Basketball IQ and How not to be stupid

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been coaching our JV summer league team, a group of mostly rising freshmen whom I am just getting to know as basketball players. Earlier this season, I read an article about How not to be stupid.  I used it in a pregame talk with our varsity team at about the midway point when it felt like we were making bad decisions all around. The Farnam Street interview with Adam Robinson defined stupidity is in a way that I had not seen prior. 

Stupidity [is] overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information

Our ‘stupidest’ moments are those in which we miss something so obvious that everyone else can see what we can’t. In a typical moment, we would be aware of the obvious and crucial information and make a good choice. But in that moment, your brain is overloaded to the point of making a seemingly obvious mistake. Robinson outlines seven factors that overload our brains and cause stupidity: being outside your circle of  competence, stress, rushing or urgency, fixation on an outcome, information overload, being in a group where social cohesion comes into play, and being in the presence of an “authority.” As I read these during the basketball season, it was clear that we are all stupid at times and competitive sports creates an even greater opportunity for stupidity.

“Sports IQ” is a phrase used by many in athletics to describe a players ability to understand the game they are playing or make good decisions in a game. With this article in mind, it is the opposite of being stupid. It is an ability to manage these seven factors, to keep them from negatively impacting our brain and our decision making process.

Coaching 9th grade basketball players, these factors become increasingly obvious. This summer, they have played mostly against rising 10th graders who have had a year of high school basketball experience. Theoretically, a year should not have a significant impact, but just one season of playing with bigger, stronger, faster players, and running your team’s plays provides athletes with a comfort level impossible for brand new players. New players are inherently placed outside their circle of competence just by showing up. It is a credit to them to show up, and keep coming back to something that is challenging by nature.

Here is my basketball version of stupidity, or the sports brain overload:

  • Being outside of your circle of competence – Trying to do things you’re not comfortable with
  • Stress – you’re worried, scared of making a mistake 
  • Rushing or urgency – trying to go too fast
  • Fixation on an outcome – trying to force an action when there’s an easier play in front of you
  • Information overload – trying to do too much at once; being given too much information by your coach
  • Being in a group where social cohesion comes into play – getting distracted by the crowd or your teammates, worry about what others think of your play
  • Being in the presence of an “authority” – worrying about the approval or reaction of a coach or parent

Any one of these factors can cause stupidity, but it is often a combination that creates the greatest impact. This summer league is clear evidence of that fact. Every one of these factors could be at play at any one time in our games. As players get older, they learn to block out the crowd, slow down, simplify what they are trying to do, or simply feel more confident and comfortable with their abilities. But that takes time.

When I used this during the season, it was in the locker room before out team took the court for warmups. First, I shared some of the ideas from the article and my ideas that resulted. Next, we took time to visualize. I am confident this is something I should do more often with my team. Hopefully, writing this will be a reminder. To be honest, the game that followed our visualization was far from perfect. We won and seemed focused, although the other team was not very good. I can’t draw too much from the sample size of one, but it won’t stand in the way of doing it again. Our goal with the visualization was to help the players slow down before things sped up. To block out the noise before they heard it. To manage the distractions before they occurred. I know this isn’t new thinking, but somehow the article reminded me, or helped me realize how valuable visualization could be for my players.

The visualization exercise was simple (and I’m sure there are many better examples, so please feel free to share in the comments).

First, I asked the players to close their eyes and take one minute to visualize one play where the team succeeded. I added a few questions. What happened? How did the play end? What were you doing? What were your teammates doing around you? I asked a few players to share and they did. I prompted them to add a little more detail to describe what helped them succeed – they communicated, they saw the pass before they caught the ball, they set their feet.

Second, I asked them to close their eyes while I described a play that I hoped would happen, being very specific with the things I thought would win us the game that day – communication, extra effort, executing a specific defensive play, playing through a perceived bad call by the official. Finally, I talked to them about controlling the seven factors, highlighting a few simple things they could do in almost any situation that made them feel uncomfortable.

We won that game and I felt pretty good about the exercise, but never went back to it. We happened to hold a competitive team to their lowest offensive output of the season on their home court. Looking back, I now wonder which factor made me ‘stupid’ enough to abandon something that had clear potential?

With a large group of freshmen arriving to our team and the chance to coach them this summer, they reminded me of a lot. All the fundamentals we have to cover. How long it takes for players to grasp those fundamentals. That each player needs a slightly different approach. And, that we will all be stupid at times. My job is not to manage factors for them, but to help them learn how to manage the overload factors for themselves.

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