I work at a local Junior College assisting with the Women's basketball program. I recently watched and heard as my head coach did something that I regard as one of the best coaching decisions that I have ever seen. When it happened, I was also amazed at what simple thing it was and how it passed by almost completely unnoticed.
I don't think of any our players understood how what a great thing that just happened, and, in fact, I think that they barely noticed it at all. You might fairly ask, just how great could the decision be if the players didn't even notice it?
It involved talking. The day before, we had ridden the players pretty hard about not talking on defense. I myself am a recent convert to the importance of teaching defensive talking, and, like most new converts, believe in the concept with an almost missionary zeal.
The next day, Coach told the players , "I don't care how you say what you need to say, just say it so that your teammates can all hear and understand it." Simple, yes? I would have to admit that it is also something that would normally pass by without much thought.
Why I even noticed it was because I have been reading the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and the book advances the rather unique idea that it is not so much natural talent that wins team championships but advanced skills learned by making repeated mistakes. I'll state that again, "making repeated mistakes!"
The author points out that myelination, a process of coating the axon of each neuron with a fatty coating called myelin, which protects the neuron and helps it conduct signals more efficiently, is simply put, a better way of learning difficult skills.
As players figure things out by learning from their own mistakes, a substance called myelin creates a thick, protective coating that allows their neural pathways to function more efficiently and greatly increases their ability to respond more quickly and forcefully while performing complicated tasks.
The book goes on to mention a practice currently employed at the highest level of coaching soccer where a player's brain is engaged in making difficult mental decisions at the same time while he is stressed out physically. The practice builds up both the mental and physical endurance of the player allowing him to play harder and smarter for a longer period of time. This extra endurance usually comes into play at time that the player needs it most, at the end of hard fought, highly competitive battles.
After reading the book, I began thinking of ways to create drills to be employed at the end of practice that would help us to create such an endurance advantage. Then, my Coach said the words I quoted above, and it suddenly dawned on me that what he told the players would achieve that goal.
The act of figuring out what you need to say in a game situation is a complex and much needed mental skill. In order to assess the situation and then formulate the words that would tell your team mates what you need for them to do, requires focused mental engagement, and the act of listening and figuring out what your teammate is telling you and determining how you should respond does the same.
In other words, it not only helps the myelination process to occur, but doing it while you are both physically and mentally stressed increases your ability to perform quickly and confidently in tense situations at the end of tough, demanding contests.
Some might question this interpretation and say that talking on defense is not such a new idea. I would counter with the argument that most of what passes for talking on defense nowadays is not really great communication. Many players just automatically repeat what their coaches tell them to say in certain situations usually using rote phrases such as: "Ball! Deny! Got Help! or Open-Up! This means they are usually blathering and not communicating at all.
This is not the same as figuring out things for themselves. Requiring him to access the situation himself and then come up with what it is that he needs to say in order to get his teammates to respond efficiently is probably the best way not only to help the player learn to react more quickly but to increase his endurance and confidence level in tough games.
It is something that also might just help your team win a few more basketball games.
I was reading a book The Courage to Create by Rollo May. It's a great book and one that I refer to over and over again when I need inspiration. I came across a part that talked about relationship issues. It said that there are two main fears that come from deciding to fully commit to a relationship with another person.
One would be the fear of losing your own identity, and the other would be the fear of losing your freedom to act. The author points out that there are great benefits that come from confronting these fears and becoming aware of the idea that, "one grows not only by being one's self but also by participating in other selves." He goes on to explain that such confrontation is necessary to to move forward toward self-realization.
Being a basketball coach, I recognized at once that the point he made could apply to being a member of a sport's team as easily as a romantic relationship. A player must learn to deal with the anxiety of losing their individuality in order to fit into a team. She might also be afraid of losing her freedom to act. Teamwork imposes certain rules and restrictions that could curtail a desired course of action. For example, a player might like showing up late to practice. That habit would have to go if she commits to the team's goals.
Following May's line of reasoning, individuality would increase as it evolves to take in the needs of your coaches and team mates. It would become a transcendent version devoted to a higher good. Same thing goes for the freedom to act. Too much freedom can be destructive if it it doesn't allow itself to be refined by the limitations imposed by the goal of becoming a better teammate. Team goals, rules and restrictions are not just a lot like life; they are, in fact, life itself.
