Gospel-centered Basketball

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It has been a tremendous blessing to get to coach the 12U/14U boys for the Dallas Thunder basketball organization so far this season. I have the great privilege of serving as a basketball coach to implement my gifts in gospel-centered basketball training, player development, and workout efficiency. My job is to help the kids have fun, with hopes of leading by example and facilitating growth in student athletes, both in their faith and in their athletic abilities.

The Christian faith and the game of basketball aren’t exactly strangers to each other. Basketball’s originator, Dr. James Naismith, was a MD and a divinity doctorate who loved athletics. In his youth he excelled in boxing, gymnastics, soccer, and rugby. While working at a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) training school in Springfield, Massachusetts, he invented the game “Basket Ball.” Dr. Naismith believed that clean, hard, and square athletic competition was a conduit to spiritual righteousness. He even referred to the union sometimes as “muscular Christianity,” and he believed his new game would help spread the message of the Gospel.

Both in the game of basketball and in the Christian walk throughout life, there are some things we want to strive to do:

• To go the distance.

Finishing what you have started is a trait that is admirable and biblical. There will be numerous obstacles and situations that will try to deter you from finishing strong. God never quit on anything or anyone. He encourages believers throughout Scripture to persevere (2nd Timothy 4:7-8).

• We will all experience disappointment.

Everyone faces disappointment in something at one time or another. All frustration and disappointment is birthed out of unmet expectations. It is our reaction to the disappointment and our understanding of who is really in charge of our life that makes the difference in the amount of time it takes us to move on. Because hope is birthed out of a knowledge of something greater than ourselves and greater than our present circumstances (Philippians 2:13-14).

• Change in life is inevitable.

In the Bible there was a guy named Saul that was doing some pretty mean things to Christians to say the least. Then he radically changed his direction and role after encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus. Changing our attitudes, directions, and roles gives us the ability to go the distance in life (Acts 9:21). Real change won’t happen through ‘trying harder,’ but only through encountering the radical grace of God. This change may come through many different experiences (Jesus won’t always show up on a road-trip, knock us out of our vehicle, and blind us with His glory…); but it always takes some experience of beauty to knock us out of our self-centeredness. Many people have to admit that most of what they really needed for success in life came to them through their most difficult and painful experiences. Some look back on an illness or great setback, and recognize that it was an irreplaceable season of personal and spiritual growth for them (Ephesians 2; Colossians 1:11-23).

• There are differences in people.

Remember, this is a game. Respect your team and your opponent. Show humility about your role and talent level. True humility is not an abject, groveling, self-despising spirit; it is but a right estimate of ourselves as God sees us. Humility is so shy; if you begin talking about it, it leaves… as C.S. Lewis eloquently explained, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” (Proverbs 15:33, 18:12, 22:4, Matthew 18:4, 23:12; Luke 14:11; Romans 12:3; Ephesians 4:1-6; Philippians 2:3-11; 1st Peter 5:5-7)

• We all have different roles in life and on a team.

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

(Romans 12:3-8; 1st Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:1-16)

• We will all face some giants.

We don’t have to be superstars or win championships… All we have to do is learn to rise to every occasion, give our best effort, and make those around us better as we do it. – John Wooden

Give your best effort every time, whether it’s a game or practice. Discipline and self-control are much easier for us when our hearts and affections are stirred for something greater than ourselves (Philippians 3:12-16; 4:8-20).

• Making the move away or towards something.

Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece – by thought, choice, courage, and determination. – John Luther

Everyone is faced with major decisions in their life. In the game of basketball we are constantly making decisions during practice, training, and games that will affect the outcome of our basketball career. In life, we also have a decision to make when we encounter the Gospel of Christ; whether to accept or deny God and His plan for salvation. Those whom the Father is drawing to Him, cannot outrun Him. One of the most rewarding moments of human existence is taking part in the journey of someone making the decision to accept the free gift of salvation (Acts 4:12).

• Honor the Creator of our bodies by stewarding our health well.

We should aim to steer a middle course between idolizing our bodies and neglecting them. This includes giving our bodies enough attention (with sleep, balanced diet, exercise, and upkeep) to avoid being distractingly unattractive and maintaining poor health, and reining in our impulses to pursue a self-focused attractiveness that distracts and seeks our own glory over God.

Both the most sculpted and ripped male body, and the most curvy voluptuous female body you have ever seen in your life are going to be ashen faced in a coffin before we know it. When that day comes, where will be all the investments in that temporary, outward beauty? The sad truth: in the ground.

