Basketball on the Edge – How you can compete with players that are better “athletes” than you?

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I recently read the transcript of a conversation between Jim Thompson, Founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, and Brad Stevens, Coach of the Boston Celtics, the following paragraph is an excerpt from that interview.

I don’t think it’s a big secret. I think it all depends on how you define talent because in a lot of ways we were as talented as anybody in the country. Maybe not from a traditional basketball sense, individual to individual, though we had some very talented individuals, but we had as tough guys, physically and mentally, we had incredibly savvy players; we had guys that were all in for the team, were all in for one goal. I think, at the end of the day, those are all talents and those are all skills; I’ve heard people use the phrase “You need to be great at the things that take no talent” by being a good teammate, by being tough, by being on time, by doing all of those things every single day. Well, the longer I’m in it, the more I think those are talents in and of themselves. The best of the best can live and play with a clear mind and play with a real unselfish attitude and that’s what those teams had. I mean, they were the highest level of that in every which way. They were chock full of people that raised the energy level in the room and that didn’t care who got the glory. That’s what made it a lot of fun.

Let’s pull out one line from that paragraph, “Be great at the things that take no talent.” Although Stevens makes the case that many of those things he mentioned are in fact “talents”, the reality is that they are things that a player can control; being a great teammate, being on time, being tough. There is one thing that Coach Stevens did not mention specifically in this quote that I believe players can make one of their greatest strengths. It is not a “talent” in the traditional sense, but it has a tremendous effect on a player’s performance in games. I know that when I was a player it was something that enabled me to perform at high level against players that were arguably more “talented” than me. What was it?

Conditioning!

Simply put I was able to run longer and play harder than my opponents for sustained periods of time. That did not require “talent”. It did require me to put in the effort to be in great physical condition. Why is being in great shape such a key to improving a player’s in game performance? Let’s examine several reasons why conditioning can be one of your greatest strengths as a player.

1. It’s a great way to demoralize your opponent.

There were times I played against an opponent and I could see in their facial expressions that they were sick of chasing me around the court. Several times I can remember, other players would flat out ask me, “Don’t you ever stop moving?” I did my best to stay on the move all the time. I may not have been the fastest player end to end in a one-time sprint, but time after time after time leading to the 4th quarter? I believed I could outrun my defenders simply because I would run harder than they would. That led to easy baskets for me or my teammates. It is demoralizing to play against a player that just doesn’t stop. Being in better shape than your opponent gives you a mental edge before you even step on the floor and that edge continues to grow throughout the game as your opponent realizes they can’t keep up.

2. It gives you an edge when you and your opponent have similar basketball skill levels.

If two players have equal skill levels and one player is in better shape that player will have the advantage. If you can play at peak effort longer than the player you are competing with, eventually you will gain the advantage. That goes for competing with a teammate for a spot in the starting lineup or trying to win a game against another team.

3. It makes life miserable for a great offensive player.

No player enjoys being hounded all over the floor by a defender that just keeps coming at them no matter what. That type of defender is annoying. Offensive players prefer to go against someone that will relax or take it easy on occasion. If you are in great condition YOU can become the defender that offensive players hate to be matched up against.

4. It boosts mental toughness.

To get in great shape players must push themselves through physical and mental barriers. By extending yourself past your own perceived limits during training you will be better equipped to summon the mental fortitude required to overcome difficult obstacles during a game. In essence, you are not only training your body, but also your mind, to fight through difficult or challenging circumstances and come out victorious on the other side.

5. It actually improves your basketball skills.

How you ask? Think about times that you have tried to perform any physical skill when you were tired. Your ability to perform the skill was most likely diminished. The fact is that you are not as effective shooting, passing, dribbling, or making decisions when you are fatigued. Therefore, it stands to reason that if you are not tired throughout the game, your ability to execute will remain at a high level, while those players in poor condition will likely see their performance drop off as they become fatigued.

I truly believe that one of my greatest strengths as a player was my ability to work harder and longer than my opponents. I took great pride in being in the best possible physical condition. (Although I often wish that I was growing up today with the knowledge we have about training and nutrition that wasn’t widespread when I was playing).

Every player can control their conditioning. Think about this quote from Kevin Garnett, “Your greatest asset should be your work ethic.” Make a commitment to get yourself in great shape if you want to be a great player. Be willing to do what few others will do and pay the price of being the best conditioned player on your team. You’ll reap the rewards now and for seasons to come!

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