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

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