Your body is a precious gift from God. And the Bible is clear about its highest purpose: To make God look good (1st Corinthians 6:19–20; Philippians 1:20; 1st Peter 3:3-4).

• Doing our best to finish strong.

Finishing strong does not mean finishing unblemished. Finishing strong does not mean finishing perfect. Finishing the right way does not always mean you win the gold medal or receive the grand prize. Finishing the right way means you have done things to the best of your ability and in the fairest possible way. In life, we don’t finish strong by focusing on the finish line because we don’t know where the finish line is. We finish strong by fixing our eyes on Jesus. The Lord Jesus has given everyone gifts and skills and will help us finish the race in a way glorifying to God (Philippians 3:12-21).

It’s an honor to have the opportunity to help young student athletes to know more of Christ and live a more Christ-centered life at home, in the classroom, on the court, and everywhere in between. God’s Word is the authoritative structure of my life and my coaching career (Colossians 3:16-17).

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Some Life Lessons from Basketball

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Basketball, and sports in general, can be a great metaphor for life. For example, in the course of a basketball game, many analogies can be made to what transpires in a person’s life. The ups and downs, the challenges, the adversities, and what it takes to meet them head on.

The dynamics in the game of basketball very much correspond to what takes place in life. As in basketball, so in life:

1. Learn and “master” the fundamentals of the game.

Before you can play the game of basketball you must learn the basics or fundamentals – how to play the game, how to pass, to dribble, run the court, and shoot the ball. You have to develop the necessary skills to play at an acceptable level.

I discovered early on that the player who learned the fundamentals of basketball is going to have a much better chance of succeeding and rising through the levels of competition than the player who was content to do things his own way. A player should be interested in learning why things are done a certain way. The reasons behind the teaching often go a long way to helping develop the skill… Good things take time, as they should. We shouldn’t expect good things to happen overnight. Actually, getting something too easily or too soon can cheapen the outcome. – John Wooden

Lesson: In life you must also learn the basics. You must establish what it (life) is, what it means to you, and want you from it. You must then develop the requisite skills and strategies for attaining your goals.

2. Be prepared both mentally and physically.

Elite athletes know that you can’t function optimally or win games if you’re not prepared both mentally and physically. You must be in great physical shape to withstand a long, grueling and demanding basketball game (and especially for an entire season). Equally important, you must have mental fitness. Mental fitness includes a positive, willing, and winning mindset. One without the other will not win games.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail… There is no substitute for work. Worthwhile results come from hard work and careful planning. – John Wooden

Lesson: Being prepared mentally and physically is equally essential in life.

3. Be unselfish and a team player.

Basketball is a team sport, which means it requires contribution and co-operation from every member in order to play well and win. Everyone must focus, work together, and fulfill their individual roles for the common good of the team.

As great of a player that Michael Jordan was, he did not win any championships until he learned to involve his teammates by trusting them and distributing the ball.

In one of the highest scoring games of his career, where he scored 63 points and set a playoff game record, his team lost to the Boston Celtics. In a sport where individual greatness is in large part measured by winning a championship ring, personal glory does not get the job done. Not even players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, or Lebron James can win championships by themselves.

Much more can be accomplished by teamwork when no one is concerned about who gets credit… We don’t have to be superstars or win championships… All we have to do is learn to rise to every occasion, give our best effort, and make those around us better as we do it. – John Wooden

Lesson: So it is with life. Contribute, co-operate, and share.

4. Be alert and aware. Anticipate the play.

The greatest players in basketball have all been credited for having extraordinary court vision and awareness. Pete Maravich, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and other great players knew exactly where everyone was on the court, the other players’ tendencies, and which plays would work against the different teams. The ability to anticipate and be ready for a play made them active, rather than reactive, players in a game. It’s one of the factors that separates the great players from good players.

Each of us has a huge capacity to learn and to achieve. Being ever alert makes the task of becoming all we are capable of becoming so much easier… When we aren’t alert, we miss opportunities to improve ourselves. We should always watch for circumstances or situations that can help or harm us and be eager to learn from these encounters. – John Wooden

Lesson: Being conscious and aware in life sets the stage for greater achievement.

5. If the plays aren’t working, re-adjust the game plan.

Every great basketball player knows that when your plays aren’t working you have to adjust, and then adjust some more. The varying strengths and styles of different opponents require different tactics. You have to be able to withstand and respond to whichever attacks an opponent uses on you. Sometimes a player/team will have a weakness at a certain position, will be vulnerable to a certain type of offense/defense, or have difficulty guarding a certain type of player or style of play; good players, teams, and coaches notice these things and adapt to exploit them to their benefit.