Being a member of a good team provides the player with a built in support system when the player needs help, she will get access to a lot of good advice and information, her teammates will have her back, she will be able to get mature advice, support and help from the coaching staff, she will get timely and important feedback for her words and actions, and she will be able to share in combined brain power of the group when it comes to making important decisions.
I am sure that there many other advantages such as being surrounded by people who share her goals and will be there to share her joy and her pain as goals are achieved or lost.
The list of benefits derived from sacrificing a bit of yourself in order to work well within a team is almost endless. The negative effects of failing to commit are probably just as long.
Basketball for the New Age
“In the case of human beings, the state of the person’s mind is itself their environment.”
"Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate."
“He not busy being born is busy dying.”
The concept of wave/particle duality basically says that before they become material, subatomic particles exist as waves of energy with the potential to become whatever the observer chooses to see them as, and it is only when they are being observed that the field of potential collapses.
Crazy? No doubt. So crazy that it is said that even Einstein had to rub his eyes in disbelief at the thought of it. It is the paradoxical nature of quantum physics that probably explains why science and everyone else, for that matter, seems to be lagging on explaining what this means to people like you and I.
As a coach, it means one thing. Ignore the implications of quantum mechanics and get left behind as others start to learn about them as use them to their advantage. Explore their meaning and adapt your coaching and you will leap, make that quantum leap to the head of the pack. Make no mistake about, quantum physics is going to change everything about how we look at the world and this includes coaching basketball.
In recent years there has been a plethora of books written on the theme of positive coaching techniques, mental toughness, and positive thinking. They all refer in some way or the other to brain and performance studies and generally do a good job of pointing out how to use positive thinking techniques to benefit both the individual and the team.
However, by limiting their supporting evidence to brain and performance studies they have also limited their appeal to the average coach. Most good coaches will try anything to win, but they also still hold on tightly to the tried and true, the old ways of doing things that have produced results in the past. These coaches acknowledge that increasing mental toughness is something to be desired, but it is still the physical skill set that matters most, and it is the mastery of those skills that produce the necessary mental toughness.
Most people do not fully understand that science has now gone much further than this. It is like the old saying at the beginning of the Star Trek; it has gone “ where no man has ever gone before.” In fact, in can be argued that because of the implications of quantum mechanics (the laws that govern the actions of subatomic particles), science has gone to some places where it has gotten very uncomfortable being.
Newtonian determinism, or the mechanistic way of looking at the universe, that has reigned since science began has been pretty soundly refuted, and this fact will change the way they we look at everything including the way we teach, coach, parent, etc.
In the book The Divine Code of Life by renowned geneticist Dr. Kazuo Murakami, the author gives a science-based argument about how living a “positive” lifestyle can activate the DNA to help people activate the part of their genetic make-up that would allow them to become the best version of themselves possible. I think it helps to explain the purpose of our existence on this planet. Simply put, we are here to be the best version of ourselves.
Strangely enough, Jesus’s parable of the talents has exactly the same meaning.
In the story, a master goes away and leaves each of three servants a certain amount of money. When he returns, he summons each of the servants forward to give an account of what they did with the money. Two of servants reported the return of the original sum or only a partial increase. These servants were rebuked and sent away by their master. It was the third servant, who increased the original sum by 100% who was rewarded and praised.
How is the meaning of this parable different from what recent scientific discoveries prove? I had used the parable in the locker room in order to stress the importance of not giving less than an 100% effort, I now understand it to mean much more than that. The message is the fundamental truth that underlies human existence.
We are genetically wired to be the best that we can be. That is what we are meant to do. It simplifies our choice of action in that we should always do things that make us into the best version of ourselves and avoid anything that doesn’t. As Dr. Murakami says, “ We are all born with the potential to become human miracles.”
The most obvious concept concerns something that many coaches have instinctively known and employed as long as there has been competitive athletics. This is the idea that positive thinking produces positive results.
In Dr. Murakami’s book, he states that it is possible to access the better part of our DNA by keeping the “switch on”. He asserts that this is done by constant exposure to things that are positive, motivating, creative, humorous, and thankful in nature. It has also been shown that even stress and pressure, when handled correctly, can produce positive outcomes. Individuals conversely keep the switch in off position when they are exposed to a constant bombardment of negative influences such as hatred, anger, frustration, or other forms of discordant information.
