How to become great at basketball and just about everything…

If you can spare the time (52 minutes), listen first to this Freakonomics podcast on developing excellence.

If you can’t spare the time, you should ask yourself, honestly, how much you really want to become a great basketball player.

Go listen to the podcast!

Welcome back!  Now that you’ve invested some effort, let’s think about how much harder and smarter you’re going to have to work.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way.  Innate talent does exist and it’s tied to your genetics.  No matter what you do, it is very, very unlikely that you will ever become the next LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Steph Curry.  The good news is that you can still achieve excellence even if you don’t have the “right” genetics.  The other good news is that you can excel beyond players with innate talent if you’re willing to put in the work and they aren’t.

The key to becoming excellent at something is easy to understand and difficult to do.  In fact, you already have a pretty good idea what that key is – practice – but not just any kind of practice – “deliberate practice”.

Here are my impressions of the key elements of deliberate practice:

  1. You have to have a purpose in mind – something specific that you are trying to achieve.
  2. You have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and you need to stay there.
  3. You need to have a qualified coach who has also bought into the concept of deliberate practice. Your coach needs to be able to help you focus on the specifics of the skills you’re trying to master and help you identify what you need to change about what you’re doing.
  4. Don’t expect immediate results. Look for small and consistent gains with the help of your coach to keep you motivated and on track to your overall goal.

Time is of the essence.  Estimates are that it will require upwards of 10 thousand hours of deliberate practice to become truly great.  If you practiced 2 hours a day every day for 10 years you would only have accumulated a little over 7 thousand hours.  So you should plan to start today (latest, tomorrow) and don’t waste time in programs or with coaches who don’t have specific development targets in mind for you as an individual.

I have a relatively low opinion of basketball clinics.  You know the kind.  They’re usually offered in the summer, a couple of weekends, maybe including the weekdays in between, for 4 to 6 hours each day.  Hundreds of kids attend and you’re taken through drills as a group.  The focus is on keeping the group busy and moving from drill to drill until lunch time.  Then more of the same after lunch with a few competitive games to round out the day.  There’s no interest in providing individual instruction.  There just aren’t enough coaches or time for that.  At most, one of the clinic staff will say something mildly helpful about an individual’s technique but there’s no follow-up.  There are just too many kids to manage.  At the completion of the clinic (or maybe at the start) you get a t-shirt but not much else.

Save your money and invest in individual or small group instruction (not more than three players of roughly equal skill level) with a great player development coach.  One indicator of the quality of the instruction is the nature of the drills the coach uses.  Each drill should target a specific skill with no wasted elements.  It should be clear how the drill would transfer to a basketball game.

The basketball books and YouTube are full of useless drills.  Here are a couple of examples:

In what basketball games are there no defenders during a free throw; or when does your teammate suddenly try to prevent you from making a shot.  For this drill to be useful you minimally have to add at least two defenders but then it really becomes a rebounding drill – which makes more sense anyway.

This drill makes absolutely no sense at all. Three point shooting followed by running around and grabbing bean bags or small cones?  There’s nothing in this drill that is transferable to a game.

Designing a targeted and relevant drill, not just “capture the flag” with a basketball, is difficult.  It’s probably less “fun” for the participants too.  But what are you trying to achieve?  Are you aspiring to excellence or are you simply interested in having a fun time with your buddies?  If it’s the former then these kinds of drills and practices are just minutes and hours that you can never get back.

Ask yourself, honestly, do you want to become a truly great basketball player?  Is it your dream? Is it your passion? Someone else can’t want it for you.  Are you willing to… are you committed to do the work necessary?  A great coach can show you the path, but you have to walk it – and it’s a gauntlet.