Basketball on the Edge – The Jungle Lion & Player Development


A lion that lives in the zoo and a lion that lives in the jungle. They have the same genetic make-up and yet the jungle lion is much stronger, more cunning, and able to survive under a variety of conditions. Why is that and how does it apply to developing basketball players?

I recently read the book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012) written by Nassim Taleb. In the book, Taleb describes the zoo animal as fragile because it has adapted to a comfortable lifestyle where all its needs are taken care of regardless of the animal’s behavior. It depends on the zookeeper, the veterinarian, and others to keep it alive. The zoo animal never faces adversity, its life is easy and predictable. The zoo animal would suffer if it ever faced adversity and unpredictability in the jungle. On the other hand, the jungle animal is antifragile. Adversity and unpredictability make it stronger because it learns from its experiences and adapts. When it can’t find prey it must try a new strategy. When there is no water it must travel to find it. The jungle animal tries, fails, adapts, and learns.

What are some ways that we can develop basketball players using this analogy? I’ve already written about the benefits of random practice and how well it translates to game performance. Let’s take the discussion a step further. When I was a kid I spent hours on my own playing basketball. I didn’t have a coach, or a skills trainer, or a speed-strength expert to lean on other than my Dad. To cite Taleb’s analogy, I learned the game in the jungle not in the zoo.

I was a fixture at the local outdoor courts from the time I was in 7th grade. I made sure I was the first player to show up so I could always get in the first game. There was no guarantee anybody would want a skinny 12 year old on their team if they wanted to win. I played against high school players, college players, and adults. Just like the lion in the jungle I had to adapt my game in order to survive. I learned to pass and keep older players happy. I learned how to be strong with the ball so I wouldn’t turn it over. I learned to finish at the basket without getting my shot blocked. I learned to speak up for myself trying to get onto a team or stand up for myself when I called a foul. I failed a lot, probably more than I remember. But, I stayed with it. I adapted. I learned. I became a better player.

Today’s player usually only plays against kids their own age, in an indoor gym, with coaches and officials, and with mom and dad in the stands. It is easy for today’s players to become the zoo lion. Things are predictable. They go to practice when the coach says. Their dad arranges for them to work with a skills trainer, but they never pick up a ball outside of those sessions. They don’t just play. They don’t experiment. They can’t adapt. They struggle to learn the game. They never experience losing a pick-up game and having to wait an hour before they can play again. They never experience that hunger of wanting to get back out on the court and compete. Everything is done for them.

Kids today don’t have the same freedoms that I had and I know we are not going back to the time that I grew up. That is not what I am suggesting. Parenting is different now, but is it really better for our kids? We should allow our kids and our players more opportunities to experience trial and error, to experience failure. Errors and failure lead us to rethink what we are doing and come up with our own alternative solution. Rather than giving out answers, the best teachers and coaches ask questions. Why did that happen? What could you have done differently? What worked and what didn’t? Those are questions that we used to answer on our own at the park. Zoo lions don’t know the answers to those questions, they just do what the coach tells them to do.

The very best in sports or in life are typically those with grit. They are resilient. When something doesn’t go their way they become even more determined, more driven to prove that the adversity they faced in the jungle is not going to stop them. Sure, in the jungle you fail more often. You experience more disappointment. But in the end you adapt and come out tougher on the other side. That’s what the jungle lions do. That’s what all of us should do too.

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