The research into this realm of genetics is getting more and more support from other scientists, not only those who study the brain, but also those who study quantum physics and who have proven that we are not living in a huge machine- determinism-as it was once believed, but in fact inhabit a universe where outward reality is created by inward reality..
What this means in a coaching sense is that up unto this point, we have only been paying what amounts to lip service to the idea that our thinking can determine the outcome of a sporting event; it can guarantee success, and it can guarantee failure. Whereas, most coaches would argue that they already value both the idea and results of positive thinking, most have had no idea how important it really is.
Science now seems to suggest that it might even be as important as the physical aspects of teaching sport. Or, more probably, that we need to reach an understanding that there is no division between the mental and the physical aspects. We now need to develop a coaching philosophy that embraces both as a whole.
These are essentially the same ideas and techniques that have been taught in martial arts. They are also some of the same ideas that the ancient religions and mythologies have taught for centuries.
There been many books recently written on the mind/body connection. The disparity between what is and what it needs to be, however, can be proven by a visit to any bookstore that has a section on different sports. There might be one or two books about mental training for every 10-15 about plays, drills, tactics, or coaching philosophy. (This has changed for the better since I started writing this.)
What is different now, is that science is finally coming around with the proof why the focus on the inner being works. The belief that the subconscious is this important has never quite gained the full and widespread acceptance of the scientific community. The Freudian view of the subconscious, which the average person is probably most familiar, treats it as something that is not quite savory.
The mind-body connection needs to be somehow included in every aspect of not just coaching sports, but in education and life in general.
The science of nuclear physics and the wisdom of the ages, what team could compete against that starting tandem?
Most of the coaches I know wouldn’t pick a book with this title to begin with, and they wouldn’t keep reading past the introduction once they learned what it was about. That’s understandable. It’s also a shame.
I understand this mentality because I thought like that myself. Although I had bought a few books on the mental aspect of coaching, I much preferred books and articles that gave me something more substantial like zone quick hitters, practice drills, and defensive strategies.
It is a shame because the coaches who follow that line of thinking are missing the boat, and they could very well end up in the same predicament as Noah’s neighbors, haplessly waving good-by to the Ark as the flood waters inundate once fertile farmland. The mental aspect of basketball is as important as the physical skills involved and/or the strategies and plays!
This year, my team’s free throw shooting flat-lined. My team started out shooting free throws under 50% and they finished the year shooting under 50%. I couldn’t understand the lack of growth. We were using the same drills and techniques that had produced championships in the past, but weren’t getting the same results. Most of our losses this season, make that the last two seasons, were because of our inability to shoot free throws.
Then frustration made me do something very stupid. After a loss that insured we would be playing on the road in the play-offs, I asked them how many times they had shot free throws on their own. The glazed over look I got in reply only increased my frustration level and caused me to tell my players that, in the past, when we were winning championship games, the players fixed their free throw problems on their own. I then went on to publicly question their will to win.
Later, I came to understand by phrasing it the way I did, I had only made things worse. Where I thought I was telling them how to fix the problem, what they heard was that they had disappointed me once again.
The next day, I had an epiphany, a moment of insight that helped me understand what was going on and to figure out what to do about them. The insight came after I was reading a book that explained the difference of the ordinary outside world consciousness and the inner consciousness. The author was explaining that man perceives everything through the outer world including the sacred, and that this explained why we have such a hard time relating or understanding the sacred.
I saw a mental picture of man with his back to a wall looking outward. The thought came into my head, “Turn around. The wall behind you is false.” This was my way of grasping that there is no real difference between the outer world and the inner world.
I did not know it at the time, but I had just made the most important leap of understanding in my life. I had grasped just how important the subconscious actually is. I actually had been foolishly reversing the size of the material world and the size of the subconscious world. The inner world is huge.
Our brain deals with 11,000,000 bits of information per second while our conscious is only capable of dealing with around 50 bits per second. The subconscious handles the rest of the information including that which deal with the most basic functions of life. As Leonard Mlodinow states in his book Subliminal, “While most nonhuman animals can and do survive with little or no capacity for conscious symbolic thought, no animal can exist without an unconscious.”
The disparity between how much of a workload the subconscious bears compared to conscious awareness is indicative of the overwhelming importance of the subconscious. This was an eye opener.
The author also addresses the issue of just how misunderstood the role of the subconscious is in the decision making process. Mlodinow discusses the results of a now famous taste test between Pepsi and Coke where in the blind taste test Pepsi won, but when the brand names were revealed, the people who had voted for Pepsi in the blind test switched their votes. This and similar tests suggest that the power of subconscious in decision-making has been greatly underestimated by most people (excluding, of course, those who work in advertising).
A big part of the problem is the fact that for the last 400 years we have been conditioned by Newtonian determinism to think of our universe as a big machine with every aspect of our life as being subject to logic and rational thought. This way of thinking has created a bias against things that do not fit between the lines. And as Dr. Murakami says, “Everything in this world is not rational.”
Determinism, according to Dr. Natalie Reid, the author of Five Steps to a Quantum Life, is a “fatalistic philosophy of life,” that has in effect, “reduced people’s spiritual, religious, and metaphysical questions about the ways of the world to mere mathematical predictions.” It is existential in nature and basically states that there is no point to existence.
Determinism coupled with Freud’s views of the subconscious explains why most people who know anything about the concept tend to think of the subconscious either as a dusty old place where memories, sounds, and sensory data are stored away, or a simmering swamp of repressed desires, anger, and emotions.
To a coach holding this viewpoint, it would manifest itself in a philosophy that would value teaching of the mechanical and physical over the mental. The mindset would use repetition of physical drills in such a way as to, at best, minimally increase the level of confidence by virtue of the mastery of the skill thus missing out on the power of the subconscious to both transform the skill level and the fearlessness of a player.
Oh, and one other thing, materialistic thinking kind of says that the joy and happiness that you, your teammates, and your loved ones felt when you held the trophy aloft, was just as much the result of the burrito you ate at lunch as the efforts you put in at the gym. Quantum thinking would give more credit to the desire in your heart and the vision you allowed yourself to believe.
This deterministic mindset would also result in the belief that natural athletes are inherently superior to others and lead to an undervaluing of both effort and the ability of players to adapt. In her book Mindset, Dr. Carol S. Dweck writes about how this deterministic type of thinking can result in the development of “fixed mindsets” that often breakdown under stress, lead to failure, and hinder personal growth.
She offers in its place a different type of mindset, the “growth mindset”, or the idea that changing to the view that people can adapt to their obstacles has the power to “transform your psychology and, as a result, your life.” Her research explains that it is not just our physical abilities and innate talents that lead to success but how we view and approach our efforts. This is very much in line with the thinking that has emerged since the discovery of quantum mechanics.
In his book Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi not only expressed a belief in the power of consciousness to enhance the ability to create “optimal experience” but also the amazement that it has taken science so long to grasp the idea, “ This simple truth- that the control of consciousness determines the quality of life- has been known for a long time, in fact, as long as human records exist.”
Csikszentmihalyi’s research offers insightful lessons in why gaining control of consciousness and aligning the inner with the outer world helps successful people to fully utilize their psychic energy in order to transform themselves and not waste time and energy on distractions. His research also made great inroads in explaining why a disorder in consciousness-he termed psychic entropy- forces attention to be diverted to undesirable ends. “Whenever information disrupts consciousness by threatening its goals, we have a disorganization of the self that impairs its effectiveness.”
He also explains that prolonged experiences of this nature weakens the ability of the self to where it can no longer pay attention to or pursue its goals. It was this bit of information that allowed me to understand what was going on with my players. They suffered from psychic entropy. The red flags were there from the beginning. They always shot below 50% in games and drills. I didn’t pick up on it earlier because I suffered from similar symptoms.
The human brain has to process, sort and evaluate every bit of information that enters into consciousness (remember that 11,000,000 bits per second number). Each bit is evaluated on how it bears on the self. This information will either reinforce the goals of the individual, or create psychic disorder. With their devices firmly wired to their heads, it was fairly easy for me to understand that my players were suffering from a lack of focus created by information overload. I was too.
