Russell, Wilt, Jerry, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, and, most recently, LeBron James. There are others that could arguably be in the conversation, but despite what they all brought to the game of basketball, Michael Jordan is and always will be the greatest basketball player of all time. And here’s why…
If the first round of the 2015 NBA PLayoffs was all about dealing with the weight of expectation, for me, the Conference Semi-Finals were about pressure moments. During this round we saw several examples of individual players stepping up to the mark and delivering in the face of extreme pressure.
Michael Jordan did it to win his 6th NBA Championship. Damian Lillard won a series with one in last the 2014 playoffs. Robert Horry made it an art-form during his career. I’m talking, of course, about the game-winner, the buzzer-beater, the last second shot.
The last second shot.
In the 2015 Conference Semi-Finals, we saw no less than four game winning shots and Paul Pierce was a tenth of a second from hitting a huge shot in Game 6 of the Wizard’s series against the Hawks. Everyone who’s ever played sports has imagined themselves winning the game for their team in the dying moments, rising up as the clock winds down to sink a last second game-winner.
In other sports too, a footballer might think about soaring above the defender to head home a winner in the 93rd minute, or an athlete might dream of coming from behind down the home straight to beat their opponent on the line.
We’ve all imagined it, but when it comes down to it, how many of us actively seek out that pressure, and take those challenges head on? Are you the type of athlete who will demand to be front and centre in that situation?
In Game 4 of the Cavs/Bulls series, Lebron James made a series of mistakes in the final quarter, but with the game tied and only 1.5 seconds left, he changed the play that coach David Blatt had drawn up (a play which had James inbounding the ball), got open and hit a jumpshot to win the game. Now I’m not advocating changing plays that your coach draws up, but this was a great example of a player willing to put his own neck on the line, to make a play for his team.
Achieving Success or Avoiding Failure
There are a couple of theories of motivation that might be important in explaining why some people seek out challenges (like taking last second shots in basketball games) and why some people might prefer to sit back and let someone else to take the shot. Let’s ignore skill level for the moment (obviously if you’re a terrible shooter, you might have reasons to want someone else to take the shot!) and focus purely on behaviour.
Need Achievement Theory¹ suggests, quite simply, that everyone wants to achieve success and everyone wants to avoid failure. But the balance of these two motives isn’t the same in everyone. Pretty obviously those with high motivation to achieve success and low motivation to avoid failure, tend to be high achievers. Athletes who are more concerned with avoiding failure than achieving success are much less likely to be high achievers.
There are also situational factors that might play a role here. According to Need Achievement Theory, we also consider the probability of success in any situation and the value of success. If you’re facing an easy opponent, the probability of being successful is high, but the value of success is quite low.
For an extremely difficult challenge, the opposite is true (low probability/high value). So for optimal challenges (difficult but attainable), high achievers tend to step up because they see the potential for success, whereas low achievers shy away because they see the potential for criticism if they fail.
Is it all about personality?
I don’t think it would be too controversial to suggest that Paul Pierce, Derrick Rose, and LeBron James are high achievers. There are several other theories of motivation that contribute to our understanding of achievement behaviour that I won’t go into in this post, but essentially, high achievers are those who seek out challenges, perform well when being evaluated (e.g., in front of an audience), believe that success is a result of stable and controllable factors (rather than luck), tend to focus more on task than outcome goals, and focus on the pride of success rather than the shame of failure. But knowing this, it’s certainly possible to work with athletes to help them develop these tendencies.
Developing a last-shot mentality
- 1. Understand your own motivation. Or if you’re a coach reading this, understand that your athletes all have different motivations. Research suggests that at the age of around 4 or 5, children move on from being completely self-focused and start comparing themselves to those around them. As people grow older still, some develop more of an awareness of when comparison with others is useful and when it isn’t, but that can happen at any age, or not at all. Knowing yourself/your athletes is the first step to developing a last-shot mentality.
