Monday, May 19, 2014

The New Basketball Scorecard: Influence and Impact

The NCAA Basketball Tournament is over and the UConn Huskies have taken both the men's and women's trophies home. The NBA Playoffs have come down to their Final Four in the Conference Championships. Perhaps, once again, it is time to ask the question:   How do basketball players and teams get measured and evaluated?  How should they be measured?  What does it take to win?
Points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots, fouls.  Double-doubles, Triple-doubles.  That is the traditional currency in basketball.

A further analysis might take a look at the numbers in a different way, such as:  vertical leap, speed, bench press, wingspan.  Those are the basic characteristics a scout or coach might look at when recruiting or drafting a player.  

However, I have been working with some talented players over the years and have begun to look very closely at what some coaches would consider to be the intangibles.  These are ways that players contribute to a team effort to produce results:  Wins and championships.

Let's break it down.  My observations have been focused on how to impact and influence a game, individually and collectively.   

It used to be called dirty work. What if you found a way to label it as something other than dirty work? Could it become more popular?  If you don't like dirty work, you don't like your sport. And you certainly will not excel. All sports require dirty work; lots of it. So, what are the other ways to influence and impact a game?  

Role Players.  What about  player who can consistently disrupt an offense or make an opponent miss a shot without necessarily blocking the shot or without getting a foul called on him/her?   What about a defender who is so annoying and disruptive that the other team begins to bicker among themselves rather than pay attention to their coach?  What about a team that values forcing an opponent to turnover the ball or throw a bad pass as much as making a 3-pointer?  What about a team that values and rewards a teammate who boxes out their opponent or executes an offensive play to perfection as much as a high-flying rebound or a ESPN highlight-worthy slam dunk?  

A good team has what it needs to meet the moment: A clutch performer, a grinder, a utility player, a flashy star. An effective team is one that finds places for each to make a contribution. When success ensues, everyone is happy.  

All winning teams need the kind of player whose skills and talent are matched or exceeded by his ability to distract an opponent, someone whose performance can be as upsetting as it is functional. Someone you love having on your side, but someone you can't stand when he's playing against you.  In the old days that was the San Antonio Spurs' Bruce Bowen, now, consider Patrick Beverly of the Houston Rockets.  

Feel and Touch for the Game. A basketball player makes countless decisions during the course of a game. Most of them are barely noticeable: When to drive, when to hold the ball, when to shoot, when to pass, when to attack, when to slow down, when to set a screen, when to clear out. The game is based on the ability to read-and-react quickly, yet many players never quite establish a feel for the game that enables them to be great. A true feel for the game allows a player to figure out how to help his team win.

The same, incidentally, applies to coaches. Lots of coaches are intelligent, hard-working and skilled at motivation and preparation. But the very best coaches can immerse themselves in a game, sense how things are unfolding, and make a substitution or adjustment that alters the game in their team's favor, even if that decision goes against the book or the percentages. If you ask these coaches afterward what was going through their minds at the time, they would be unable to answer. That's because they weren't thinking. They were feeling.  That is also a talent, whether in a coach or a player.  

Work Ethic and Discipline.  Work habits.  Nutrition and training habits.  Rule compliance. Willingness to work hard.  Not only are these things a part of talent, I would argue it's the most important part. A player who works hard can overcome athletic or physical limitations. If he doesn't, all the talent in the world will not make him successful.

Leadership. What, exactly, makes a good leader on and off the court? Yes, one should have charisma and the ability to inspire.   You've got to be able to call a team meeting and set a good example. But a great leader must also be willing to give constructive feedback, and say unpleasant things, even if the person hearing it is a more senior or better player.

It takes a special talent to be able to take charge of one's teammates.  Friendships are on the line as well as making one vulnerable, thereby risking ridicule and hostility. If a leader sees something that displeased him, he lets his teammates know.  See something, say something.    

Energy and Intensity. At first look, it appears that some players and teams have a lot of talent. Some players are tall and graceful and quick off their feet, which is why they might be effective as a shooter, a rebounder, defender, or shot blocker. But even if a player lacks some physical gifts, they can be effective if they play with optimal energy. In my eyes, that type of energy makes him or the team more talented.

Tell me before a game which team is going to play with more energy, and I don't have to ask which one has more physical talent, better runners and jumpers. Chances are, the team with more energy is going to win.