The greatest fault is to be conscious of none. – Thomas Carlyle

If we fail to adapt, we fail to move forward… Failure is not fatal, but failure to change can be… The man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success… If you do not have time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over? – John Wooden

Lesson: Life presents us with many challenges for which we must adjust our game plan.

6. Never give up on the play. Persevere.

Another characteristic common to the brilliance of players like Pete Maravich, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Reggie Miller, and Tim Duncan was that they never gave up on a play. When they missed shots they would be the ones to retrieve their own rebounds, dive for loose balls, outwit defenders, and make every last second count (many times it did). They were willing to do the small things that the statistics didn’t reflect. Many a dagger was thrust into an opponent’s heart by these players when the outcome of the game seemed a foregone conclusion. Why? Because they never gave up. Not on the play, not on the game, not on themselves!

Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts… Success is piece of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming… Remember, results aren’t the criteria for success – it’s the effort made for achievement that is most important. – John Wooden

Lesson: Persevere. Never, ever, ever give up.

7. Win more games than you lose, but accept both victory and defeat graciously.

No matter what sport you play, you can’t win every game. In a 7 game championship series, two evenly matched teams often win only one more game than they’ve lost. Sometimes that deciding game is even only by a few points. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to win a championship. If you give it everything you’ve got, no matter what the outcome, you can walk away with your head held high. The San Antonio Spurs‘ team from 2013 is a prime example of a team that lost a game 7 World Championship with grace, class, and great poise. It was a devastating loss for them after having come so close to winning it all in game 6 and losing game 7 at the wire, but they walked off the court celebrating and congratulating the Miami Heat on their win.

Learn what it takes to win and come back and try again. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Lebron James and many other players before they won, lost many, many games and championships. They had to learn to experience and accept defeat before they understood what it took to win.

If we magnified blessings as much as we magnify disappointments, we would all be much happier… Perfection is what you are striving for, but perfection is an impossibility. However, striving for perfection is not an impossibility. Do the best you can under the conditions that exist. That is what counts… You can always look back and see where you might have done something differently, changed this or that. If you can learn something, fine, but never second-guess yourself. It’s wasted effort… Does worrying about it, complaining about it, change it? Nope, it just wastes your time. And if you complain about it to other people, you’re also wasting their time. Nothing is gained by wasting all of that time. – John Wooden

Lesson: So it is with life. Everything will not always go your way. There will be both losses and wins. If you give everything your best shot and learn these lessons along the way, you will come out a winner.

Why “Player Handouts” Every Week?

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Each week we only get to hold organized team practice for a combined four hours. There is only so much that can be said, only so much that can be covered in this allotted time. So, in addition to the physical training that takes place during the scheduled practice time, I try to pass out a couple handouts to my players. These handouts consist of a short article I found or wrote for the team, along with another page I refer to as “the player of the week.” The player of the week handout portion contains a page with a brief biographical summary of one of the legendary basketball greats like Pete Maravich, John Stockton, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Ervin “Magic” Johnson, David Robinson, etc. I want the kids to know more about the game and be more familiar with some of the incredible players who have impacted history by stepping on a basketball court. However, my hopes aren’t simply for the guys to have more knowledge of the game’s rich history.

My hope is that we all walk away from this season with more of Jesus. It would be a monumental failure on my part as a coach if my players walk away at the end of a season with just an increased ability to put an orange ball through a hoop ten feet in the air. It is a great loss for us all if we end the season with more W’s than any other team, but Christ is not reflected in our lives. I care far more about our relationship with our Heavenly Father than our efficiency to outscore opponents in a basketball game.

Now do I want us to win in our games? Yes, absolutely… always. But I do not want us to be so short-sided that we are willing to trade depth in life, depth in our relationship with God, for a couple extra W’s and a few more points on our stat sheet. We need to remember that basketball is just a game; but at the same time it is so much more than a game. It can be a microcosm of life. Through playing basketball we can learn more about ourselves, we can develop discipline, drive, courage, determination, and leadership. We can learn how to better deal with both success and disappointment, with rapid change and unmet expectations, and how to better interact with others like us and those who are different in many ways.

So this game really can be an incredible part of our life. Basketball is so much more than tossing a ball through a basket. The benefits of the game go well beyond physical exercise and conditioning. It is a great sport (in my opinion the greatest organized sport of all), but it should never be ultimate in our lives.

“Basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere.” – John Wooden

5 Traits of Great Basketball Leaders

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Basketball leaders are made, not simply born, with qualities developed through their experiences both on and off the court. Great leaders, coaches like Larry Brown and Phil Jackson, and players like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, learn from their failures and use them to improve their ability to motivate, inspire, and ultimately to win. Like anything else, if you want to improve your leadership skills, you must devote effort and attention. However, you also need to understand the special qualities of basketball leadership. Review the five traits discussed below, and use them to help mold yourself into a more respected player on your team and in your league.

1. Character

Character is what defines you as a person. It is the sum of your values, beliefs, and behavior. One quality that is particularly valuable for basketball leadership is integrity. Coaches and players with integrity have positive values, principles, and actions. They are consistent in their beliefs, and they strive to be a positive inspiration for their team and others.

“Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece – by thought, choice, courage, and determination.” – John Luther

“A winner is someone who recognizes their God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.” – Larry Bird

Example: Before you try to motivate your fellow teammates to play hard, evaluate your own effort and communication. Are you modeling the values that you yourself want to promote?

How to Improve: Personally commit yourself to developing more consistency. If you want your team to work harder, make sure you are consistently playing to the best of your ability. If you want your team to focus, first improve your own focus.

2. Commitment

As a leader, you must be committed to achieving daily, weekly, and ultimate goals. If you want to be a better player, completely commit yourself to the team. Don’t give up when it gets difficult. Stay focused on what you want to achieve.

Example: If you realize that you’re not giving 100 percent effort all the time, commit to doing so.

How to Improve: Recognize the steps you need to take to improve. If you want to play at the next level, you’ll have to commit time between games (and even between organized practices) to develop your skills, practice techniques, routines, and plays.

3. Communication

How good are you at communicating with your coach and fellow players? Basketball leaders improve their teams by refocusing teammates on what matters and voicing ideas in ways that motivate, not offend, others and do not disrupt the chemistry of the team.

Example: Your fellow teammate made a costly turnover. What can you say to keep your team’s confidence high?

How to Improve: Speak clearly and project your voice, watching for reactions from team members. Make sure you are motivating and inspiring others for better performance. Be sensitive to how and when you should communicate your message.

4. Self-Discipline

Players with self-discipline take the right action regardless of their emotional state. At some point, you will be tired, angry, agitated, stressed, or annoyed; however, your attitude and ability to persevere should not change.

Example: You’ve had a terrible day, and you’re tired and agitated. You are participating in an important practice for your team’s upcoming big game. How will you react if things begin to break down in practice? Will you stay motivated and cheerfully give 100 percent?

How to Improve: All emotional states are temporary. Refocus on the upcoming task instead of what you are feeling at the moment. Give your all, regardless of the situation.

5. Learning from Mistakes

No one is perfect. When you make mistakes, take the time to analyze and learn from them. Doing this will continually improve your leadership skills. You have to realize when you said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Great leaders realize when they are wrong and admit it.

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

Example: A teammate yells at another teammate, and you missed the opportunity to help settle a heated situation.

How to Improve: Realize that you made a mistake by missing the opportunity. If the chance presents itself again, take action. If you don’t have an occasion to correct your mistake, think about how you will handle a similar situation in the future.

As a player or coach, you can improve your basketball leadership traits by evaluating your character, commitment, communication style, self-discipline, and ability to learn from mistakes. It will take time, effort, and commitment to improve. However, the results should encourage and inspire you to help your team in the long run.

Basketball: Without the Basketball

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There are some things about the game of basketball that we all know and fully comprehend, but sometimes we don’t seem to notice all the implications of that basic, simple, and common knowledge. For example, we all know that there is only one basketball used to play with in a game. During an organized league game there are ten players on the court, with five players on each team actively playing. Only one player can control or have possession of the basketball at any given moment. Only one player at a time can dribble or shoot the ball. In whatever the league, however long the quarter or half is played, there will always be nine players who are playing the game without the ball currently in their hands. This obvious knowledge can actually tell us a lot more about this great game.

As a player, it is very important to have good ball-handling skills, to make moves with the basketball in order to avoid having it stolen, to make clean passes, and to be able to shoot well. However, 9 out of 10 players on the court will be playing without the ball in their hands at every given moment of the game. So the chances are pretty high for any particular player to not have the ball for the vast majority of the game. This leads us to realize that there is going to be a great necessity for understanding and playing the game without having a basketball in your hands.