- 2. Think about your goals carefully. Are your goals about outcomes (winning) or about how you’re going to win? It’s easy to focus on winning as a goal, but make sure that the process or task goals are emphasised. Read this post on why goal setting often fails for more tips.
- 3. Think about the feedback you give your athletes/yourself. When you succeed, make sure you acknowledge the hard work, effort, and skill that has contributed to that success. When things go wrong, make sure feedback is instructional and acknowledge outside influences that might be a cause. It’s really important to be realistic here though. There’s no use blaming failure on those external, uncontrollable factors, if it really was down to lack of effort!
- 4. Do you approach challenges, or do you pick tasks that are easy? Make sure you train under conditions that are difficult, but also where success is possible. Setting up tasks that are too easy might give you/your athletes opportunities to achieve success, but there’s little, if any, value attached to that success. Similarly, it’s easy to reduce effort or give up on tasks that are obviously too difficult. Find the balance.
So there you have it. Are you motivated to achieve success or are you more concerned with avoiding failure? What subtle changes could you make to the ways you think about training and competition, about success and failure, in order to develop a last-shot mentality? Oh and remember, it helps if you can actually shoot well enough to back it up.
¹Atkinson, J.W. (1974). The mainstream of achievement-oriented activity. In J.W. Atkinson & J.O. Raynor (Eds.), Motivation and achievement (pp.13-41). New York: Halstead.
I love the NBA and, for me, the first round of the playoffs is all about expectations. Some teams have high expectations for themselves, while other teams have expectations placed upon them. Either way, these expectations can weigh heavy upon teams, and sometimes, on individual players. Some were able to shed this weight of expectation and perform to the best of their ability. Others felt the full weight of expectation upon them and their performances suffered as a result. So how do we deal with the weight of expectation?
Expectation vs Confidence
How do expectations affect performance? Well an expectation is just ‘a strong belief that something will happen or be the case’. Having strong beliefs that we’re going to perform well in our sport sounds a lot like having confidence. And having confidence is a good thing right?
Well yeah, of course having confidence in your own performance is great. But there are a couple of differences between confidence and high expectations.
The biggest difference is that expectations are generally results or outcome driven. At a team level, expectations might be about having to win the first two games of a series at home, or maybe sweeping a series against a poor opponent. At an individual level, players, might have expectations about being perfect from the free throw line, having no turnovers, or scoring 40 points.
So what’s the problem?
The first problem with having really high expectations is that they can be so demanding that it’s almost impossible to reach them. Scoring 40 points in a game doesn’t actually happen that often, so if that’s our expectation and we’re not reaching it, then we can feel like we’re failing, which has a negative impact on our confidence and motivation. We get anxious about making mistakes, get down on ourselves when we do, and then find it difficult to relax and enjoy the competition.
The second problem is that really high expectations take our focus away from the processes. If we have such high expectations about winning, we’re not concentrating on making the right passes, getting to the right spots, playing good defence, and taking good shots. If we focus on those things, the outcome will take care of itself.
It’s also important to consider where these expectations come from. Are they your own, or do they come from elsewhere? Fans? Coaches? Parents? Media? But whether they’re your own or whether they’ve been put upon you, these expectations can weigh you down and stop you from performing at your best. So how do you shed the weight of expectation?
So should I lower my expectations?
No, not at all! Rather than lowering your expectations, it’s more a case of thinking about where your expectations lie. Are they about performance, or are they about effort, intensity, attitude? Here are three ways to perform without the weight of expectation dragging you down.
1. Play with no expectations about the outcome – We don’t know what’s going to happen in a game. We can’t control the opposition, or the officials. So instead of having expectations about winning, have high expectations about your efforts and the attitude you bring to performing.
2. Allow yourself to make mistakes – Perfection is not really possible. Yeah, you might make all your shots in the first quarter, even in the half. But over a whole game, it’s just not gonna happen. So don’t beat yourself up over a mistake. The best of the best of the best three-point shooters miss more than half of their shots! Use mistakes as opportunities to get better.
