Trainers and skills coaches are traditionally considered peripheral background staff, in the grand scale of professional sports. For that reason, you’d be forgiven for wondering why names such as Drew Hanlen’s have become so widely recognized, even beyond the power of social media clout.
On an August afternoon in Los Angeles, I found myself sat on the narrow bleachers of a modestly-sized high school gym, feeling like I was in honorary attendance at a meeting with the Magic Circle. Outside of myself and my Double Clutch teammate Mike Miller, the intimate hall was predominantly made up of elite-level basketball players, putting in the work to finesse their craft ahead of the NBA season. They were there to work with Hanlen and his Pure Sweat team – including canine mascot Roo, representing with branded collar.
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Do you ever have problems switching off when really you know you should be engaging with those around you? For example, you ‘need’ to check emails while at dinner, but shouldn’t. Sometimes you impress yourself by remaining respectively present, before fully returning back in the room. Well, when Drew kindly let us play the role of flies-on-the-wall at the afternoon session, it reminded me of that in the best possible way.
His capacity to conduct a full and polite conversation with me from the stands, while keeping one eye on the court and intermittently barking very specific observations to the talent on the court, was quite astounding. Simultaneously, he would address those regularly leaving and arriving into the building, with player-specific scheduling details rolling off his tongue with unfathomable ease. He had complete command of his environment.
I have played sports all of my life, but having never played even close to professional level, I seldom see such active observation and awareness in that sort of setting. If anything, it provided an eye-opening context to positive comments athletes often make about their favourite coaches, teachers, managers and trainers.
The company Hanlen keeps is not to be underestimated. Upon our arrival, we were met by a couple of active NBA sophomores, deep into an intense, gruelling drill that saw them finishing through legitimately tough contention – this was far from a summer vacation.
They weren’t the first to arrive either. Hanlen advised us on the day that we’d just missed one of the greatest international teams on earth get through a morning scrimmage, as they prepared for the upcoming FIBA World Cup through the Californian heat. In addition, a seemingly endless carousel of league talent had visited for early shootaround, as they attempt to maintain their edge, before spending their day in their often-makeshift LA homes.
After some light work with a renowned NBA journeyman, Hanlen began to interact with the unimaginably hulking and yet reassuringly approachable Semi Ojeleye of the Boston Celtics. Beyond the bespoke workout, what struck me was his approach to man-management. It seems as though he is aware of what pulled certain players’ strings and for Ojeleye on the day, it was – for want of a better word – banter.
While the third-year forward warmed up, Hanlen playfully goaded him with tongue-in-cheek questioning about his status within the ranking of pro players to emerge from Kansas, even asking for my web-searching assistance to support his argument. My mother warned me against challenging people who could squash me like a bug without really trying, so I let him take the lead on that one. With a wry-smile, Ojeleye let his shooting do the talking, before beginning some more targeted skill work. This wasn’t the 24-year-old’s first time listening to Drew’s reaction-fishing chatter and he is clearly too smart to take a bite, so he wasn’t rising to it.
Hanlen’s shit-talking motivation tactics certainly fall in line with his willingness to combatively interact with online challengers, of which he has had a few. Over the last few years, his name has been connected to some perceived changes to players’ form and techniques, such is the nature of player development. He hasn’t been shy when debating with any of his critics and has subsequently received a great deal of supportive response from many of his clients, who recognize the complexity and nuance of such issues.
This sort of player appreciation was plainly apparent recently, when Hanlen turned 30 years old. Tribute tweets from players, social media praise and a wealth of publicity came his way. In an era where training methods are widely discussed online and athletic brands can be built through self-made content, he seems to remain top of the pile, according to most who have crossed his path.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) September 28, 2018
Many of the heftiest names in the league have trained under his tutelage, such as Bradley Beal, Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid. Plenty of highly-touted prospects have passed through too, with a large portion becoming lottery picks. His tireless work stretches throughout the year with these prestigious names. Beyond the summer, he serves as an on-call training service, as well as touring the world with his Pure Sweat camps.
So, how did he find himself in such a position? Well, in short, when Hanlen was a high school prospect at Webster Groves in Missouri, he began coaching higher-ranked players on the side. Then, when he played NCAA basketball for Belmont University in Nashville – unsurprisingly majoring in entrepreneurship – he began to make crucial connections that would assist him in building up a fruitful client base for Pure Sweat.
College was a gradual climb for Hanlen. In his senior year, he really became a key component in his Belmont team, averaging 10.8 points, 4 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 46 percent from the field, in around 31 minutes per game. Respectable numbers, but not usually the kind of figures that eventually lead you to sustained league-wide recognition.
Hanlen carries himself differently from anybody I’ve met in my experiences around sportspeople. His unique route to the top and unrelenting desire to improve others is something to behold, which explains exactly why we, as a basketball community, know his name so well.
Drew and his team are due to visit London on November 13th and Manchester on the 24th.
— 𝗣𝗨𝗥𝗘 𝗦𝗪𝗘𝗔𝗧 (@PureSweat) November 3, 2019
Featured photo – Drew Hanlen / Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington