Basketball and the Night Watch.
The 51% Rule
There's a hidden message in Jesus's Parable of the Talents. Some will say that it's a lesson about the importance of approaching life with a maximum effort placed on becoming the best version of your self. Remember the way that Jesus tells the story is that the second servant, the one who brought back a fifty percent return, was sent alway in the company of the servant who did nothing. The only servant who was rewarded was the one who brought back a hundred percent return. This would lead most people to think that it's a kind of harsh way of putting things to say only the maximum effort gets rewarded. The only people who are built like that though are the true spiritual warriors, people who are capable of facing deprivation, approbation, condemnation, pleasure and suffering with a nary a smile, a grimace or a grunt. Life is fucking hard and so is making life decisions. Using that metric would condemn most of the humans who have ever lived to slinking out the back door with that servant who sat on his/her ass and smoked meth all day instead of taking care of business.
I understand there is a reason for that last servant bringing back double what he/she was given at the beginning. It's the goal, perfection is always the goal. It keeps us always headed in the right direction, but as a requirement for living it would cause most of us to give up the fight knowing that we could never rise to meet the standard. Christ also emphasized the need for us to be as wise as serpents and to me that shows he knew that at times, most people are going to come across situations where they have to strip down to their undies and wrestle with the pigs. The key being that you can't succumb to the praise of all those who witnessed you vanquishing the pig and in always understanding that getting mud on your underwear is infinitely different from getting mud on your soul.
There's a reason why Jesus didn't place a servant who returned 75% of the money in the story. It would have exposed the real secret contained in the message. He was telling his disciples that they have to do some of the work themselves. He was telling them he couldn't just spoon-feed the information to them because they would lump it in with the news about somebody's complaints about their warts or all the gossip going on in Jerusalem in the day. It was also a litmus test to determine which ones would be able to understand what came next. The Dogon tribe of West Africa possess an extraordinary knowledge of the Cosmos and feel that it is their duty to protect and pass on that information. They are willing to teach anyone their secrets regardless of race, gender, age, or religious background providing that the seekers are able to ask the appropriate question to access the next level. It's the same thing as Jesus was doing. Spiritual seekers will recognize teaching in parables as a way to keep the material world from corrupting the message.
All year long, I struggled to get our team to understand the value of getting to the line in order to become a championship caliber team (In truth, it has been this way for years). The problem is that most people always want to do things the easiest way possible. You fight against human nature when you tell them to make things harder on themself. This team was very good at shooting the ball, including the mid-range jumper. We were killing people without getting to the line. We had such good shooters that it caused me to have to re-think the rules that I have always taught about how to win the championships. We even changed our offensive thinking, which was predicated on attacking to basket off the dribble, to better accommodate their ability to shoot.
In the past, I would never let my players shoot us out of a game. If we missed two shots from the perimeter, I would call a set play designed to get us a lay-up or to get us to the foul line. The rule we had was that we had to break the string of negative possessions where we came away with nothing to show for our efforts. I've always figured that the quickest to go from a closely contested game to being behind by ten points was to lose control of the flow of the game by creating long rebounds that ended up as lay-ups at the other end. Getting to foul line, even if we missed the shots, at least gave us a positive result (inflicting a personal foul on the opposition) rather than a zero. It seems like a minor thing, but it is actually quite important.
Usually, you'll make at least one of the foul shots (another positive result). Many times though, you'll not only make the foul shots, but you'll make the lay-up and get the and one as a bonus, that is the three point play in addition to inflicting the foul on a defender, stopping play in your favor so you can control the flow, and breaking the string of negative possessions. Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written an important work entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It outlines the results of a study detailing how successful people, including athletes, go about producing the necessary psychological state to achieve maximum success. He calls this the flow state, a state of being where our intrinsic motivations are in line with our efforts to be the best, i.e. (return the maximum results). Gaining something as seemingly insignificant as inflicting a foul on the opposition keeps your efforts on the positive side of the equation. Stringing a series of such positive outcomes together increases both the velocity and the amount of the positive energy being released thereby creating the flow state whereby things naturally appear to work out for the best.
The problem is that in championship games both teams are always fairly evenly matched in that they, knowingly or not, practice the same flow techniques that Csikszentmihalyi mentioned in his groundbreaking study, so that championship games usually come down to one key play or a series of a few plays where both teams are exerting maximum effort at the same time. This results in a situation where one of the teams is going to give that 51% effort that tips the scales in their favor.
I saw this happen in the CCCAA Junior College state championship games recently. In one of the games, the battle was back and forth when a player from the losing team made a hard drive through the lane. She had made several pivotal plays in the game before, but this time, she avoided contact at the end and missed the lay-up. I think that had she leaned inward and gone for the contact she would have been fouled and came away with two important free throws. It wasn't that this one play caused her team's eventual defeat, but it was part of sequence of coming away empty in game that was going to be decided by who kept the needle in the gauge on the positive side the most.
During this season because of our ability to shoot the mid-range jump shot, I had changed my original dictum from "do not shoot the three until we have created an inside shot and possible foul" to "do not miss the outside shot until we have gotten to the foul line". Some might consider this to be a trivial, maybe even silly distinction, but it's really not. It still allows for an outside shot from a player who is very confident in their ability to make the shot in that situation, putting the onus squarely on the miss, and at the same time, it lets your players know that when that fifty-fifty collision, the struggle for control of the line to the basket, occurs on the way to the basket, they need to be willing to push through to gain that 51% advantage that ultimately decides the play.
We had gotten all the way to the Final Eight with the new offensive strategy but failed us in the end because we couldn't make shots or stops. This led me to think about things on my way home from the Championship Tournament. What I came up with is that it is still best to stress the importance of developing a good first step, attacking in straight line drives, and finishing strongly while drawing contact. Championship games especially have certain inexorable rules. I once heard that in the local prison there a system of cables that carry the electricity to operate the security devices and electric fences. I heard that the guards daily have to go pick up the dead birds who can't read the signs that say to not touch those cables upon the pain of death. These kind of rules aren't meant to curtail freedom or to punish those who can't read. They exist to let people that some rules need to be followed simply because the results of non-compliance are so odious. Getting to the line in championship games is one of those type of rules.
So, you may be asking yourself by now what does the Parable of the Talents have to do with teaching of basketball. I don't know, it's in there somewhere. I'm going to let you figure it out.
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