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Mastering the Basics

The following is a transcript from PROCESS2PERFORM episode 41: Mastering the Basics

Last week I put out this short video that highlights what happens when we actually become masters of the basics. In sports there is a tendency to celebrate the spectacular – certainly we will always be amazed by that which we cannot accomplish ourselves. That is true in any discipline – genius level execution is just as awe inspiring when playing piano as it is dunking a basketball.

What at times gets lost in Sportscenter highlights is that the best in the world are also the absolute best at executing the fundamentals of the game. When I talk with athletes about maximizing their opportunity (potential) we start by identifying the movements that need to be automated. Patterns that must be optimized for balance, explosiveness, and speed.

I’m watching a highlight of DeAndre Hopkins right now – case in point. When he catches a ball, the speed at which he can flip his hips upfield to face his opponent is remarkable. If you break it down, he lowers his hips, his feet stay in his phone booth, his arms stay near his frame. Now juxtapose that with my 12 year old – when he is running and suddenly has to change direction – his arms flail out wide, he rounds his turn and just slightly drops his center of gravity.

Now this is a maturity thing at one level – and some of this is natural ability – but the opportunity is that these at a high level are skills that can be taught – remember at high levels, skill competency is a function of time served. Those that improve in that seemingly minimal area will get to the next ball faster, make more decisions, and create more opportunities to improve. Turn on any college game this weekend – you will see college athletes making the same movement errors as a 12 year old. It’s because we don’t value them as much as we should.

Now look at the All-Pro – the speed at which they can change direction is levels ahead of their average peer, and more so when compared to a college athlete. Why? Because somehow – they have learned that these little details – really basics in most sports – get them more opportunities. Whatever their motivation, they have spent time refining these skills.

The message is that the basics allow us to accomplish everything else. When we watch our favorite athletes on TV, it is easy to dismiss them as physically superior. And some of them have made it largely on physical ability – no question. We get a ton of special talents entering and exiting the NFL every year. Scouts are always enthralled by potential – but often the work that needs to be done in order to unlock that potential is beyond the scope of the player or program.

Here’s a challenge for athletes – can you identify what the basics are in your sport – for your position? If you jotted down four skills that are essential for long term success, what would you come up with? .My guess is that they will be very general. In basketball it might be shooting, dribbling, passing and defense. Probably the same in soccer. Football linebackers would be reading, tackling, shedding, and tracking. These are all certainly very important to success. It goes back to breaking complex ideas into simple concepts. What are the basics – what are the essentials in the sport?

And I get it – believe me I get it – at 4 years old you are not worrying about this. What we all have to collectively understand is that in all of these sports coaches play the most effective players. Those players receive more opportunities to manipulate the ball, make decisions, and compete. They will become better through this process that those sitting on the bench. Malcolm Gladwell has demonstrated that this can be heavily influenced by birth date – read physical development. But that is an uncontrollable. We can control for teaching the proper movement patterns and concepts.

So when I talk about the basics – I’m talking about the core, ground up, movement patterns that make the skills you must execute the most efficient they can be. What kills me – and we have done this – is watching a young athlete having to relearn a skill because they have too many bad habits from lack of teaching. This happens at the pro level as well – check out our last video – not many lineman put themselves in a good position for success with their stance and initial footwork. Having to relearn that portion of the sport could be a huge differentiator for them, but who is going to rework the most basic tenants of their sport at that age and level?

So the best idea is to get them young, and get it right the first, or at least second time. Let’s pick one – what are the basics for a defender in soccer that serve as the foundation for their long term success? I’m talking physical acts that we can improve on through deliberate practice. Let’s start by talking through some very important components of success that often go unappreciated.

What is the goal and secondary goal for a defender? To stop offensive threats and to connect passes to initiate offense. To me – these are pretty big ideas. One simpler idea would be speed to close on an offensive threat. To break that down more, a great defender would need the ability to maintain the body posture required to decelerate and accelerate from a shuffle, and have the core strength and balance to run while in contact with the offensive player without stumbling. From an offensive perspective, vision would be a big idea. Breaking that down, great defenders scan the field before receiving the ball to be in the correct position to make the next pass. And that would require the defender to spend a great deal of time learning to remain in a position of action while surveying the entire area – not just ball watching with straight legs.