So again, during the game, all but one of the players will be moving without the basketball. This means that your skill level to dribble and shoot the ball are only part of the game. While those parts are very essential and require a lot of time and effort to develop and refine, the majority of the time during a game actually consists of how well you play without the ball in your hands. It won’t be that great of a value to a team if you can shoot lights out, but you are slow, don’t play defense well, can’t even get open on offense, and just seem to get in the way by being out of position when the ball isn’t in your hands.

Remember… movement is life. If you’re not moving, you’re not living. (And don’t be silly or pedantic; even when you are sleeping or just standing still, your heart is beating and body parts are operating internally to keep you alive.) In the game of basketball, we are required to have constant ball movement, but also constant movement without the ball. All this movement without the ball must still have an actual purpose. All five players on the court should constantly be working together as one unit, with one common goal: score more points than the other team. Whether the ball is in your hands or not, there are aspects of the game that go well beyond your ability to manipulate a round, orange object. Here are some absolutes for the game when there isn’t a ball in your hands:

1. Each player should always know where the ball is at on the court and who has the ball.

2. Each player should be anticipating what others players are about to do and where the ball might possibly go next.

3. Each player should be comfortable setting screens and coming off screens.

4. Each player on offense should be looking to get open for a pass, or set someone else up to get open. We should be spread out or bunched up tactfully in order to create the right spacing needed for the best possible quality shot.

5. Every player needs good court vision. We must survey the court and quickly process where everyone is, where they are headed, and how to exploit any holes or weaknesses in the opposing team.

6. Each player should be moving on offense, not just the point guard bringing the ball down. Whether you are setting a screen, setting your defender up for a screen, flashing through the lane, posting up on the block, darting up to the top of the key, rotating to the backside, drawing the defense away from another player to set up an opening, or sliding up to the elbow to create better spacing during a set play, you should always be moving.

7. Whenever the ball is shot, the ball becomes fair game on a miss, and you should want that rebound. We should all be crashing the boards; this is not merely the job or role of a post player. Anyone and everyone is allowed to rebound the basketball, not just the 4 or 5 position.

8. Every player should be hustling up and down the court on both offense and defense. No team can function properly if all five guys are cherry-picking or snowbirding on every single possession; somebody has to rebound the ball after all. We have to fill the lanes and run on offense, but we must also do the same on defense. On the way back downcourt, everyone should be locating where their man is, where the ball is, if anyone is out of position, and if help is needed on the ball or an opponent who is currently a wide open threat.

9. On defense we should always know where our man is at when we are in man-to-man, and always know who is in our area when we are in a zone defense. You’re going to have to move to cover your man or area; zone defense does not mean we all stand flat-footed in a 2-3 or 1-3-1 formation; you are guarding a general area and working together as a unit in a zone formation to prevent penetration into the paint.

10. You’re on defense, and you want the ball back… so you should be trying to get the ball back.

Players on defense obviously won’t have the ball and will need to do their best to get the ball back; and hopefully do so without the other team scoring any points first. We should be using our heads more than our hands to get the ball back from an opponent. We can get quicker by running suicides and defensive slides all practice, but I’m sure most of us would rather become “quicker” by using our heads.

We want to work and play smarter, not just harder. Our defensive positioning, hands up and moving around at all times, getting low and wide on ball coverage, slapping up on the ball while being dribbled by our opponent instead of down, disrupting passes with our backhand instead of compromising our position, constant communication with our teammates, putting pressure on the ball, contesting shots, anticipating where the ball will bounce on a missed shot, blocking out on rebounds, and going for the ball with reckless abandon when it is loose are all key components to playing the game well… and none of that has to do with how well you can dribble, pass, or shoot the basketball. We need to learn to play well without the basketball.

7 Keys to Effective Player Development

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Have you guys ever heard any version of this quote, “Individuals may get better in the off-season, but teams get better during the season.”

I think that while we can appreciate the mindset behind this, that team development must be the #1 priority during the season, this statement seems to imply that individual player development isn’t as important from October to March.

If that is the case, we should highly disagree. Individuals need to get better during the season as well. In fact, the most effective way for us to improve our team is to improve ourselves!

Individual player development (which includes both athleticism and movement training, as well as basketball skills and fundamentals; and even better understanding of and insight into the game on a bigger scale) should be addressed and given priority at every practice. To what extent we should focus on these elements depends on the age, skill level, previous experience of the players, the length of practice, and the time during season (early pre-season vs. playoff time).