Focus and Concentration. Physical energy is one thing. Mental energy is quite another. Of course they are linked, but only to a point -- it's harder to focus and concentrate when you're fatigued -- but they are two separate abilities. Being an effective player requires the mental ability and conditioning to read game situations, see plays develop, recall the scouting report or a coach's tip (assuming the player has listened to the coach or taken the time to learn) and make instantaneous decisions. Physical quickness is a wonderful asset, but if a player can think and react quickly, he will get to his desired spot before his opponent does.

Think about the number of times you have seen a team lose a tournament or playoff game because of a careless mental error on a late possession. Such mistakes are less likely to occur early in the game when the legs are fresh and the mind is clear. It takes a talented player to keep his mind sharp even when his legs are dead.  Recent games between the Miami Heat and the Brooklyn Nets, as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers, came down to last-second plays which decided the playoff series outcome.

Conditioning. Yes, this can be developed. If you work hard in the weight room, on the court and on the track, you are going to be in better shape. But some athletes have a physiological makeup that prevents them from getting tired the way others do. Much of this is due to biological and environmental factors.

Many basketball players put in the time to get into better condition, yet when a game enters its final minutes, some guys are tired, and others are not. The difference isn't always how hard they work. Some players are simply more talented.  But some players are more resilient and find something inside to meet the challenge and push themselves from within.

Footwork. This may not seem like an intangible, and maybe it isn't, but it is something that many players (and some coaches) ignore. The ability to react in a fraction of a second, move your feet, and apply your weight without losing balance is another rare and overlooked talent.  Footwork takes work and practice. Footwork is what made Hakeem Olajuwon great and many other centers, not so much.

Well, there they are; the intangibles.  Can you think of others?  I would love to hear about them? What else is there to impact and influence?   What intangibles do you consider as a player, coach or manager?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dirk Nowitzki: "I am a Warrior"

"Dirk is all about German precision.  He’s like a surgeon out on the court. He sees the game in slow motion, he knows what’s going to happen and he knows what he needs to do.  And it’s that ability to understand not only what he needs to do but also context is what continues to make him special. 
"He makes it into a science. He’s a student of the game and, in a lot of respects, it helps him because, you know, you’ll see him all the time. He knows how to protect his body, which makes him look really awkward sometimes, but he understands context. When you’re younger, you don’t really understand the context of the short term and the long term and what’s going on. He’s smart. He understands it."
--Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, discussing his veteran All-Star, Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki, 35, is in his 16th season with the Dallas Mavericks.  He has 11 All-Star appearances, 12 All-NBA selections, an MVP, two NBA Finals appearances and an NBA championship as a member of the Mavericks.  

Taken from (01/28/2014).

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Mental Conditioning Wins Again

Monday night, the Florida State Seminoles beat the Auburn Tigers, 34-31, on a last second touchdown to win the final BCS National Championship game in Pasadena, California to determine the college football national championship.

It was a hard-fought game that provided an exciting finish for the ages as the Seminoles overcame a 21-10 deficit in the second half.

The game was also significant in that the SEC champion did not win the national championship for the first time in the last eight tries.  Since January 2006, when Texas defeated USC (also at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena), the SEC champion has also won the national championship.  In fact, the SEC had won 8 of the last 10 national championships before last night.  Alabama, LSU, Florida, and Auburn had all been victorious in the BCS championship game.

What was also extremely important about the last 10 years of BCS champions, is that the Florida State Seminoles, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the USC Trojans, coached respectively by Jimbo Fisher, Nick Saban, and Pete Carroll have all totally embraced mental conditioning as a crucial part of their programming for their players and coaching staff.  Alabama leads the pack with 3 BCS championships in the past 5 years, USC captured one championship and one runner-up trophy during Pete Carroll's tenure, and Florida State won its first championship since January 2000.

Pete Carroll has continued to succeed as coach of the NFL Seattle Seahawks, who have been one of the league's elite the past two years, including having the best record in the NFC and being ranked as the best regular season team for much of this season.

This mounting evidence should be considered the "tipping point" for the establishment of mental conditioning and sports psychology as necessary, legitimate and credible components for attaining and maintaining individual and team peak performance.