What I am saying here is really that we have to learn the core tenants of any sport while using the right body positions and posture.

So what are the basics here? The ability to maintain a great body posture during the game – a state of readiness. Triple flexion at the ankles, knees, and hips. Basic body posture we are taught week one, but still a source of failure at the highest levels. Another is playing with your head up. Probably the biggest differentiator in the sport at the younger ages. Most are not taught this crucial skill when they start playing – they have to relearn how to dribble and pass without staring at the ball. What kind of behavior do you think is driven by learning early on to stare at the ball when dribbling? Staring at the ball all the time – ball watching. Not surveying the space. Yes this is a skill as well – one that is reinforced by seemingly unrelated actions. And it makes a huge difference in performance as you get older.

Same thing happens in basketball – head down dribbling reinforces the concept of ball-watching. This hurts you on the offensive end – your ability to be creative and use space. But it is equally problematic on the defensive end. The inability to see the floor in basketball creates conditions for being on the receiving end of a poster opportunity.

Football – I just spent time with a high school coach who is well versed in preparing high school athletes for college. Because of COVID college recruiting now more than ever is being outsourced to recruiting sites and camps. These camps are attempting to demonstrate some level of skill and knowledge – but ultimately what every college wants to see is whether or not the kids can move right, given their body dimensions. Advanced knowledge of scheme isn’t a priority – what is a priority for these coaches are the basics – can they maintain the same body height when changing direction? Do they understand how to track the near hip? Can they strike with their inside hand when a receiver gets into their space? These are crucial sub-components of a larger skill set – these are the little details that make you stand out at these camps – how many people see it that way?

The hardest thing in sports training is to transfer from practice field to game field. At the highest levels this is especially tricky given the severity of a win or loss. In a sport that values ball possession for example – your value to the team may be completely in line with the amount of possession you can maintain throughout the course of the game. So in a fluid sport – basketball, soccer, rugby – you will see many players even at the early ages associate safe with success. Making the safe play all the time. This is a skill as well, and certainly at the younger levels you can win a lot of games making the safe pass. But if you watch any professional warm up – the level of skill they have acquired over the years is certainly an indicator that not only are the masters of the basics – they have been given, or have taken, the freedom to take risks that will help them grow as athletes.

Remember that to improve, to establish heightened focus – to level up – you must stretch yourself in competitive environments. We preach being the best at the basics because this allows you to learn when the right times are to take risks that will enhance your game. WHY? Because when you have a command of the basic functions of the position – you can begin to read your surroundings. Everyone calls this something different – read and react – or taking mental snapshots for recall – regardless, it is very difficult to do if your brain is being bogged down with how to set for success, how to dribble with your head up. It’s like driving through Yosemite park with your eyes on your phone – you’re gonna miss a lot of great stuff.

But at the root of this progression is understanding what it means to be a master of the basics. Yes you need to learn how to dribble – but the body position, the part of the foot, the relationship of the ball to your body, where your head is – these are the basics. And if you can take time to focus on one or two of them during a practice – they will seem much more attainable to your athlete. From there you expand your scope of mastery – and progress through the stack to make decisions that ultimately will drive habits on the field.

So as an exercise – take out a piece of paper and jot down what you thing the basics of your position are – or as a parent or coach – what they are for you athletes. From there – how simple can you make those big ideas? How can you break those ideas into digestible bites that are easy to construct a practice out of? Even at a team practice – players who focus on one or two things will find themselves dialed in, closer to flow state. Deep focus promotes flow – and that is the best way to accumulate skill.

If you need help hit me up – I love this stuff because it makes learning easier!

Big Ideas:

1) The basics of sport are core fundamental movement patterns

2) Identify your essentials given the requirements of your sport

3) Construct your training sessions based on reinforcing the basics

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