I know we can’t win if nobody rebounds the basketball. I’d be willing to bet that some of you realize that for the overwhelming majority, “defense wins championships.” However, the name of the game is to put the ball in the basket. So working on offensive moves and getting up quality reps of game shots from game spots at game speed is paramount to our team’s success.

Before he coached his first practice as the head coach of Butler, a colleague recommended that Brad Stevens have a manager chart how many shots his best player took during a 2+ hour practice. Coach Stevens ran what he thought was an excellent practice (in-depth teaching, sound team concepts, etc). After practice he found out his best player took less than 25 shots the entire practice, which Coach Stevens immediately recognized was unacceptable. From that day forward he began to implement quality shooting drills in every single practice.

Former NFL coach Jon Gruden laughs when he hears other coaches say, “We need to get back to working on the fundamentals” after a tough loss. Get back to them? Why did you ever abandon or neglect them in the first place? That may even be why you lost!

“I discovered early on that the player who learned the fundamentals of basketball is going to have a much better chance of succeeding and rising through the levels of competition than the player who was content to do things his own way. A player should be interested in learning why things are done a certain way. The reasons behind the teaching often go a long way to helping develop the skill.” – John Wooden

While the amount of time we spend on everything will vary (and we have a limited practice schedule of only 2 hours – twice a week), I firmly believe every single one of our practices should have at least some aspect and component of individual player development.

Here are 7 keys to effective player development:

1. Build our game brick by brick. Every rep of every set of every practice is important. How you do anything is how you do everything. You learned to walk one step at a time. You build a house one brick at time. You build your game one drill at a time.

2. We have to leave our comfort zones. All of us have to buy into this together. Once a player has the movement, skill or footwork down, they need to push harder than game speed. The harder you practice, the easier things become during games.

3. Know the ‘why.’ Every drill must have some perceived relevance. That means the players can clearly understand how this particular skill or drill will improve their game performance. Will being able to dribble 3 basketballs reduce turnovers when the lights come on and the crowds start cheering on game nights? Doubtful. Therefore it has minimal perceived relevance, but any drill that incorporates something that can be used in a game is highly important and worth the time.

4. Use visualization. Great players like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant don’t just do a drill; they compete in that drill with the same focus and effort as if they were in the waning seconds of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. They imagine they are being guarded by an elite defender; not just lazily ‘going around a cone.’

5. Avoid fatigue and boredom. These are two of the biggest killers of player development. We must get in better shape, increase our endurance and stamina. We can combat this issue by being in better basketball shape and by trying to use some more innovative, purposeful drills. But in the end, we must all work as a team to be able to run harder, run longer, and run together. When your body gets tired, your mind quickly follows. Nobody improves their ability to learn when their exhausted and worn out; we are less likely to get better at a skill when our minds and bodies are exhausted… so we must work on conditioning, always.

6. Do everything with precision. Details matter! Perfect form and footwork are imperative. If you want to build a beautiful brick house, you have to lay every single brick with care and precision. Every stone must be in the right place, or it will throw the others off. Once you start sloppily laying bricks… the house suffers (both in appearance and structural integrity).

7. We must learn from our past mistakes. Remember that nobody is perfect. When you make mistakes, be sure to take the time to analyze and learn from them. Don’t dwell on it with regret and lose sight of what you can learn from the mistake, but rather focus on what you can learn from it in order to prevent it from happening again. Great players realize when they did something wrong, admit it, and learn from it.

Also we all need to understand and remember that skill improvement takes time, and is often a process of 2’s:

​• It takes 2 minutes to learn a new move or new skill.

​• It takes 2 weeks to work on it daily until you develop confidence in it.

​• It takes 2 months of constant work to be competent enough to use it in a game.

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start in order to be great.” – John C. Maxwell

Little Things in Life & Basketball*

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When I was younger, I remember reading an article about how legendary basketball coach John Wooden used to explain to his players how to put their shoes on correctly, and wear at least two pairs of socks so that they wouldn’t get blisters on their feet. (To this day I actually always wear double socks, with the first pair inside out, no matter what the activity because I became so used to it while playing ball.) The reason he did this was to emphasize just how important the little things are in the game of basketball. Although this might be a little bit much, it just shows you the importance of details. Details and little things can be the difference maker in basketball, in your faith, and in life. Paul Tripp put this well when he said, “Life is really lived in the little moments.”