3. Reframe the expectations of others – If you feel your coaches, parents, fans have high expectations of you, it’s likely those expectations come from a good place. Your coaches and teammates probably don’t want you to feel like you’d be letting them down by not playing well. They want you to do well and are supporting you in your efforts, so use this support as a positive source of motivation and confidence.
There’ll always be expectations, whether you create them yourself, or whether you feel them from outside sources, but it’s how you manage those expectations that’s going to make the biggest difference.
Have high expectations ever affected your performance? Maybe you’re a coach or parent that has high expectations for your athletes or kids. What are your experiences and how do you deal with the weight of expectation? Leave a comment below.
Last year, during the NBA Final Series between the San Antonio Spurs and the then LeBronified Miami Heat, I wanted to write about some of the more mental aspects of the game that came up.
I tried to pick out an interesting story or highlight from each game, something that I thought related back to the “Psychology of the Finals” and wrote a short blog post on that topic. For example, after the air conditioning in American Airlines Arena broke in Game 1, I wrote about the need to take control of the environment, rather than letting the environment give you cramp so bad you have to be carried off the court.
I wrote about the need to focus on What’s Important Now! after both teams seemed to spend the whole of Game 2 arguing with the refs. I wrote about the need for Short Memory Shooting, being completely prepared whether you’re a starter or the last guy off the bench, and a whole host of other areas of psychology that I thought characterised the Finals.
I taped each game (Sky+/Tivo for those of you born after 2000 who have no idea what a tape is), watched it the next morning, and wrote a blog while I was watching the game. To be honest, while I really enjoyed writing about the psychology
The Seattle Seahawks could have won their second straight Superbowl. They should have won their second straight. They should have beaten the New England Patriots in Feb, 2015, but instead they had to walk off the field, close, but cigar-less. They could have won, but for a decision that had pretty much everyone who was watching saying “what the… wait… why would you… but you have… just… oh my goodness what have you done!?”
Some context might be good right about now. I’ll be honest, I pretty much fell asleep about two minutes after the opening kick off, but I did wake up just in time to see Russell Wilson throw an unlikely touchdown pass to Seahawks rookie receiver Chris Matthews; unlikely because the play came with 0.06 left in the first half. It was a gamble.
Most coaches would probably have gone for the field goal and the (almost) guaranteed points, rather than risk not scoring and not having enough time to get another play off.
Anyway, that tied the game at 14-14, Katy Perry attempted to sing some songs atop a genuinely quite impressive giant lion (or a genuinely shit tiger, I’m not sure), Channel 4 desperately tried to fill time, and then the second half got under way. The Seahawks scored twice in the 3rd quarter, putting them up by 10, then Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes for the Patriots in the 4th, the second with only 2.06 left in the game. Patriots ahead 28-24.
“You put the ball in the hands of the guy named “BEAST MODE” and let him go all… well… beast modey. You definitely don’t throw on second down right?”
What happened next was… ridiculous. The Seahawks had the ball on their own 20 yard line with just over two minutes to go, and all three of their time-outs left. On first down, Wilson threw to running back, Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch (more on that nickname later), for 31 yards.
A couple of plays and another first down later, Wilson threw long to Jermaine Kearse. The pass was tipped by rookie corner, Malcolm Butler, who I don’t think could have done any better with it, but Kearse somehow kept hold of the ball, giving the Seahawks possession at the Patriots’ 5 yard line. One running play later (Lynch for 4 yards) and the Hawks had 2nd and Goal at the 1 yard line, with 26 seconds remaining and one timeout left.
Now, back to Beast Mode. I think this video probably says all that needs to be said about that. Lynch was arguably the best running back in the game at the time and was virtually unstoppable in the very situation Seattle found themselves in. So you’re on the 1 yard line. You run the ball, yeah? You put the ball in the hands of the guy named “BEAST MODE” and let him go all… well… beast modey. You definitely don’t throw on second down right? Right? Uh… what the… wait… why would you… but you have… just… oh my goodness what have you done!?
