Basketball on the Edge – Want To Play Better In Big Moments? Play Normal!


Two minutes left in the biggest game of the season.  League championship on the line.  Stands are packed with fans.  Situations like this are what separate great players from average players.  Great players seem to “rise” to the occasion more often than not.  Why do the best players come up big in big spots while other players seem to shrink when the game is on the line?  What can we learn from how great players approach “important” moments in a game?

Take Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  I had an opportunity to work at his basketball camp this summer.  Kyrie took some time at camp to answer questions from campers and parents.  One of the questions was “How did you make that game winning shot in game 7 over Steph Curry.?”  Kyrie answered by saying that he had practiced that same shot thousands of times and had used that move in games repeatedly throughout the season.  He said that he knew he could make it because he had done it so many times before.  Kyrie also responded to a similar question about the shot by saying that he was not afraid to take the shot.  He said that fear is just something that our mind creates and he did not fear missing the shot.  In fact, his preparation for that moment gave him confidence to perform at his peak when many players simply wouldn’t be able to sustain their level of play under that type of pressure.

Here’s what I took away from Kyrie’s answer.  This is not what he said, but I think this is what he meant, “I was able to make the biggest shot of my career over two-time MVP Steph Curry because I performed at my “normal” level despite the pressure.  Although it may have looked to you, the fan, like I did something unusual, in fact, that shot was something I routinely work on in practice and take in games.  It may look like I was raising my game in that moment, but really other players around me were more likely playing “worse” than normal making me look even better.”

What can players, coaches, and parents learn from Kyrie Irving?

Players – Being mentally tough in those big moments doesn’t require something extraordinary, rather it just requires a player to play their normal game while others around them don’t play so well.  How can a player get to that point? I believe players need to treat every practice and game situation like it’s important.  Here’s a quote that fits this situation perfectly, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”  If everything is important then the difference between a “big game” and a day of training in the gym will be lessened allowing the player be at their best all the time.  Skill building is confidence building.  If you’ve done it before, why wouldn’t you be able to do it again?

Coaches – Players shouldn’t have to be told how “important” a game is or that they really need to play well in order to win.  Instead, coaches should encourage their players to play the way they always do.  Make the “normal” practice environment important and challenging so that players will be used to playing in important moments.  This takes discussion and effort to develop in your players over the course of a season.  It’s not just a quick “Play like we always do!” pep talk in the huddle before a game.  The mindset that every basketball moment is important and treated as such has to be cultivated by the coach’s actions and words throughout the year.

Parents – Stress the importance of everyday improvement with your child.  Don’t tell your young player to do something they are not capable of or haven’t practiced just prior to a game.  That will put even more pressure on them.

We want to protect our kids from disappointment, but the more that kids can see that disappointments, losses, and mistakes are survivable, ordinary moments of life, the less pressure they will feel and the more likely they will be to play to their “normal” level.

Kyrie Irving’s game winning shot in game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals didn’t come out of nowhere.  He did something he had done thousands of times before, only this time the stakes were much higher.  It wasn’t an extraordinary shot, it was just “normal” for Kyrie.

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