Alabama has been at the forefront in the use of mental conditioning coaching.  Their relationship with Trevor Moawad, a mental conditioning coach and the director of the IMG Performance Institute in Bradenton, Fla., is very strong.  Head coach Saban met Moawad while coaching the NFL Miami Dolphins.  Not surprisingly, Moawad also consults with Florida State's football team.

Carroll has a long standing relationship with the Pacific Institute in Seattle and has also installed mental conditioning as a key component of the Seahawks programming, following his success with USC.

In effect, mental conditioning has played a significant role in the participation and performance of 6 teams playing in the last 10 BCS championship games.  This is quite a ringing endorsement.  

So, sports psychologists and mental conditioning coaches, get ready for the onslaught of calls from coaches and players.  The "tide" has turned.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Happy Holidays from the Valdes family.

Happy Holidays from the Valdes family.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

LeBron James & The Absent-Minded Athlete (VIDEO)

In the video above, LeBron James throws down a vicious slam against a capable squad of fellow NBA players defending the play.  How does he do it?

What if the difference between LeBron and most other NBA players is the frequency of his ability to, at least momentarily, forget what he isn't humanly supposed to do?  He forgets to fail.  He forgets his limitations.  

In other words, in a flash, LeBron's brain actually and suddenly malfunctions.  Rather than his brain's cortex filling his head with logical, reasonable reasons why he can't possibly beat his defender and the rest of the defending team to the basket, his cortex sends no message at all.  It short-circuits.  His ability to perform remarkable play after play is that his brain receives nothing to suggest possible (or certain) failure.  What if his brain's failure is the key to his success?  What if, at the moment of truth, LeBron and any other player in the NBA literally forgets what isn't or shouldn't be possible?  

By the same token, the opponents that failed to defend on the play allowed their individual cortex to work and their collective thinking functioned perfectly. Their experience with LeBron suggested that they wouldn't be able to stop him.  They were right, and, they failed.

What if mental conditioning is all about teaching your brain's cortex to malfunction?  What if LeBron James has learned how to conveniently forget what he can't or shouldn't be able to do?  Maybe what he is the best at is successfully shutting down his brain.  

Never mind, that's ludicrous.  I can tell people that.  That idea will never really take hold.  I wish I could make that thought go away.  I need to return to my senses.  I had better forget why mental conditioning works.  Wait a minute, what? Now, I'm confused.  More on this later.  

For more examples of possible brain malfunctions, watch this Top Ten Plays Video from last night:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Applause: Lady Gaga and the NBA (VIDEO)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Handling Success as Important as Handling Failure

Over the weekend, several NFL television commentators discussed the issue of parity in the league.  As a result of a topsy turvy first 3 weeks of the 2013 season, these experts felt that many teams, coaches and players were not preparing themselves adequately from week to week.  The number of upsets by underdogs was considered as evidence of a lack of focus on the part of the favorites, not just the parity between teams. Their take on it was that many teams were having a difficult time dealing with early season success. Complacency and arrogance were likely to derail the most talented teams. according to the commentators. Early season success was followed by thoughts that all these teams had to do was show up against weaker opponents to take home the win.  It was pointed out that every NFL team can be beaten by every other NFL team on any given Sunday. Taking a team lightly is risky for any team at this point in the season.  

It is easy to see how early season losses can be demoralizing or, perhaps, help re-orient a team; however, on the surface, it is more difficult to see how winning can derail or stop momentum and distract a team as well.

My experience is that many elite athletes and teams have as much or more difficulty bouncing back from a win as they do bouncing back from a defeat.  Both wins and losses are risky in that they each require athletes to refocus equally after a game or any competition, regardless of the outcome.

Some athletes are more likely to understand that they can learn more from a loss than any win than others. Too often, complacency can occur when players feel post-game satisfaction but do not feel motivated to seek to improve on a win.  A defeat is often able to get our attention much more effectively than winning is able to do.  However, it is important to learn from success as well as failure.

Emotional resilience (which I have written about a great deal in recent blog posts) is typically associated with the adversity of defeat.  For mental conditioning to be optimally effective, we must consider true emotional resilience to also include how to deal with success.  How to sustain focus in the wake or success is more difficult that we typically think.  Complacency after a win is as commonplace as demoralization after a loss.  

Next time you feel the exhilaration of success; celebrate, enjoy, relax, and then, get back to work, analyze, debrief, learn and focus on the next challenge.