Pete Carroll, the Seahawks head coach had called a pass play. Russell Wilson passed on 2nd down, and the ball was intercepted by Malcolm Butler. Patriots win. And the watching world wonders what the hell just happened.
Fans, critics, sports writers, all over the world were quick to decry this as the worst coaching decision in Football history, and in hindsight, they were right. The Seahawks lost and you can’t really argue with that.
Hindsight is 20/20
But just hold on a sec. Let’s say the Seahawks did run on 2nd down and didn’t get in. They have to call time-out to stop the clock (or spike the ball leaving them with only 4th down to score). Probably not enough time for another run on 3rd down and a reset, so you have to throw on 3rd down. And New England know you have to throw.
If you throw on 2nd down (like they did) and it’s incomplete, the clock stops, and you still have your time-out to stop the clock after a 3rd down run attempt if you don’t score from it, or you could take another shot in the air (if you fancied it). From Carrolls’ comments, “we were playing for 3rd and 4th down,” it seems likely that this was the thinking behind the decision to throw on 2nd and Goal. Now unfortunately, if your pass on 2nd down is intercepted, then you’re screwed.
So what happened? Coaching under pressure? Decision-making under pressure? Quarterbacking under pressure? Was this a case of over-thinking the situation, over-thinking all of the potential outcomes when really, putting the ball in the hands of the league’s best running back might have just gotten you the win?
Doing what you do best and not worrying about what the other team is doing (lining up to defend the run) might have won it for you? Possibly, possibly not. It’s impossible for anyone to know.
Pete Carroll is a great coach. I love his coaching philosophy, I love the way he relates to his players, and for a coach who is fully on board with mindfulness practices, staying in the moment, focusing “on what’s right in front of us,” it’s likely that he was doing just that. Focusing on what was right in front of him. Just like at the end of the first half when most people would have taken three points rather than risk coming away with nothing. And as Carroll said after the game, “you never think you’ll throw an interception there, just as you don’t think you would fumble.”(read full article here).
But here’s a story that doesn’t seem to be being told. Undrafted rookie cornerback, Malcolm Butler, made a spectacular defensive play that essentially won the Superbowl for the Patriots. Spectacular not only because of the speed and athleticism and the strength involved, spectacular not only because it involved a tremendous read on the play, but spectacular also because it came a few seconds after the disappointment of getting his hands on the ball but still giving up the pass that got the Seahawks into a winning position.
Again, I don’t think he could have played it better, but that’s the sort of thing that plays on your mind. “If only I’d have tipped it further, if only, I’d have broken up the play… we wouldn’t be in this position, with the Seahawks about to score, and us about to lose the Superbowl.” Admit it. How many of you would find it hard not to be thinking about all that stuff?
But how about staying in the moment! Not worrying about the past, or the future, but staying purely in the moment, reacting to what’s in front of you, and responding in the right way. That’s what Butler was able to do. Something I’m sure Pete Carroll would admire.
We could argue all day about whether the Hawks should have passed or not, whether it was the right call or not. What’s important is that it happened the way it happened. That was the play that was called, the play that was run, and Malcolm Butler, fully in the moment, fully present, reacted. The Seattle Seahawks didn’t lose the Superbowl. Malcolm Butler won it.
What’s your take on the last 2 minutes of Superbowl XLIX? What affects your decision-making under pressure? Do you over-think? Do you under-think? How good are you at staying in the moment, and focusing on what’s in front of you? Leave a comment below!
Where to start?
In August, 2014, ex-Cardiff City FC manager, Malky Mackay was been in the news for allegedly engaging in racist, sexist, and homophobic text message conversations with former Sporting Director at Crystal Palace, Iain Moody. I won’t link to the articles describing the alleged texts; you can find them easily enough with a quick google search!
