, knowledge of fitness and physical profiles of successful players has been indicated as a valuable resource to guide talent selection and subsequent coaching (6,28,52,62,71). Consequently, in this study we compared men's basketball elite-level players of different age active in their national representative teams. The players that participated in this study were active members in the Under-18, Under-20, and Senior Tunisian national teams. Players' physical fitness was assessed using field and laboratory tests that were reported to be relevant to basketball (8,12,28). Positional role differences were assessed by dividing the players' team characteristics, according to Hoare (28).
Forty-five men's basketball elite players participated in this study. Player selected were active members of the Under-18 (n = 15), Under-20 (n = 15), or Senior (n = 15) Tunisian national teams. Each of the 3 teams included 3 point guards, 3 shooting guards, 3 small forwards, 3 power forwards, and 3 centers. All players competed internationally and participated with their respective clubs in the national basketball championship for their relative categories (Under-18, Under-20, and Senior) as regular players. These clubs were the best-ranked teams in Tunisia during the last 5 years (first to third).
The Senior national team (43rd in FIBA 2008 ranking) performed the assessments for this study 8 weeks before the African Basketball Nations' Championship (Angola 2007, sixth ranked), whereas the Under-20 national team was tested 6 weeks prior to the African Nations' Games (Algeria, 2007). The Under-18 team was tested at the start of the preparation to the Under-19 Arabian Basketball Nations' Championship (Morocco, 2008). All testing procedures took place immediately after the end of the 2006-2007 regular competitive season.
All subjects were fully accustomed to the procedures used in this research being part of their routine (elite athletes' scientific follow-up program) evaluations at the National Centre of Medicine and Science of Sports of Tunis (CNMSS).
Before the commencement of the study all players and parents or guardians of the Under-18 players involved in this study signed their written informed consent after a detailed verbal and written explanation, as per procedure and potential risk of the study. The research design and the relative procedures were approved by the Ethic Committee of the CNMSS and by the Institutional Review Board for use of Human Subjects of the Institute of Sport and Physical Education, Ksar Said, Tunis (Tunisia), before the commencement of the study. All procedures were carried out according with the Declaration of Helsinki.
The players of the 3 basketball national teams participating in this study were tested in 3 separate days during the first week of the interseason. On the session test day, subjects came to the CNMSS at 08.00 am. On entering the laboratory, height (m), body mass (kg), and percentage body fat were measured. Body mass was obtained to the nearest 0.1 kg using an electronic scale (Seca Instruments Ltd, Hamburg, Germany). Height was measured to the nearest 0.1 cm using a stadiometer (Holtain Ltd, Crymych, United Kingdom). Skinfold thickness at 4 sites (biceps, triceps, subscapular, and suprailiac) was measured using a Harpenden caliper (Lange, Cambridge, MA, USA), and from these measurements percentage of body fat was calculated using the technique of Durnin and Womersley (20).
Players were requested to refrain from strenuous exercise for at least 48 hours before the field testing session. Each player was instructed and verbally encouraged to give a maximal effort during all tests. A standardized warm-up, consisting of jogging and a series of increasing intensity sprints, was performed prior to testing. No static stretching was allowed before testing.
Subjects for each team were randomly allocated into 2 groups (crossover assessment) of equal numbers of players. Subject in group 1 underwent measurements of muscular power (vertical jump and 5 jumps) and strength (bench press and squat 1 repetition maximum [1RM]), while speed (5-m, 10-m, and 30-m sprint) and agility (T-test) were assessed for group 2. On completion of the respective tests, the groups exchanged tests until all measurements had been performed. The testing session was concluded with subjects performing the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test (Yo-Yo IR1) (12).
Vertical-jump performance (i.e., height and power) was assessed using a portable force platform (Bioware, Kisler, Winterthur, Switzerland). Players performed a countermovement jump (CMJ) according to the protocol described by Bosco et al (10). Before testing, players performed self-administered submaximal CMJs (2-3 repetitions) as a practice and specific additional warm-up. Subjects were asked to keep their hands on their hips to prevent any influence of arm movements on the vertical jumps and to avoid coordination as a confounding variable in the assessment of the leg extensors (11). Each subject performed 3 maximal CMJs, with ∼2 minutes of recovery in-between. The best jump was used for analysis. Vertical jump performance was considered as jumping height and peak power at take-off (11).