It was also fairly easy to deduce that the latest discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics which underscore the ability of the individual to participate in the creation of the world that they see, when coupled with a plethora of new research in the way that the brain is wired, why humans think the way that they do, or how the subconscious plays a much larger role in decision making as previously thought, that there is now a huge need for coaches to step out of gym, put down their whistles, and begin discover what this all means in coaching terms
I am a very eclectic reader. I read a lot of different things. My favorite genres are literature, psychology, education, religion, history, mythology, basketball coaching, and any non-fiction books that give insight in the previously mentioned genres. Eventually, all of them lead me back to basketball. I could read the back of a cereal box and come up with something I could apply to basketball. It's just the way I think, but it also works the other way; I've learned to apply what I've learned from basketball to my understanding of life.
For example, I've recently been reading a book by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson entitled "The Twelve Rules of Life". There was a passage in the book where the good doctor explains the brilliance of the first three books of the Bible. If you remember, this is where the God of the Old Testament acquired his rather nasty reputation as being arbitrary, capricious, and murderous.
Peterson explained things in such a way that it helped me to understand that most of the mythic stories our ancestors passed down to us though the ages are actually brilliant ways of explaining the deep psychological matters that humans have always faced before the invention of an empirical language.
God is not arbitrary. He is the force behind creation itself. Creation has to have its own set of rules to differentiate from nonexistence, and if human beings choose not to align with these natural laws, the potential for evil enters the picture. This concept is explained in Cain's murder of his brother Abel.
Abel brought forward gifts that pleased his father (aligned himself with natural laws) while Cain resisted and did not get his father's blessings. This led to the entry of jealousy into the world and also to the world's first murder. I should mention that Cain also has his role to play in the grand scheme of things; he introduces randomness into the equation. He is also the prodigal son mentioned later in the Bible.
Later in the book, Peterson talks about how this concept influences discipline, learning, and creativity. He says something to the effect that parents can greatly damage their children's development by teaching that rules are random things you make up as you go. It's our reaction to the opposing forces, the rules, and the limitations that not only defines who we are, but differentiates us from the faceless crowd; it also is the greatest source of our creativity.
This is very true in basketball. Basketball takes place in time and place, the fields, courts, and games we play have certain size and time limitations. There are rules in basketball and penalties for not following the rules, and there are immediate consequences if you fail to adjust your play to take into consideration all of the rules and limitations; you do not grow, and you lose.
The people/teams who compete with the right mindset create beauty by disciplining their impulses and aligning their efforts to come up with the most efficient way to deal with the challenges of the game. The blessings are immediate, the crowd cheers, your coach smiles, and you win.
This is a good place to emphasize just how much sport and life are interrelated. The thing that good athletes/ good teams/ good people do is use the same goal driven mindset to determine how they live their life, and how they live their life determines how well they play. Life and sport are two dancers tightly entwined dancing in the confined space of a ballroom, and how they perform the required steps determines not only a beautiful outcome but also whether they receive the blessing or the curse.
Another passage in Peterson's book offers up an explanation as to why so many people fail to align themselves to the actions that would help them succeed. I used to believe that this was mainly caused by hidden trauma and came up with a large list of things that could cause a child to choose less arduous pathways.
We need to understand that the deviation of one degree at the beginning of life puts you way off track fifty years later. It's a good thing that it doesn't matter where we end up; there's always a straight line to where we need to go. Then there is also the strange trick of nature that sometimes the wrong path becomes the right path. J.R.R Tolkien made that idea one of the big themes of The Hobbit.
Peterson says that people become intentionally blind. And how can they help it? We have been trained since youth to focus on what we desire more than what we need, and since deep focus is such a rare commodity, we have to carefully restrict its use or else we would freeze up like an outdated computer as the universe tries to push its way to the center of our vision. We can only see what we are looking at and either make up or ignore all of the rest.
This is good stuff to know in a basketball sense. Peterson mentioned a video where two teams with different colored uniforms were competing against each other in how many successful passes they could compete in a minute. The viewers were asked to count how many passes the white team completed against the black team. Afterwards, the viewers were asked to report their findings.
Next, they were asked about the gorilla. A second viewing reveals that while the viewers were counting passes, a gorilla had walked through the middle of the drill unnoticed. It's true; it was exactly what happened when I showed the video to my class. As long as the gorilla did not walk between the person passing and the person catching the ball, it went unnoticed.