“This familiar scenario acts as a challenge to the leadership of football that cannot be shirked again. The governing bodies and the clubs must denounce such attitudes prevalent in the game, and take the appropriate action.”
However, rather than denouncing such attitudes, the League Manager’s Association (LMA) released a statement which seems to dismiss entirely unacceptable behaviour as ‘banter’. We have been here before… several times in fact. And this culture of using ‘banter’ as an excuse for being an absolute arsehole has to come to an end.
Here’s the LMA statement in full, with some thoughts as to why I feel it’s entirely insufficient, ill-conceived, and damaging.
“In the course of a search by the Club in early 2014 of 10,000 private text messages sent to and from another member of staff during Mr Mackay’s employment at Cardiff…”
Presumably the fact that they were “private” somehow diminishes the fact that the content was terrifically racist. As long as we’re racist behind closed doors, it’s ok?
“…in relation to other matters, it emerged that Malky had, it seems, sent a couple of one line texts that were, with the benefit of hindsight, very regrettable and disrespectful of other cultures.”
The fact that they’re referred to as “a couple of one line texts” is again entirely dismissive of the issue. It was only a couple of texts. They were only one liners. What’s the problem? But do you really need hindsight to see that what you’re typing is racist? Do you need a few weeks to realise that writing about “Fkn chinkys” might be a tad bit controversial? I guess it’s not obvious at the time, right?
“These were two text messages sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter.”
I don’t even know where to start with this. First, I’ve done a fair bit of work in the area of stress and pressure. I’ve written a few papers on coaches who work in extremely high-pressured environments, and their responses to stress have never included making racial slurs via text. Malky was under pressure, so the racist (and allegedly homophobic and misogynistic) texts were justified? Second, it was just some “friendly text message banter.”
This is, I think, where I have the biggest problem. The culture of ‘banter’ is a sickening poison, and those who use ‘banter’ as an excuse, are essentially saying “whatever you’re upset about, you shouldn’t be, because it’s only a couple of blokes (and yes it is usually men) having a laugh. Stop being offended and get over it.”
“That said, Malky believes he could and should have conducted himself better on these two isolated occasions. The precise details need to remain private for the time being until any FA process is complete.
“The LMA does not condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws but would also point out that out of over 10,000 text messages and 70,000 documents produced over a long period of time it may not be a complete surprise that some inappropriate comments can sometimes be made by employees, like Malky, working under great pressure in highly charged situations.
“If Malky has caused any offence by these two isolated matters he would, however, wish to sincerely apologise.”
Seriously? Out of 10,000 texts, it’s hardly surprising that a few of them are racist? You’ve genuinely written and published that as an official statement? That’s what you’re going with? Really? Well, I suppose when you’re under pressure, you just can’t help being racist. It’s only banter though. You know, letting off some steam.
“Malky finds it strange that these matters were only raised with the FA and in the media now, eight months after his employment ended and the day before he was reported as being offered the opportunity to become manager of Crystal Palace FC. Malky is also very concerned about seriously inaccurate and misleading reports of his alleged involvement in these matters in the media.
“It has never been alleged that he wrote any homophobic or sexist messages and he has confirmed that he did not do so. Further, there are incorrect and damaging suggestions that he sent a whole host of offensive and unpleasant messages that are simply not true and which give a grossly distorted and unfair view of Malky’s involvement in this matter.”
Is the amount of racism really the appropriate focus here? Plus, if we’re passing off racist remarks as ‘banter’, I’m not sure we’re in the best position to say what constitutes sexist or homophobic content, now are we?
“Malky looks forward to matters being put straight in due course, following any investigation of this matter. Malky cannot of course comment on the nature of any conduct or communications alleged to have been made by others. Malky has said that he will be fully co-operating with any FA investigation and that he looks forward to putting the record straight thereafter.”