As a player, a constant volunteer for camps, an avid fan of the game (particularly the Kansas Jayhawks and San Antonio Spurs teams), and now someone who serves as a head coach, I have been able to catch a decent glimpse of both sides of the player-coach dynamic. As a player I have been apart of some good teams, as well as some pretty bad teams. The difference between the losing-teams and winning-teams for the most part wasn’t a major talent gap or a significant game-plan strategy issue, it was the little details. It had a lot more to do with all the little things than a single big shot or turnover on a crucial possession.

My life has had some big moments: particular birthdays (like the Space Jam themed party in Independence, KS… or the couple birthdays where Texas Rangers baseball was still being played into October and we gathered around a TV with some good friends and good food, to cheer for a Rangers’ win), certain holidays (like our annual Easter, 4th of July, Neewollah, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve celebrations), trips and vacations (like Disney World, Padre Island, Red Lodge and Yellowstone in Montana, and many trips back to Kansas), my proposal to my wife Kathryn down by the lake after a nice picnic dinner, our wedding day (that whole day is a blur, with some beautiful highlights and moments I’ll never forget), our honeymoon in Montana (that was a blast), anniversaries, great meals at nice restaurants (like the first time we went to a Brazilian steakhouse… oh my goodness), big games and concerts we’ve been blessed to attend (like the Eagles, The Who, Anberlin, Phil Wickham, U2 & Muse, and Jimmy Eat World & Foo Fighters concerts)… or the 2005, 2007, and 2013 NBA Finals in San Antonio, or the final KU vs. Mizzou game at Allen Fieldhouse… that was an amazing and unforgettable game), multiple road-trips with great friends including trips to Tennessee, Salt Lake City, Lawrence, Kansas City, and Galveston… and on and on I could go with big moments in my life that I’ve been truly blessed to experience… my heart is greatly stirred by these memories, but that is the vast minority when compared to all the little moments of life.

All the daily breakfasts, lunches, dinners, all the time cooking and waiting for something to heat up, grocery shopping, stopping by the gas station to fill up, all those moments right after walking in the door from being somewhere and getting settled in, all that time spent at work (perhaps sitting in a cubicle starring at a computer screen, just mundanely working one account after another), time spent in the gym, time spent loading and unloading the car, those moments spent watching movies or television, time spent doing laundry, time spent playing video games, board games, card games, etc., all those text messages sent each day, time spent cleaning and organizing, time getting ready to go places, time spent reading or studying, time spent in school taking classes, driving to and from work, time spent putting something together, countless hours messing around on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, time spent getting ready for bed, time spent day dreaming, the moments of laying in bed trying to fall asleep, the third of your life spent sleeping, and heck, even all that time spent in the bathroom…

Similar to life, the little things make up the vast majority of the game of basketball. That’s why there are highlights for games that last only 10-20 seconds, for a minimum 48-minute game in the pros (still 40-minutes in college). You don’t win games because of a spectacular dunk that replays for weeks on Sport Center’s Top 10. There is a lot more to basketball than just shooting a ball through a hoop. And even more involved in the preparation for playing the sport than simply practicing one’s shot. Being a minute late to practice, shorting a line in sprints, not going over the mechanics of shooting over and over, ball-handling drills ad nauseam, or missing an assignment may seem minor, but these things are such a big deal if not dealt with the right way. If a player is willing to short a line in a sprint, then who is to say that he won’t be one step out of position on defense at the end of a crucial game, and instead of a charge he gets called for a block. There are just so many little things in basketball that can add up if you don’t focus on them everyday.

For example: closing out with high hands, talking on defense, talking on offense (just always talking to your teammates), putting a body on someone during a rebound opportunity, squaring up for a jumpshot, setting a good screen, rubbing tightly off a screen, making an intentionally crisp pass, setting your man up before coming off a screen, etc. are little things or minor details and the list could go on and on. Each thing individually might not be that big of a deal, but put all (or even just some of them together) and it can be the difference between a win and a loss, the difference between great season with some hardware to take home… or end with some players losing significant time on the floor, being cut/traded, or even the General Manager (or Athletic Director) looking for a new head basketball coach for the next season.

From the very first day of practice, and every single day after that we must emphasize the little things. Just like someone in the Christian faith never moves on from the basic and fundamental message of the Gospel, a basketball player never moves on from the need to have the basic and fundamental aspects of the game down. A good ball player is constantly going over and refining their basic, fundamental skills of the game. No player, not even guys like Pete Maravich, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, or Lebron James could ever practice too much, improve their ball-handling enough, tweak their footwork, work on their shot too much, go over too much film, or be in the gym too long, to have reached a level that moved on past the need to continue to work on those basic skills.