In basketball, defenders are often told that it is sin to lose sight of your man or the ball. This usually results in the player losing sight of his or her man and staying focused on the ball.
Lots of coaches yell out, "Keep your head on a swivel!" They further empathize the point by throwing basketballs at the backs of players who lose sight of the ball in practice drills. This can cause most defenders to briefly lose sight of their man when the action gets heavy.
This is good to know for a variety of reasons. First, it's a good lesson about the proper use of focus; a lot of people make themselves miserable because they can't see what it is that they need to see and keep on staring blindly at outcomes they don't really want. This can cause a ball handler to focus on getting to the basket and not see the three defensive players standing in her path. Instead of charging into the wall, this would be a great time to learn to back dribble and expand your vision.
Secondly, it is a thing that can be exploited. Defenses usually rotate towards the ball, A offensive minded coach can create good actions on the back side of a play by attacking the back defender's ability to see both man and ball, run a cutter in front of the back defender and while the defender tries to restore their vision on the ball, cut their man into a blind spot, and there are a lot of ways to make sure that blind spot is right under the basket.
There is also a defensive use for this knowledge. A coach could bring this information to the attention of the players, so that they will better understand the necessity of constantly moving their heads and changing their stance so that they can see as much of the court as possible.
Then of course, you can always flip it back and use what you learned on the court to explain how it applies to how you should approach life. Whether or not you are serving fries, cutting hair, collecting garbage, or cooking food, the rules of dealing with the size of the court, abiding by the laws against stepping out of bounds, or obeying the need to restore a wider vision by back dribbling and constantly moving your focus, these concepts can help you gain mastery of your life and help prevent you from becoming jealous when those who already know this stuff pass you by.
“I am the shield that guards the realms of men.”
Night’s Watch Vow- The Game of Thrones
One time, many years ago, we were warming up prior to a state play-off game. I wanted some to time to think, so I went up the stairs towards the next level of the gym. There was a landing half way up where I stop and tried to gather my thoughts.
I noticed the graffiti on the wall before me and focused in on what was written there. “ Johnny sucks donkey d—ks!” was written with a red marker. Then, “ Want to get laid? Call Lisa M,” this was followed by Lisa M’s supposed telephone number. I glanced around and read other writing that was equally profane and unnecessary. I went back to thinking about the upcoming game and filed the incident away.
Weeks later, I recounted the memory during our end of the year banquet. I had been contemplating the moment and what it meant. I had also been thinking about retiring. I was suffering from sleep apnea and was always very tired. By the end of the season, I was drained. In addition, my wife was starting to question how much of my time and energy I had been giving to coaching basketball.
That night sitting the stairwell kept me from retiring by reminding me of how important the job was. Life, often, is a big confusing mess. This is true for adults as much as for the young. But it is especially true for anyone trying to find his or her true path toward the future. By true path I mean the path that will lead to happiness, success, and wellbeing.
In my mind, the graffiti I saw on the wall that night conjured up the very thin line that exists between order and chaos, good and evil, right and wrong, success and failure, well being and psychic entropy. It represents the border that lies between being who you are supposed to be and instead becoming the result of a series of bad decisions. It mainly reminded me of the duty teachers, coaches, and anyone else who works at guiding the young has in protecting that border.
Life is confusing enough and nowadays the temptation to fail is expanding at an very alarming rate. It has become even more important that coaches are there when our players and students descend into the dark forest of young adulthood to offer them hope, support, and skills so that they might safely make their way through to the other side.
In this sense, our cause is a holy and honorable quest that is so often undervalued, and many of us will toil and sacrifice in total anonymity. I think that being a good coach is often like being a member of the Night’s Watch on the television series The Game of Thrones. Good coaches don’t seek personal glory but respond to a sense of duty.
Coaching done right is a sacred duty. There are really not any written rules, if you do it right, you will know it. If you are doing wrong, you will know it as well. Those who only coach for individual vanity, victories, and championships, and those who judge people solely on their ability to put the ball in the basket, who steal players out from under other coaches and are able to justify anything in name of winning, well, you are working for the team north of the wall.