So that’s it. That’s the LMA’s official statement on the matter. The “it’s just banter” excuse – and that’s exactly what it is, a tired excuse – is not tackling discrimination, it’s ignoring it. And that’s just not good enough.
Were you satisfied with the LMA’s statement? Do you think it missed the mark? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so leave a comment below if you like.
Shortly after this post was first published, the LMA has issued another statement, apologising for their previous statement (Monty Python anyone?). Anyway, here’s their apology:
“The LMA apologises for some of its wording, in its release yesterday, which was inappropriate and has been perceived to trivialise matters of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature. That was certainly not our intention. It is beyond argument that any comments that are discriminatory, even used in private, are totally unacceptable. The LMA remains absolutely aware of our responsibility to the game and to promote and uphold the highest standards of behaviour.”
While this apology is a step in the right direction, I just wonder why you would write a statement if you think that the wording was inappropriate and could be perceived to trivialise some of the issues involved. Maybe they could only see that with the benefit of hindsight. Maybe they were under a lot of pressure. Maybe it was just banter.
Well that’s it! The 2014 NBA Finals are over and it was the San Antonio Spurs who put last year’s defeat emphatically behind them, and prevented the Miami Heat from winning their third straight Championship, or “threepeating” if you will.
I don’t think anyone expected the Spurs to win in 5 Games and I certainly don’t think anyone expected the Heat to roll over without much of a fight. At the very least, I didn’t expect it, but I admit that I was hoping that the Spurs brand of TEAM FIRST basketball would be effective enough to get them past Miami. And it really, really was!
I said in the first blog-post of this series that I wanted to do a game-by-game ‘Psychology of the NBA Finals’ type thing. Key sport psych lessons or observations from each game. You can access the other blogs from the home page if you like. But what were the important points to take from Game 5?
San Antonio took Game 3 in dramatic fashion to lead the series 2-1. They hit 19 of their first 21 shots, they scored 41 in the 1st quarter, and they had 71 by half-time! It was always an uphill struggle for the Heat, but the Spurs won by being aggressive and doing their thing, especially Kawhi Leonard who had an outstanding game (career high 29 points) after a relatively quite Game 1 and Game 2.
So, how did the Heat make adjustments? Did Mario Chalmers decide to do something… anything? I predicted that the Heat would respond with a BIG game, that they would be the more aggressive team in Game 4, and that they would do their thing to get back into the series: Swarming defence, steals, fast break points… I could not have been more wrong.
If the theme of Game 1 was ‘beating the heat’, the theme of Game 2 was definitely ‘keeping cool’. But this time, it wasn’t a broken air conditioning system that was causing players’ temperatures to rise. It was another one of those damn uncontrollables – the refs.
Every player knows that the refs won’t call two games in exactly the same way. No matter what the sport, while referees aim for consistency, you just know that some days you’re gonna get calls, some days you’re not. It was clear from the start that the referees had made an adjustment from Game 1 and were allowing much more contact in Game 2.
It’s been a while since my last post on here. I’ve been largely trying to avoid the internet while the NBA Playoffs have been happening. People seem unable to resist posting results on social media sites and, since I can no longer stay up until 5am and function adequately the next day, I’ve been recording games to watch when I get home from work the following day.
Even though I’m not watching the games live, I can still obviously influence the result by shouting at the TV, so knowing the results essentially ruins watching sports… and spending a whole day in a Sports Department and NOT finding out sporting results is not easy.
Anyway, that’s why I’ve been “off the internet” for a while, but I’m back now, and what an NBA Final Series we have this year! I’m not a Spurs fan as such, but I’m a fan of the way they play basketball… the right way. They were literally inches from winning the Finals last year, so I was really pleased to see them make their way back there this year, and loved the way their unselfish, team basketball, got them past the one-on-one, never-going-to-be-successful, even-Jordan-passed-the-ball-sometimes, nightmare that is the OKC Thunder.