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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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.