A quintuple horizontal jump test (5JT) was also performed by each player (15). The 5JT involved the subject attempting to cover the greatest horizontal distance possible by performing a series of 5 forward jumps with alternated left and right foot contacts. Immediately before the 5JT, players were instructed to begin and end with their feet parallel. The participants were instructed to move forward using their preferred leg. The 5JT performance was measured, with a measuring tape, as the distance from the front edge of the player's feet at the starting position to the rear edge of the feet at the final landing position. The assessor at landing had to focus on the last stride of the player to determine exactly the last feet print because the players could not always stay on their feet at landing. The starting position was settled on a fixed point. Subjects were allowed 3 trials, with the longest distance used for analysis. It has been proposed that the 5JT is an appropriate alternative to traditional jumping exercises for estimating lower limb explosive power in various athletes (15,17,59,61). Reliability of 5JT performed in the present study was very high (Table 1).
The subjects performed 3 maximal 30-m sprints (with 5- and 10-m split times also recorded) on an indoor synthetic track. During the recovery period between 30-m sprints (2-3 minutes), the subjects walked back to the starting line and then waited for their next sprint. Time was recorded using photocell gates (Brower Timing Systems, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; accuracy of 0.01 s) placed 0.4 m above the ground. When ready, the subjects commenced the sprint from a standing start 0.5 m behind the first timing gate. Stance for the start was consistent for each subject. The run with the lowest 30-m time (and corresponding 5- and 10-m split times) was selected for analysis.
Maximal dynamic strength in half-squat and bench-press exercises was recorded as the maximal weight subjects were able to raise (1RM) as described by Chtara et al (17) and Weiss et al (70), respectively. In the present study, a free-weight squat exercise was performed, allowing players to bend their knees to reach half-squat position (∼90-degree angle in the knee joint between femur and tibia) with the barbell held over the shoulders (back squat). The bar position for the free-weight bench-press exercise began in the up position at full elbow extension, moved to chest level for a momentary pause, and finished back at the starting position. Hand and foot positions were determined for each subject during familiarization and were held constant during all testing.
No bouncing of the bar off the chest was allowed. After the general warm-up, subjects performed a specific warm-up using 50% (10 reps), 75% (6 reps), and 85% (3 reps) of their estimated 1RM. Following the specific warm-up, the subjects' resistance was fixed at a critical value of 5% below the expected 1RM and was gradually increased after each successful performance until failure. Three minutes of recovery were allowed between each attempt (73). According to the recommendations of Wisløff et al (72) and Chamari et al (14), half-squat and bench-press 1RMs were expressed in kilograms per body·mass−0.67 to estimate the relative strength of subjects.
The T-test was administered using the protocol described by Semenick (57). Three test trials were performed, and times were recorded to the nearest one-hundredth of a second using an electronic timing system (Brower Timing Systems, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; accuracy of 0.01 s) placed 0.4 m above the ground. The subjects commenced the sprint when ready from a standing start 0.5 m behind the first timing gate. Reliability and validity of the T-test were reported by Pauole et al (51).
Players' endurance performance was assessed using the Yo-Yo IR1 (level 1) (36). Maximal aerobic power (O2max) was estimated using Yo-Yo IR1 distance covered according to the data of Castagna et al (12). The intraclass correlation (ICC) and coefficient of variation (CV) for the Yo-Yo IR1 were reported to be 0.93% and 4.9%, respectively (7).
Players' club coaches were requested to complete a brief questionnaire documenting the playing experience, training routines, and frequency of matches for players of different age categories. Training volume was reported as time spent in each training session.
Data of the training routines, playing experience, and physical attributes of players are expressed as mean ± standard deviation and ranges. After normality inspection (Shapiro-Wilks test) of data, a parametric test was considered for comparison between means. Specifically, a 1-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to study differences among teams and individual specific positional role. If significant differences were observed, a Bonferroni post-hoc test was carried out to locate those differences.
The reliability of data was determined using the method error technique (ME) (55). The ME calculates a CV for the difference between repeated measurements. We also calculated the ICC for the same measures (see Table 1).
These calculations were carried out for all outcome measures supplied by the tests. A statistical power equal or higher than 0.80 was found for all comparison (69). Significance was set at 5% a priori (p ≤ 0.05).
Data of playing experience, training routines and frequency of matches of the players are presented in Table 2.
The Under-18 players were significantly (p < 0.05) shorter and lighter but also had higher (p < 0.05) body fat percentages than both Senior and Under-20 players. The estimated O2max was higher in Senior players. Under-20 and Senior players were faster and had better agility (p < 0.05) than Under-18 players. The CMJ height and power and 5JT performance were also lower in Under-18 players compared with other groups. Senior players showed significantly better (p < 0.05) performances in bench-press and squat performance than Under-20 and Under-18 players (Table 3).
