My high school basketball program made the consistent mistake of choosing players based on height and athleticism. Of course, these attributes are essential for a good basketball player but they are not the end all be all. Certainly, at the highest levels of the game, athletes are indeed of great height and athleticism but there is something else that sets them apart from the lesser competitor: technique.
Technique Over Everything Else
With the correct technique, a motivated athlete can overcome being shorter or slower than other players. This is true in every sport. When high school began, all the freshman over two hundred pounds signed up to play football. They may have looked like an intimidating bunch on the sidelines but they rarely got to play. The smaller but more skilled players who had spent years learning and perfecting blocking, shedding, and tackling techniques consistently beat them off the ball, blew by them on the line of scrimmage and beat them out for the sought after starting positions. To the untrained eye it may look like there are just bodies banging into each other when the ball is snapped but of course, it is more complicated than that. Every player has a job to do and has to figure out how to get that job done. If you can’t execute the proper footwork you won’t get where you need to go. If you don’t know what to do with your hands, shoulders, and head when you get there you’ll be beaten.
Learning from Pedro Martinez
My favorite example of technique winning out is retired pitcher Pedro Martinez who pitched for the Red Sox for many years. Pedro was about five foot nine, maybe a hundred and eighty pounds. He was strong but nothing like the towering Randy Johnson or the barrel-chested Roger Clemens. But Pedro knew how to throw. You don’t have to be incredibly strong to throw a baseball over ninety miles an hour. You have to know how to throw it right. Pedro’s pitching mechanics, accuracy, and pitch variety enabled him to be one of the greats even with his small stature.
A technique is incredibly important but is useless without knowledge. A good change-up can be an effective pitch but not if you throw it at the wrong time. A defensive lineman adept at a quick swim move can be dangerous but not if he employs it too often.
Knowledge Takes Time
Knowledge, just like technique takes time to acquire. It can be taught by coaches but mainly must be learned through experience and observation. A smart athlete watches film of himself and his opponents in order to gain knowledge. Sometimes it’s hard to know why your jump shot isn’t working. It can be useful to see a video of yourself shooting so you can break apart your mechanics and see what you are doing wrong. Watching your opponents is useful so you know what you are up against and what to expect. How can you prepare for something you’ve never seen before?
Technique and knowledge will not always see you through. You do need a combination of brain and brawn. But the coaches that think their players will simply soak in the knowledge need to become good players should reconsider.
Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard
It is true that certain players have an innate ability in their sport. Perhaps they were born with a high level of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. This means that they have good special awareness and understand intuitively the best ways to move their bodies to complete a task. It’s easy for them to see someone kick a soccer ball in the proper way and then do it themselves even if they have not done it before.
But everyone is an individual. Some players on your team will have lower levels of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence and some will have higher. To think there is some athletic osmosis of technique and knowledge that happens through practices and games is foolish. In order to really help your players improve you have to figure out what they are missing and what they need.
For example, the star of my middle school basketball team was an amazing shooter with lightning speed and great ball handling skills. But when he got to high school, defenders realized that all they had to do was pressure him and make him go right instead of left. He was shortchanged by coaches that couldn’t help him realize his potential and he turned out to be a mediocre player as we got older. A smarter coach would have helped him develop his right hand so he was a threat driving both ways. Instead, coaches merely saw him an athletic kid with a lot of potentials. They waited for him to figure out how to fool defenders but he never did.
Coaches need to be stalwarts of technique and knowledge in their given sports and must strive to impart their wisdom to their players. Expecting athletes do it all the work themselves is too much to ask.