SEAL training helps Groce’s new team come together

Toughness and togetherness has been the mantra for the Illinois men’s basketball team since John Groce took over in April 2012.

The Illini wore orange bracelets with “TNT” engraved on them all last season to remind them of their motto and their goal of making the NCAA tournament.

Last week, the Illini received a lesson on toughness and togetherness in a new way: from the United States military’s elite.

SEAL Team Physical Training, a company founded by former Navy SEAL John McGuire, came to campus and worked with the Illini to help the team become more mentally tough and build chemistry.

With nine new players, the Illini hardly knew each other when the SEAL team first came for a few days in June to work with the team. McGuire said he could see a clear difference in the Illini between the June and September workouts.

“We came here in June and worked with these guys a little bit, and obviously the coaches have worked very hard,” McGuire said. “This team has come a long way.”

The company, which also does corporate team-building, came in to help Illinois build chemistry and leadership. One of the ways that the SEALs tried to build leadership was by splitting into two competing squads, each captained by a team member. Friday’s teams were captained by Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams.

“Nnanna really developed as a leader throughout the four days,” Groce said. “Tracy’s leadership really developed.”

SEAL Team PT has a track record of success in working with athletic teams. The company worked with VCU prior to its Final Four run in 2011, and both Toledo basketball teams won the MAC Championship after working with Seal Team PT in the summer.

“What I want to teach these kids is to believe in themselves,” McGuire said. “We can all do more than we think.”

For Groce and his staff, doing more than they thought meant trying to keep up with the team by participating in most of the drills throughout the training session.

“I’m not a spring chicken anymore,” Groce said. “I told (McGuire) I was sore and he said: ‘Quit bragging.’ It shows our guys we’re in it with them. We’re not just watching and coaching from an ivory tower, so to speak. We’re more hands-on.”

In their final SEAL practice Friday, Groce and his staff followed the players into an inflatable pool full of ice water to swim under three weights, coming up for air each time in between. The drill was especially hard on assistant coach Paris Parham, who, along with a few Illini players, doesn’t know how to swim.

“We want the mindset that we’re attacking fear head-on,” Groce said. “We all have them. Some people don’t like to admit that, but we all have fear. We all have insecurities; we all have hopes, dreams, as a team we have to figure out where everybody lies in each of those areas and help them grow, and I think that’s the neat thing about doing something like this is that it takes you outside your comfort zone.”

The Illini competed in various drills, including races, push-ups and sit-ups.

“I want our guys thinking we have to win everything we do in every area of our program to win anything at all,” Groce said. “You can’t turn it on and off.”

McGuire saw the competitive edge.

“They have an advantage over a lot of the teams we’ve worked with: great energy, great chemistry, they really seem to care about themselves and care about each other and really want to win,” he said.

With the season approaching, Groce said he could see his team growing closer and more comfortable with one another.

“You can see a huge difference between where we were in June and where we are now, here in September,” Groce said. “We’re much closer and obviously, I think that the SEAL Team Physical Training has accelerated that at a high level.”

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.