As a coach, I need to explain to my players what is acceptable and what I am expecting of them. It may take a little while at first, but once the team realizes what is expected of everyone, and we all buy into the system with the hopes of achieving an end goal, players will more earnestly do what is expected of them. Since most players have never been held accountable like this before, a little patience and grace should always be shown at the beginning. We all need to understand the value of doing the little things and be committed to doing them. Whether a coach has to run his team or repeat a certain drill for days until the players get it right, it is the coach’s job to ingrain in his players the details of this great game until it becomes second nature. Coaches also aren’t to show favoritism, whether it is their best player or the 12th man, we strive to make sure that everyone is doing their job correctly and putting forth their best effort. We aim to see every player improve and mature into the best player they can be. However, as coaches are human, we will fail you some days, but I hope my players can forgive me and never lose trust that there is a greater purpose behind all we are working on together.

Just as relationships with spouses, friends, family, parents, children, small groups, pastors, etc. serve to expose and uncover deep heart issues in our lives, certain situations in basketball will reveal areas of your game that are lacking. For the sake of maturation and development, coaches strive to put their team in circumstances that will test them, to help them to come up against obstacles that will likely spring up in a game; which will reveal those who can’t or won’t do the little things. Conditioning is one of the greatest ways to do this. When players get tired or have to do something that is hard, we begin to see their true nature. Just as someone who is going through a very hard time, and is extremely stressed out by their current circumstances at home, school, and/or work; how they react to the storms of life will be a greater testament of their character than how well they handle having money in the bank, good health, and they’re currently at a party having fun.

The players who don’t buckle under a little pressure, the guys who touch the line every time, don’t go down to their knees or grab a seat after every sprint, and who encourage their teammates throughout drills are the players you can trust. These are ones who are going to be able to execute a play the right way at the end of a close game. It is my job as the coach to encourage all my players to do this, to put their heart into it, to give it their all, and to really buy into the team. The players also have a responsibility to do this for one another.

During a game or even in practice a coach is not always going to be able to stop play every time a player closes out without high hands, isn’t in the right defensive position, doesn’t put a body on someone as a shot went up, doesn’t crash the boards, doesn’t shoot with proper form, throws a lazy pass, hogs the ball too long, etc. However it is still very important to focus on the details and a great way to do that is film. It is a lot easier for players to correct something if they can see themselves doing it the wrong way. I once heard a commentator say during a review in a big game, “the film doesn’t lie…” And that is exactly true. If a player is continually forgetting to close out with high hands in a game, going right every single time they get the ball, or is always out of position on defense, a coach can use film to sit them down and show them what they are doing wrong. We probably won’t always have film for all our games and practices though, so we must trust and rely on each other.

Similar to how a brother in Christ goes to a friend to help him see something in his life that is harming him in hopes of seeing him repent from that, and then strive together for further sanctification to get more of Christ, to know Him more deeply; a coach pursues the maturation of his players. A coach is to strive to make sure that his players understand their correction and discipline is out of a motivation of love and hope for improvement in their ability to play. A good coach earnestly works hard and puts forth a diligent effort to make sure his players understand this.

Still, you may be asking yourself, why is doing little things correctly and practicing them so much being made out to be such a big deal… Well, if you do not have time to do something right, when will you find the time to do it over? It is not easy to do all of the little things in life or in basketball. It takes a lot of effort from the coaching staff to communicate, mentor, and guide the players well in hopes to make sure that every day the players are doing things the right way, and progressing in their skill. It also takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and buying into the team’s plan and strategy from the players. It always takes community and team effort.

Basketball really is like a microcosm to so much of life. The game of basketball can teach us so much about ourselves, as well as us being able to take our strengths in life and apply them towards the game. Something that will help make playing basketball easier is for a coach to sit down with his players and explain to them why the little things are so important. This short article is only a small part of my efforts to do just that. If we all understand and really believe in what we are doing then we will work harder to accomplish it. It will always be very difficult at first for everyone, so we must try to remember that and not get frustrated quickly. (Also, it is important to note that over the years when a team has players return, it can have some stability, the returning players will be able to help the new players, and it will be easier on the coach, and the team overall.)

However, not every year will work that way, and we don’t always have veterans on our teams. Sometimes a lot of change takes place, and requires a great deal more effort and time to establish a firm foundation of the little things. Similar to life, the little details in basketball are what it takes to be great. It is worth the time and effort, and I hope you guys are looking forward to this season as much as I am.

*adapted and updated for player handouts