A few miles from where I stand—drenched from head to toe in sweat—is a beautiful beach. We could pack it in, put all the products back on their respective shelves, and hop in Scott’s car. Within minutes, we could be looking out at the ocean, in a state of complete relaxation. But of course, that’s not SKLZ. That’s not who they are. That’s not what they do. I’ve come to Carlsbad to learn about the training company, and so I’m trudging my way through ladder drills, shuffling my way through mini band exercises, and sprinting my way around cones. I’m dribbling different sized basketballs, working on my crossover step-back, and coming off screens for deep jumpers. Because that’s SKLZ.
But I have to be honest, after two grueling workout sessions, all I can think about is that beach. My body is struggling to recuperate from long periods of non-stop movement, despite SKLZ’s comprehensive recovery procedure. I’m walking like my feet are slowly sinking into quick sand. I’m doing my best to conceal the pain, but in my mind each step is an accomplishment. The bottom line is this: I’m not used to such demanding training. I played sports in high school, but never exercised in this focused and intense manner.
So how did I get here, to the brink of unbearable soreness? What brought me from New York all the way to the opposite side of the country? To answer that question, we must start at the beginning…
Remember the Hit-A-Way—the simple, yet effective baseball product that helped kids at home get swings in without having to be tossed a ball? Well, that clever invention by Tim Minniear back in 2002 launched the long history of SKLZ.
The company was founded to help market the product, which rose to prominence quickly due to a direct response television campaign. According to Vice President of Marketing Laura Stein, SKLZ initially tired to replicate the formula established by the Hit-A-Way: an outside inventor brings a product to the company, and that team develops it for retailers and finds an athlete to endorse it. In her words, SKLZ was very much “a product company.”
Not anymore. While the company continues to make training products, they have re-imagined their stance as the years have gone by. Now, the people at SKLZ do not think of themselves as a product company. They are building a brand, one with a very clear and important mission: “To prepare athletes to be ready for their sport” in every way possible. “We are truly focused on building solutions for athletes,” President Brian Enge explained.
That focus was re-affirmed in 2010, when SKLZ partnered with EXOS (then called Athletes’ Performance). The relationship changed the scope of the business, causing SKLZ to “up their game,” according to Performance Category Manager Michael Cummings. The coaches at EXOS train elite athletes, making use of SKLZ products during their training sessions. This allows for an ongoing conversation regarding the most effective pieces of performance equipment. If a product is good enough for the people at EXOS, then it is sure to be good enough for emerging athletes around the world.
The performance side of the SKLZ brand is one thing that sets them apart from their competitors. It allows them to approach athletes with a complete solution, not just a partial game plan. “We’re the only brand that is addressing the needs of an athlete holistically,” said Stein, who calls SKLZ’s performance line the “differentiator.”
SKLZ re-launched their brand in 2015 with the understanding that to be the number one sport training brand on the planet, they had to do two things: define the category of sports training, and make sure SKLZ was the most loved and trusted company in the industry. They have adopted the slogan, “prepare to be ready,” created 45 new products, partnered with a number of notable athletes, and implemented a complex program system – all part of a five-year plan to dominate the sports training world.
Arguably the most significant component of their new brand is the six “team captains,” signed to represent some of SKLZ’s core sport categories. The athletes include former World Cup champions Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe for soccer, Evan Longoria for baseball, Tony Finau for golf, and Jason Verrett and Kenny Stills for football. The role of the team captain is straightforward: They “help [SKLZ] communicate their brand to core athletes” and help them to build better products, described Enge. Having them on board has already made a huge difference.
The programs are another vital aspect of the re-launch. Enge stressed that in order to fulfill their purpose (to prepare athletes to be ready for their sport), simply supplying products is not enough. Thus, the programs give athletes instruction on how to use each product, as well as providing proven methodologies from EXOS.
That’s the re-launch. That’s where SKLZ stands today.
…And now I’m here, learning about how far the company has come, and how confident they are about the future. While SKLZ prides itself on being the “only sport training company that focuses across multiple sports”—including soccer, football, basketball, baseball and golf—this is SLAM, so I’d be crazy not to zero in on basketball. In fact, SKLZ has come to the realization that they’d be crazy not to do the same thing.
Over the past year, the company has put increasing emphasis on their growing line of basketball products. Why the sudden focus? “There’s a need,” Category Manager Strohman tells me, highlighting that the level of play and the average athleticism have increased, and the training must keep up. “When [basketball players] look at how to improve their game, we want them to look toward SKLZ,” he stated.
During my trip to San Diego, I was put through two workouts, both of which focused on basketball. The first one was a performance training session, meaning no ball, no hoop, no court. We worked primarily on what Cummings called the pillar; that is, the torso, hips and shoulders. As he explained, those regions need to be strong and unified in order for a player to maintain balance and quickly change direction. “If you don’t have that firm posture and your upper and lower body aren’t synced together” Cummings said, “something’s going to go.” We also worked on decelerating and accelerating, as basketball is a tempo sport, where athletes go from 0-100 real quick.
As I discovered throughout that initial workout, SKLZ has a huge line of performance products, ranging from small warm-up and recovery items like barrel rollers and massage bars to bigger pieces of equipment like ladders. To train the crucial basketball muscles, we made great use of the bands (both the pro bands and the mini bands). Those products add resistance to any workout, helping to develop upper and lower body strength as well as increase speed. The entire session was very structured, and although we didn’t do much running, by the end I felt as though I had just run a marathon.
But there wasn’t much time to put my feet up. The next day, I was put through a skills workout at the Open Gym Premier facility in Orange County. It was something more familiar to me; there was a ball, a hoop, and a court this time. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to train alongside former UCLA standout and second round pick Malcolm Lee. Once again, the two of us worked with several SKLZ products, including the dribble stick, which is a versatile item geared primarily toward developing a player’s handles, and the solo assist, which delivers a true pass and trains players to catch the ball on the move and properly set their feet before shooting. In a number of our exercises, we employed the products to simulate real game situations.
From my experience, the products really worked. It was easy to identify what particular skill or muscle group was being addressed with each product, and I could just tell that, based on the strain on my body, the items were functioning well. The training sessions, and my immense soreness afterwards, only confirmed what I had originally thought: these guys aren’t messing around.
If you asked me to summarize the staff at SKLZ in two words, I would say passionate and committed. Being in their office was like being in the dream of an obsessive sports’ fan. Beyond the huge workout facility, outdoor turf field, and abundance of products lying around, there were sports items hung on the walls, draped over desks, and virtually tucked around every corner. Even the three conference rooms were appropriately dubbed left field, center field, and right field. It was a sports haven, plain and simple.
I was astonished to also learn that 60 percent of the employees at SKLZ played a sport through high school, 40 percent played through college, and quite a few played at the professional level. The point here is obvious, these people are passionate about sports and training.
And then there’s the commitment. It was evident from day one at SKLZ that the company was seriously devoted to helping athletes reach their full potential. I believe Cummings best expressed this devotion when asked about what makes SKLZ unique. “We’re not a me too company,” he explained, “we don’t hear through the grapevine that hurdles are great at selling, so we develop a hurdle…what we do is we find what that athlete needs.” At SKLZ, they are truly dedicated to the athlete, and that makes them special.
So your season ends, and you want to know one thing: “What can I do to get better?” SKLZ offers a clear solution, a full answer to that vital question. If you’re serious about improving, you know where to turn. That way, come next year, when the stands are full, the pressure is on, and the clock starts….
You’ll be ready.
SKLZ products are available online here.
Images via Highhouse