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.

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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.