What’s wrong with being elite?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2013.

During my first season as a college basketball coach, I worked with a player named Matt. The head coach nearly cut Matt on the first day of fall workouts, but he was roommates with his #1 recruit, and he looked like a basketball player when he walked in the gym, so he survived. However, he started the season as the 4th-string point guard, and the head coach wanted to redshirt him, as he could not envision him playing.

I coached at an NCAA DIII school that was successful in men’s tennis and not much else. Our home gymnasium had more in common with a junior-high school than the NCAA, and our weight room was shared by the entire student body. This was not the place where one went to become a basketball player – our players were future businesspeople or engineers, not professional athletes.

Matt differed. He injured his wrist in the fall, which prohibited him from playing or lifting weights. Luckily, it was his left wrist, so he continued to shoot. He worked out more than any of the non-injured players. While injured, he decided that he wanted to become a great shooter. He devoted all of his energy and concentration to becoming a great shooter. In high school, he was an average shooter at best at an average suburban high school. He did not start until his senior year of high school, and even then, he was not one of the best or main players.

As Matt’s shot improved, and he gained more confidence, he started to set his sights even higher: He decided that he wanted to play professional basketball. This was an outlandish goal at such a basketball wasteland.

In the February 2013 Scientific American Mind, Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi wrote:

“The unifying similarity among geniuses and innovators is not cognitive or affective but motivational.  What is common among them is the unwillingness or inability to strive for goals everyone else accepts.”

While Matt worked toward his goals, his teammates poked fun at him. When he returned from his injury with his shooting technique in transition, one of the other point guards mocked his inability to shoot three-pointers. When he skipped a house party after a game to videotape himself shooting in an empty gym and then break down the errors on video in his empty dorm, his teammates laughed.

By the end of the season, he was the starting point guard. In the final game of the season, he destroyed the all-league point guard and made 16 of 17 from the free-throw line. By his senior season, after transferring, he was a DIII All-American who shot 45% from the three-point line and 90% from the free-throw line. He played one season of professional basketball, achieving his audacious, improbable goal.

I don’t know that Matt would qualify as a genius, whether in its more common connotation or in terms of an athletic genius. However, he did share the motivational quality – he was unwilling to accept being an average DIII player: He wanted to be a professional, and he was willing to work to make his dream a reality. He was unwilling to accept being an average shooter: He wanted to be a great shooter (My book 180 Shooter describes most of the instruction and drills that we used to change his shooting technique).

On the blog of Finnish basketball coach Harri Mannonen, he discussed developing talented athletes. He posted the video above of a day in the life of the Nike Oregon Project (Mo Farah and Galen Rupp) and suggested that if one can become an Olympic champion long-distance runner in Portland, Oregon, one can develop into a top basketball, soccer, or whatever athlete just about anywhere. If an average high-school player from the suburbs can earn a professional contract, why not me? or you?

Mannonen identified five keys to assist with the development of a top athlete: (1) investing all the money, effort, and expertise available into a small group of athletes; (2) criteria used to recruit athletes must be strict; (3) coaches must have the proper education and experience to enable them to help athletes reach the high performance level; (4) coaches and athletes must have lots of modern technology at their use, and the coaches must know how to use it; (5) daily school schedule of the young athletes must be light enough to allow them to concentrate on the workouts and to recover from them. His article was written from a federation or a leadership standpoint, but these same five keys work with an individual’s pursuit as well.

Matt invested all his money and effort into his goal. He paid to train with an expert coach, and he spent his time focused on his goal. He did not waste time on things that did not move him closer to his goal, so he rarely partied like the rest of the college students. He was fortunate to have good coaches, especially for his level of competition. He used videotape to break down his shot and make minor tweaks to minimize error. Over a decade ago, that was the primary technological advance.

Matt practiced differently. During our workouts, he completed a set of shots, walked off the court, and recorded the makes and misses in his journal. He tracked his progress on a daily basis. We did not know it then, but this was a sign of his deliberate practice, the key factor separating the elite from the near elite, according to Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. His practice met the four primary characteristics of deliberate practice: (1) there was a clearly defined goal to the practice; (2) there was immediate feedback; (3) there was total concentration; and (4) there were sufficient repetitions, as he did nothing but concentrate on his shooting for one hour each day (approximately 400-500 shots) in the afternoon before an evening team practice.

Matt was normal – he started college at 6’2, and maybe 150 lbs. He could not dunk. He certainly did not appear to have the magic genes of a professional basketball player. However, he was abnormal in his actions and behaviors. This abnormality is the reason that he achieved his audacious goals.

Whereas Matt showed similarities to geniuses with his unwillingness to accept the same goals as everyone around him, few children seem to receive the support necessary to pursue their athletic goals. On youth sports message boards, anytime someone mentions the elite or the exceptional, someone else attempts to temper the enthusiasm by citing the statistics of the long odds of earning an athletic scholarship or playing professionally. Children like Matt are discouraged from thinking about becoming a professional athlete, either consciously or subconsciously, and instead told to focus on something more realistic, like becoming a doctor. Rarely do we discourage a child who wants to be the president or a doctor by explaining the rigors of Organic Chemistry or suggesting the child pursue easier classes or a profession that requires less expense, fewer years of schooling, and less aptitude. Somehow we are okay with children pursuing academic or professional goals, provided those professional goals do not involve something outlandish like playing sports.

Whereas children are fed cliches about dreaming big or becoming anything one wants to be, the reality is that adults often go out of their way to temper a child’s enthusiasm. We try to get children to accept the same goals as everyone else – the ones that the geniuses ignore.

Earning an athletic scholarship or playing a sport professionally is a statistically improbable dream. However, someone is going to earn the scholarship or the professional contract or the Olympic medal. Why not you? Are the odds of a young child becoming the POTUS better than earning an athletic scholarship or playing professionally? There have been six presidents in my entire lifetime; there are high-school teams with six players earning college scholarships for next season.

What happens if the player falls short in the pursuit of athletic glory? He or she transitions to something else, like the millions of others who never really gave their dreams a full chance. However, rather than the “what ifs”, they know that they went for it, and they learned important lessons along the way. Matt transitioned to a personal trainer and then opened his own gym because he knew he had the work ethic to be successful. He learned that playing basketball. I trained another player who was a highly-rated 8th grader, a child certain of his professional basketball future. He is now an up-and-coming music producer even though he has not even finished college and never played college basketball. He has a line about it in one of his raps: “Never thought it’d be this way sitting on the stoop, I always thought by 22 I’d be in the league shooting hoops…Didn’t understand God’s plan to turn me to the next young Snoop.” He worked throughout high school to be a basketball player. He nearly broke his neck trying to block a shot, and while recovering, fell for music. He changed his aspirations. The hours that he spent training to be a basketball player were not wasted; just part of his life education, lessons that taught him how much he would need to commit to music if he wanted to make it in an equally tough game.

Is your child going pro? Probably not. Does that mean he or she should give up and not even try?  What’s the lesson in doing that?

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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