Junior volleyball player Kaylie Loewen was sitting on an exercise ball, blindfolded and focusing on the sounds around her. She was pushing away the distractions, listening for the bounce of a tennis ball. As the ball hits the ground, she lunges to catch it.
In the span of 30 minutes, she worked on catching the ball only on the sound of where it bounces, but she was successful just twice.
“It was crazy because you get to this point where you are so focused on just hearing the smallest little bounce,” she said.
Assistant strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight was behind the idea to take away the all-important sense of sight and to focus on blanking out everything else.
“I really like reaction and a lot of stuff that requires you to do things without looking,” Knight said.
Knight grew up just outside of Seattle and went to Kent-Meridian High School. Coming out of high school, Knight was drafted as a second baseman by the Seattle Mariners in the 73rd round of the MLB Amateur Draft, but he remained unsigned as he committed to Gonzaga for his freshman year.
He attended GU and played baseball from 1996-1999 before graduating and moving on to get his master’s in exercise science at Wichita State University.
After an internship at Kansas State University, he came back to GU.
Knight is now in his 11th season as a strength and conditioning coach for GU and he doesn’t have plans to leave anytime soon.
“There is a reason why I am back here,” he said. “When I was here as an athlete, I fell in love with the culture and the people here.”
But you won’t see Knight at the games of the three teams he works with (men’s basketball, women’s tennis and volleyball).
His time with the student-athletes is spent behind the scenes working on the intricate details such as reaction times and agility training or on the not so intricate lifting regimens. While the physicality side of sports is obviously an important goal, there is much more to becoming a complete athlete.
“I am a big believer that what exercises we choose or the programs we design, those aren’t nearly as important as the athletes attitude and their level of motivation,” Knight said. “[I want to] continue to push them to reach their full potential and to understand how the mind and the body both need to be developed to be an elite competitor.”
One way to do that is to keep things interesting and specific to the athlete.
Sophomore tennis player Nevada Apollo said she needed help in agility after her workouts built too much muscle.
“Last spring, I wanted to focus more on agility and not so much strength because I was building a lot of muscle and he built a program for me to just work on agility,” she said.
Apollo also said Knight keeps his sessions fun by incorporating new and different workouts every time.
“We do different workouts all of the time and I don’t think we’ve ever had the same workout twice,” she said.
For Loewen, she explained his desire to help them succeed is reflected in everything he does.
“He is — and I say this in the best way possible — obsessed with finding new things and finding the latest and the greatest techniques to make the athlete better.”
The volleyball team even has a different moniker for him.
“We all say he is a visionary because he changes and creates these things that are so unique and so different [from other coaches],” Loewen said.
But while each day is new, the workload doesn’t change.
“There are mornings where I hate it and it is a drag to get out of bed, but I look at the moments where it is just so enjoyable and I think that he is just the most amazing trainer and I am very blessed to be able to work with him and for him to push me,” Loewen said.
To redshirt or not to redshirt
Two of Knight’s biggest achievements came in the form of two players who had yet to tap into their potential. First was Kelly Olynyk in 2011-2012 and the second was Kyle Wiltjer in 2014-2015. Both players used a redshirt season to help get better in all areas of strength and conditioning.
Olynyk was a post player who played small (he grew 7 inches his junior year of high school) and Wiltjer wasn’t strong enough or fluid enough to fulfill his All-American status from high school.
Knight worked with both of them by doing different drills outside of the normal realm of strength and conditioning.
“Maybe it was with tennis balls or maybe it was crazy flexibility stuff or maybe it was hopping on one foot with your eyes closed,” he said. “On any given day, they never knew what was going to be asked of them, they just knew it was going to be hard.”
Redshirt years are fairly uncommon for the college stars, but Knight believes redshirting for a season can be one of the most important decisions a player could make.
“If you are transferring [like Wiltjer] or you are sitting out [like Olynyk], you aren’t doing that because you aren’t good enough to play, it is because you want to take another giant leap forward,” Knight said.
Knight deflected the success of Wiltjer and Olynyk onto the basketball coaches.
“We have unbelievable coaches [in all of our sports], they have so much passion for the kids they are working with and the sports themselves,” he said.
But he also made it clear that GU is his home and his student-athletes aren’t his job, but more his responsibility.
“I feel like they are family and I want my kids to be like these athletes that I work with,” he said.
Until a few seasons ago, the basketball coaches weren’t allowed to practice or do any individual drills over the summer with the players. But that gave Knight more time with the athletes, even if it wasn’t spent doing the normal strength and conditioning grind.
“We pushed cars around parking lots,” Knight said. “I’ll go out and throw BP [batting practice] for the guys in July and have home run derbies.”
And back in the 2009-2011 seasons, a few players on the roster were always fun to work with.
“ ‘Meech’ (Demetri) Goodson, David Stockton, Rob Sacre and all of those characters, it was like American Gladiators recess,” he said. “We had so much fun and Rob comes back and says he told his strength coaches in the NBA that they need to be doing more medicine ball or Ultimate Frisbee.”
Justin Reed is the head sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @JustinReed99.