Analysis of specific individual positional roles showed that centers and power forwards were significantly taller and the heavier than shooting guards, small forwards, and point guards, respectively. Estimated O2max was higher (p < 0.01) in point guards than in centers. Point guards also had better agility and speed performances on 5 and 10 m, but not on 30 m, than the other positional-roles groups (p < 0.01). Shooting guards and small forwards were the fastest over the 30-m sprints (p < 0.01). Centers and power forwards showed lower CMJ height and relative explosive-power performances compared with the other positional roles groups (p < 0.01). Performance in 5JT was not significantly different among positions. Power forwards and centers were stronger than the rest of players' positions in the bench press. In squat performance the point guards were the weakest (Table 4).
This is the first study that determined the physiological differences in elite basketball players according to age and specific individual positional roles. The physical attributes and the physiological characteristics of the studied junior and senior players were in line with those reported for high-level young (3,28,34) and adult players (13,18,40,49,56,64), respectively. In addition, the training schedule of the samples was similar to that recorded previously in elite basketball players, (29,32,39,64), which supports the validity of this research design and the generalization potential of these study findings.
The main finding of this study was a progressive improvement in the physiological capacities of basketball players as the players' age increases. Furthermore, the physical prowess of players differs largely according to the individual specific positional roles.
The present study showed that Under-18 players weighed less and were shorter in stature than Senior and Under-20 players. This reflects that the morphological parameters continue to progress throughout puberty to stabilize presumably at the age of 20 years (63).
Inversely, the percentage of body fat was higher in Under-18 players. It could be speculated that this is a consequence of the significant difference in training and competition volume/intensity showed by Under-18 players compared with other groups (Table 2). Indeed, it is recognized that prolonged and long-term levels of exercise in training and competition reduce stored body fat (48,64). Data reporting the physiological strain of basketball match play can be used to support this hypothesis. Recent studies showed that the mean heart rate (HR) and blood lactate concentration ([Lac]b) during competition were 87% of maximal HR (HRmax) and 3.6 mmol/L−1, respectively in young elite players (17 years) (24). These data were lower than both 91% of HRmax and 5.5 mmol/L−1 [Lac]b recorded in elite Under-19 players (24) and 89% of HRmax and 6.8 mmol/L−1 [Lac]b found in Senior professional players (43) during competitive matches. However, no information is currently available regarding the training intensity used by different age groups in basketball.
Independent of age, Centers and Power forwards were the tallest and the heaviest, followed by shooting guards and small forwards. This is in line with some previous investigations (1,38,40,49) and reflects the greater mass needed by both power forwards and centers to play in the “low post” and “middle post” positions, which involve considerable contact during boxouts, picks, and rebounding. Centers also showed higher body fat, whereas shooting guards and small forwards were the slimmer groups. If excess of adipose tissue for centers is unwanted because it acts as dead weight when body mass is repeatedly lifted against gravity (44), the lower body fat level for small forwards may be considered as a causal prerequisite of effective playing, given the great mobility of players occupying such positions (46).
Aerobic endurance have been reported to affect game performance in basketball (8,12). Specifically, distance covered in progressive maximal shuttle-running tests showed to be related to relevant basketball game variables (i.e., ability to sustain high-intensity efforts) (8,12). According to Castagna et al (12), aerobic performance was assessed using the Yo-Yo IR1 in this study. Of note, the Yo-Yo IR1 was able to detect significant differences across the competitive level ages, showing for the first time in basketball the construct validity of the Yo-Yo IR1. This finding further supports the relevance of this practical field test for basketball (12,36), giving useful normative data to guide talent selection and strength and conditioning in elite basketball.
These study data showed that Yo-Yo IR1 performance was significantly higher in Senior players compared with other groups. This is in accordance with most part of previous studies in other team sports (i.e., field hockey, soccer, and rugby), which revealed a progressive improvement in intermittent high-intensity performance with increasing age and playing level (22,41). The achievement of modest Yo-Yo IR1 performance (i.e., intermittent high-intensity aerobic endurance) (37) level in the Under-18 players parallels their moderate training status compared with the other competitive groups (∼5 h a week). Moreover, the time devoted to aerobic activities in these players was largely less than that suggested for the development and maintenance of aerobic fitness (2). It is also possible that the training stimulus (i.e., intensity) used by elite Under-18 players was not sufficient to induce significant peripheral and central adaptations for improvement in O2max (27,33).
In this regard, a study showed that during training sessions of French international-level young (17 years) basketball players, the cardiovascular stress was significantly lower than the average HR attained during actual match play (i.e., 76% vs. 87% of HRmax) (24). To shed light on this interesting issue, further investigations are warranted.
