Basketball

Make Them Better

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Why is it that so many coaches are quick to make comments about what players can’t do? Even if we say we’re not this way, we’ve all been guilty of this line of thinking at some point. It’s likely we’ve commented on the negative before even thinking about the positive. We make assumptions about what players must be thinking, when in reality we have no idea. But why? Is it easier? It’s easier to justify that our opinion of this player is correct and we are right. But without knowing we’re doing it, we create this bias within our own mind or the minds of those we make these comments to. This does is nothing but hurt the player being discussed and ultimately it’s just our opinion. With that being said it’s still interesting that we don’t make more of an effort to focus on the positives, to regularly talk about these aspects of a players game and try to capitalize and continue to improve on them. Or even more revealing is that we don’t talk about how we can, or should, be making these players better. In Seth Davis’ book, Getting To Us: How Great Coaches Make Great Teams, members of Doc Rivers’ staff discuss his attitude during a rough patch in their season,

“Every day during that losing streak, he came in and he would never say anything negative to the players,” says Armond Hill, Rivers’s longtime assistant coach. “Even when the coaches were alone, he wouldn’t rip the players. He might get frustrated about what was happening, but he would always say, ‘We gotta make them better.’”

I do not teach anyone, I only provide the environment in which they can learn
— Albert Einstein

It’s refreshing because it puts the emphasis back on the staff and what they can do, it doesn’t necessarily make the staff believe that the players aren’t good enough. Maybe they ultimately aren’t good enough but if the mindset is such from the beginning, how will they ever really improve? We must do everything in our power to help make them better.

I wonder what the trajectory of a players development would be if rather than speak to what they can’t do, we first focus where they excel. I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t critique a player and their overall skillset or specific performance. That’s not at all what I mean. But in order to do that we should probably employ more energy to help them express their positive qualities and start there rather than the opposite. Plus if we really assess our jobs, and like Rivers says, we gotta make them better. I just wonder what kind of players we could develop if while providing honest feedback on a continual basis we first focused on improving positive areas of their game. I’m just as guilty as anyone else. We can all be quick to say things like, “this guy is no good” or “he can’t pass/shoot/dribble”. Maybe we should start thinking with thoughts like “this guy really is good at X, let’s see how we can foster more of that”. Seems simple in theory but I know it’s hard in practice. I don’t think it’s realistic, nor should we, live in a faux positive environment all of the time. Sure there will be times when we need to get on players and things will tend to be a little more negative or critical. Ultimately players are either going to get better or they won’t, it’s our job as coaches to help foster an environment where they can and hopefully not one where we don’t even give them a chance to. 

As Einstein said, “I do not teach anyone, I only provide the environment in which they can learn”. We should focus on creating those environments.

The Relentless Execution of Fundamentals

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The basics. An often talked about but an undertrained foundation for almost anything we choose to do in life. It's easy to just say people were born with talent. Maybe some were fortunate enough to hit the genetic lottery which allowed them to attain specific attributes. But to say individuals were born with the talent to compete in their given sport or discipline is naive. It's nothing new to read about or hear athletes talk about the hours they put in to master their game.

Friedrich Nietzsche once stated, 

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole”. 

It's a profound proclamation and really makes you think. But what stands out within this is a statement to me more than anything is this quote, 

they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole

To me, this should be in every locker room of every team, in every sport. Think about it, ‘the seriousness of the efficient workman'. ‘Construct the parts properly first'. It really resonated with me. It's a simple reminder that in order to become "complete" we must first make sure each part of our foundation is set and that we do so with the attitude of a skilled worker.

Nietzsche also essentially eludes to the fact that mastery is not reached by people born masters but rather those who put in the time to create a base and build upon it as they go through their career. There are many articles, interviews, and books I've read where a common thread is this idea of approaching work like a craftsman in order to gain mastery at a given task. I believe this applies to both coaching and playing sports and really must begin with mastering the fundamentals.

Joe Maddon, manager of the Chicago Cubs, tells a story of having lunch with an Arizona Cardinals assistant coach named Tom Moore, in which the following anecdote was told to him. 

Moore told Maddon something at their lunch that stuck with him: “In football, you break the other team’s will through the relentless execution of fundamentals.” Said Maddon, “I love that. I friggin’ love that. ‘The relentless execution of fundamentals.’ 

It's hard to find a better way to describe the value of the fundamentals. They are at the core of everything we do as either a coach on the sidelines or a player on the field. It's also hard to argue that this isn't true for not only sport but most things in our lives. So often players of the current youth generation possess unlimited access to seeing the top-level of their given sport being played, that they miss understanding the work that laid the foundation to allow those players to perform that way. It's such an easy talking point and hard to believe in many respects, but It's almost as though they believe these athletes were born with this ability. What may look automatic for some elite athletes is really nothing more than their mastering of the fundamentals over a long period of time.

Take for example the Basketball Hall of Fame member Bill Bradley. Bradley grew up in the small town on the Mississippi River where he became a highly touted recruit who received interest from upwards of seventy schools. His ability was special and many say it is underrated in the history of basketball. Nonetheless, much of Bradley's game was centered around methodically repeating the basics of the game. He is quoted in John McPhee's book A Sense of Where You Are, describing his ability to easily score from his hook shot in the paint,

When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.

I would say that developing a “sense of where you are” on the basketball court, soccer field, or wherever, is the end product of repeating a basic movement over and over again. To reiterate how much work Bradley put into these fundamentals, McPhee describes his routine while a student-athlete at Princeton,

When Bradley, working out alone, practices his set shots, hook shots, and jump shots, he moves systematically from one place to another around the basket, his distance from it being appropriate to the shot, and he does not permit himself to move on until he has made at least ten shots out of thirteen from each location.

 

Unfortunately, I think it's become a rare feat to see young athletes working so hard to perfect specific movements for their sport. Let alone not permitting themselves to move on to the next movement until the current one is completed a prescribed number of times.

In my estimation the message is simple. In order to be truly great one must first build a foundation of what many would call rudimentary skills. They must also be able to perform these skills without really thinking about them. But it should be made mention that this learning process is not only the responsibility of the players alone but that of the coach as well. Pep Guardiola explains this well in Pep Guardiola: The Evolution when discussing player development,

It’s important to point out that this is an ongoing process whose ultimate objective is the pupil developing complete mastery of the concepts, much like a master craftsman who prepares his student to carry his teachings on independently after a long apprenticeship. In football terms, the aim is for the team to be able to ‘think’ for itself, without relying on instructions from the coach and the learning process therefore has to be long and exhaustive. The end result should be that every player is able to perform at his full potential without having to think about each movement or decision because they become automatic.

Thinking of the coach-player relationship as a craftsman to apprentice is a nice way of reiterating the fact that we as coaches are responsible for passing concepts and knowledge on to our athletes. But it is also a reminder that the process is long and tough but one that we should enjoy. If we reverse engineer what the goal of coaching is at its core, Pep puts it nicely "every player is able to perform at his full potential without having to think about each movement or decision because they become automatic."

I don't write about this to seem as though I have come upon an unknown theory. No this is not new but for some reason, it's still undervalued in the current climate of young athletes. Ultimately what these cases support is the fact that if kids (or anyone) want to be great and get on the path to mastery they MUST master the fundamentals. If they don't take the initiative themselves to become fluent in the basics of the game, as coaches it then becomes our responsibility to reinforce them over time. It shouldn't be something looked down upon either. We should relish the chance to help build the foundation for athletes who could one day become truly special.