The Secret to Playing Your Best Basketball

The answer to this question will not be to do more drills, practice more, play more games, or to play against better competition.  Surprise! These are all important, but none of them are the most important thing to know. Now that I have your attention, read on.

I have had the opportunity to work with many promising young players who possess loads of skill and potential. During the years we have also seen a few of those same players struggle in game situations, seemingly unable to match their skill potential to game production. Sometimes, the on-court struggle becomes so bad that the player finds themselves riding the pine, only to play more awful every time they see the court.

This scenario is also one of the most widely asked questions we get from coaches: that possessing skill does not necessarily guarantee success on the court or in a game.  This question is usually followed up with the quote “I have this one player who is a gym rat and can do all the drills, but….”  You can guess the rest.  The scenario they point out can be very true.

It doesn’t make logical sense to extrapolate that to all basketball players – more skill generally means better production. But, there is a common cause for this particular situation, and today’s post provides a secret to any player to escape this scenario should they encounter it.  And guess what – most of you have a high probability of encountering it as you continue to play against better and better competition.

The Cause

The primary cause of mental lock up – which prevents a player from playing “free” of distractions during a game, with perfect focus, and amazing production – is a disconnect between a player’s expectations of themselves and the team’s needs to win.

Let me be more precise.   Every time I see a player struggle over a long period of time, when their skill says they should not be struggling,  EVERY TIME, it is due to the player entering a season or a game with a pre-set expectation of what should happen.

For example, a player thinks that they are a 25 point per game scorer before the season begins, but during the first three games, they score only 5, 10 and 8 points.  Soon, the player starts to panic.  He or she hears the voices from a parent, from friends, from imaginary scouts in the gym.   “What’s wrong ?”  “Why aren’t you scoring more – you should be scoring more”   “You’re not going to earn your scholarship, all-conference, etc.”

Then, the spiral starts to happen.  The player starts to compete with other players on the team who might be scoring more, fearful that another player is going to get that scholarship, or get noticed.  Now, instead of playing to beat the other team, the player starts to try to beat their own teammates in games.  They begin to press their game, almost as if in a panic.

Now in an attempt to do even more, they take chances on defense, and get burned.  They make more turnovers, their shot gets a little stiff and stops going in, and the basket shrinks so that it looks like it’s only 2 inches in diameter.   Now, the coach starts to look at the stat sheet and notices that the player who was supposed to be a top contributor is shooting only 20% from the field and turning it over 6 times a game.  Worse – they are making mistakes on defense and bringing the team down.

When this happens, the coach has no choice but to find other players who might be less skilled but more focused, and bench time ensues. Because of this, the player starts to blame the coach for the struggles, and the coach senses this and gives up on the player, relegating the player to mop up minutes.

Sound familiar?  Have you seen this happen?   I have and it happened to me once.  It’s a very frustrating cycle that can spiral into a complete collapse of confidence and a miserable basketball experience.  I don’t wish it on anyone, but I see it happen all too often. Thankfully, there is a simple, powerful cure to stop this cycle.

The Cure

When I see players enter this cycle and I hear the blame moving towards teammates or coaches, I dedicate an entire session to talking about the only thing that matters. If players can grasp the only thing that matters, and understand the importance of it, then the player magically starts to play free again within a matter of a few games, finally matching their potential.  The secret has nothing to do with physical skill.

What is the only thing that matters? Focusing on the rim more?  Nope. Playing better defense? Not really. More practice time?  Not even close.

The only thing that matters, and the only thing a player should focus on during a game, is the scoreboard.  More importantly, focus on the score.  At every point in the game the player should only ask themselves questions surrounding the score. Are we winning?  Are we winning by enough?  What can I do to help us win.  Period. That is it. Think of nothing else.

When you put all of your energy into a simple goal that says I am going to do whatever it takes to win, then what happens is that you free your mind to focus on only one thing.  And the more focus your mind has will have a direct effect on how well you make decisions (fewer turnovers, better defense) how confidently you make them (better shooting, penetration) and how well your energy transfers to your teammates (better chemistry).  Magically, your coach starts to notice your production and his or her confidence builds in you.  You get more playing time and start to produce even more. And soon, your team is on a winning streak.

In the end, the best players ever in the game knew this secret.  They were winners and focused everything on winning.  Period.   Don’t believe me?   Ask Bill Russell who was awarded the Medal of Freedom this week for being one of the greatest winners of all time.  Funny thing – he wasn’t much of a scorer.  He seemed to do everything in his power and to his skill to win.  And he won at every level.  I guarantee you that Bill Russell focused his mind on winning games.   There are countless other examples just like him.

The answer, the secret, may seem too simple, but clearing the voices from your head is very tough.  The best way to do it is to focus.  By far the most effective, productive, focus point for you mind that will lead to wild success for you is to focus it on the scoreboard, and to always ask yourself what do I need to be doing right now to win this game.