Senior players' intermittent aerobic endurance was also higher than in Under-20 players. Because studies examining physical demands of basketball competitions have reported similar intensity match play in senior (43) and junior (24) players, this difference could be attributed to more frequent matches of the senior clubs. In fact, unlike Under-20 and Under-18 years teams, who play a weekly game, Senior clubs participating in a first division of Tunisian basketball championship play at least 2 games a week (Table 2).
In line with previous investigations reporting differences between players of different positions (49,50,66), the point guards had the highest intermittent aerobic-endurance performance, whereas the centers showed the lowest. Although the exact reasons for that figure are difficult to draw with the descriptive nature of this study, it may be speculated that this could be a consequence of the higher physiological load imposed on guards during modern basketball competition (8,54). In this regard, a study by Cormery et al (18) reported that the changes to the rules introduced by FIBA in year 2000, which consist of shortening the attack time from 30 to 24 s and the time allowed to cross the median line from 10 to 8 s, were associated with an increased aerobic fitness (i.e., O2max) in guards but no significant changes in forwards and centers. Similarly, the work of Miller and Bartlett (46) showed that, whereas guards and forwards were in static position 27% and 28% of the match time, respectively, the centers were moving only for 33% of the time. It could also be suggested that aerobic-fitness training was neglected in centers in order to train other physical abilities, such as strength or muscular power (58). However, in the absence of more details about specific training for players of different positional roles, we cannot confirm such a conclusion.
It has been shown by several studies that success in basketball seems to be more dependent on player's anaerobic power and endurance than on aerobic power (30). Hoffman et al (30) reported that the component of anaerobic ability (i.e., vertical jump, speed, and agility), represents strong predictors of playing time in college men's basketball players. In the present work, 5JT and vertical jump were used to estimate lower limb explosive power, whereas 5-m, 10-m, and 30-m sprint and T-test were used to evaluate speed and agility, respectively. When compared with both Under-20 and Senior national teams, measurements of CMJ height and power, 5JT, speed, and agility were lower in Under-18 national team. The respective values for CMJ height and power and 5JT were 16%, 5%, and 8% less than those found in Under-20 elite players and 17%, 5%, and 9% below those recorded for Senior players, respectively. In addition, the respective performances for the 5-m sprint, 10-m sprint, 30-m sprint, and agility-T test were 22%, 13%, 5%, and 5% lower than those for the Under-20 national team and 17%, 11%, 5%, and 9% poorer than for the Senior team, respectively. These findings are in accordance with rugby (22) and Australian football (35) studies, which have found age-related changes in physical capacities. The higher body fat reported for Under-18 players may have contributed to their modest speed, agility, and lower limb explosive power by attenuating the power to body mass ratio, which reduces performances in match-specific tasks (42). However, the moderate anaerobic performance can be ascribed to the training time devoted to these fitness components (Table 2) that was significantly lower than in the other groups. This suggests that the fitness training designed to increase muscular power and speed is not a priority in young elite basketball players.
Similarly, in another study that investigated professional college players (26), point guards showed better agility and speed performances (i.e., 5 and 10 m) than players occupying the other positional roles. These findings were expected because point guards are usually required to run at high intensity over short distances. This is because point guard's game assignment is to set game pace and thus provide acceleration or decelerations (i.e., turning, shuffling, and changes of direction) in offensive and defensive tasks during the competition (24). Of note, our results showed that on 30-m sprint, shooting guards and small forwards were the fastest. This finding is partially supported by the fact that players occupying these positions are more familiar with long sprints because they are required to cover longer distances (i.e., full court length, 28 m) during crucial moments of the game (e.g., fast breaks and transition actions) at high-intensity throughout the competition (46). Lower values of CMJ height and relative explosive power were recorded in centers and power forwards. This, despite no difference in absolute jumping power, was found among the various players' positions. Performance in 5JT was also comparable for players of differing positions. All these results suggest that centers and power forwards possess a better absolute explosive power, but the higher body mass and body fat percentage for these players seem to affect their vertical and horizontal jump performances.
Various types of tests were used to measure strength in basketball players, such as isokinetic tests (53,60,65), maximal concentric tests (4,16,30,40), and isometric tests (25,66). In the present study, bench-press and half-squat exercises (1RM) were used to assess upper-body and lower-body maximal dynamic strength, respectively. Senior players showed a higher strength values than the other age groups. Specifically, Senior players' bench press and squat 1RMs were 13% and 9% and 15% and 9% higher than those of Under-20 and Under-18 players, respectively. Difference in training aim may explain disparities in strength performance because usually young players are more involved in technical and tactical drills rather than in fitness training (Table 2). It also seems that coaches and trainers avoid starting heavy-weight strength conditioning in puberty in the attempt to favor full-height growth potential, which constitutes an important factor of success in basketball (28).
Related to the different playing roles, power forwards and centers were considerably stronger than the rest of players' positions in the bench press when expressed in absolute, but not in relative to body mass, terms. This may be attributed to the fact that success of players occupying positions close to the basket (i.e., power forwards and centers) necessitates upper-body strength in resisting and initiating physical challenges in terms of winning ball possession and positioning (28). This involves mainly isometric muscular contraction coupled with slow concentric and eccentric contractions against a heavy resistance (i.e., opponent body mass) (24). Isometric strength is also important for both power forwards and centers to efficiently perform activities such as screening, body opposing, and rebounding, which are largely static in nature (31).
However, in both point and shooting guards, the physical challenges are not that robust and there is more emphasis on skill levels when challenging to keep possession; therefore, there is less emphasis on upper-body strength. Of interest, a lower squat 1RM for point guards as compared with the rest of players was also found. When these values were divided using the 0.67 body mass exponent, similar performances were obtained across the different specific individual roles. This may mean that lower-body strength is equally developed in basketball players. The importance of leg strength for basketball players is for “boxing out” and positioning during a game, but it could also be related to its positive relationship to both speed and agility (21). In this respect, a recent study reported by Chaouachi et al (16) showed that squat exercises represent a major component of basketball conditioning, given the association found between squat 1RM performance and short-sprint times.
This study provides normative data and performances standards for elite junior and adult men's basketball players. When compared with Senior elite players, estimates of maximal aerobic power and both lower- and upper-body strength were poorer in Under-18 and Under-20 elite players. Anthropometric parameters and anaerobic components (i.e., vertical jump height and power, horizontal jump, speed, and agility) were more important in both Under-20 and Senior international players. This study also shows significant differences among specific individual roles for morphologic variables, intermittent aerobic endurance, speed, agility, and muscular strength, which suggest that specific conditioning programs in basketball should be implemented according to individual specific positional roles to improve playing performance and reduce injury.
Basketball has been reported as a high-intensity game that requires a well-developed physical aerobic and anaerobic fitness to be successfully played (8,45). This study's results showed that elite successful players should posses a well-developed intermittent aerobic endurance (i.e., Yo-Yo IR1 performance). Indeed, it was in Yo-Yo IR1 performance that players showed the greater performance difference across ages categories. Specifically, Senior player showed 48% and 24% higher Yo-Yo IR1 performance (distance covered) than Under-18 and Under-20 players, respectively (p < 0.05). This is of particular interest to coaches and strength and conditioning professionals who deal with elite basketball because recently Yo-Yo IR1 performance showed to be related to game cumulative fatigue (as expressed by line drill postgame impairment) in basketball (12).
Agility has been recently suggested as a key factor in physical performance in team sports including basketball (16,19). In this study agility performance was higher in Senior and Under-20 players compared to Under-18 players. This paralleled sprint performance over short distances (5-30 m) and explosive strength. This support the assumption that short-term anaerobic performance should be considered as a discriminative variable in elite basketball and consequently nurtured and developed in prospective basketball players.
Strength performance seems to have a delayed development across ages, showing significant difference in performance only after the postpubertal age (i.e., 20 years) despite a progressive increase in strength training across ages. The reasons for this performance stagnation evident in both upper- and lower-limb strength may be found in inconsistent training protocols or in the maturation process. Because of the interest in this issue, further investigations are warranted (67).
In light of this study's findings, point guards should possess a well-developed aerobic fitness, whereas centers should express superior maximal dynamic strength values (i.e., 1RM) in upper and lower limbs. Agility, explosive power, and sprint performance should be a prerequisite for successful playing in elite-level point guards. Sprint training should be possibly individualized when dealing with positional roles in elite basketball. Indeed short-sprint training should preferably be implemented to point guards (i.e., 5-10 m), whereas shooting guards and small forwards should possess good performance over longer sprint distances (e.g., 20-30m) also. Training studies should be implemented to analyze the effect/s of training interventions over game performance (27,33).
The authors would like to thank the staff of the National Center of Medicine and Science in Sports and the athletes and the staff of the Tunisian National Basketball team, especially the technical director Ghrib Naceur and the coaches Tletli Adel, Aoun Monem, and Issa Wahid.
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