Month: March 2013

Greatness Measured by Sustainability

I recently read a fantastic Grantland.com article by Zach Lowe on the Toronto Raptors use of computer technology and analytics to recreate videos with “ghost” defenders that demonstrate where the actual player should have been at any moment during the evolving play. The “ghost” defenders are almost without fail quicker and more aggressive in their help and rotations. This type of ultra-aggressive help defense is brutal, hard work. For just about every team it is impossible, and even if possible, unsustainable. The closest team to sustaining this level of defense is the Heat, who have three of the best wing defenders in the league in Shane Battier, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, and the latter two are among the NBA’s most gifted pure athletes. In particular the Heat have Lebron James, who does what no other player can. “LeBron basically messes up the system and the ghosts,” Rucker says. “He does things that are just unsustainable for most players.”

The essence of James’ greatness is the physical and mental focus he applies to every possession on both ends of the floor, night in and night out.  Miami’s 27 game winning streak fell Wednesday night against the Bulls.  Two nights later, the Heat were in New Orleans playing the Hornets.  James was nursing an injury, and could have taken a night off.  He didn’t.  He hit his first six three-pointers on his way to 28 first half points.  There is within him an irrespressible desire to play, and to improve.  He has developed a post game, improved his shooting and is the best defensive player in basketball by any measure.  He can guard all five positions on the ball, wreak havoc as an off ball defender, and in successive play-offs has absolutely shut down then reigning MVP Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant to the extent that I felt bad for both players.

I distinctly remember James guarding Durant in the fourth quarter of a finals game last year and holding Durant scoreless.  Lebron cramped late in the quarter and left the game for four possessions.  Durant scored his only points of the quarter on the Thunder’s two possessions with James on the bench.  Durant is that good at exploiting advantage, and James that much better at….everything.

I believe there are three cycles to a superstar’s athletic career.  The wonder years when the emerging talent captivates with his precocious gifts and the possibilities are limitless.  The middle years when the superstar is taken for granted and often resented for his dominance.  Any shortcoming is hyper-analyzed and deconstructed.  This is a tragic loss of time as for reasons rooted in our own insecurities we root against players that literally embody the best of the sports we love.  Finally, the golden years where through sustaining greatness over such a prolonged period of time, we have no choice by to respect it.  Often this comes about too late when the superstar in question is but a shadow of his former self and we cling to the sporadic flashes that remind us of what we once saw, but didn’t always appreciate regularly.

We are in the presence of Lebron James apex.  If you love the game of basketball, as I do, drop your reservations petty they undoubtedly are, and embrace his greatness.  He is playing at a level few, if any, have ever reached, and as those of us who watched Jordan speak with reverence now, you will speak of James later.

Dan Abrahams Mental Toughness Workshop June 5, 2013 in Orlando

Dan Abrahams is a sports psychologist and author, who will be doing a one day workshop in Orlando June 5, 2013.  Dan works as a consultant with Queens Park Rangers in the EPL, and has among his clients a number of professional football players throughout the UK and Europe.  Last year, he wrote his first book “Soccer Tough” which explained what he does as a sports psychologist and how he uses his knowledge to help athletes and coaches with techniques, or “tekkers” to train the brain to perform optimally.  Dan can also be followed on twitter @danabrahams77, where you can find insightful, practical “tekker” tweets.

I have followed Dan on twitter for a few years now, and through that connection developed a correspondence and relationship that has brought about this workshop.  I have come to believe thoroughly in the work of Dan Abrahams and it’s applicability to all sports, athletes and coaches alike.

As athletes move up the pyramid of competition, the difference in technique and physical talent gets smaller, and mental toughness becomes the margin between making it to the college or professional ranks, and tapping out.  Too often, mental toughness is presumed to be something that athletes are born with, and not something that can be improved upon.  Dan Abrahams gives you an understanding of how your brain works, and practical techniques to influence your brain to productive, positive thinking. 

In my experience, coaches remain largely naive as to training the minds of their athletes.  Coaches become fixated on physical development, technical training and tactics, but coaching at it’s best is about relationships, building trust and believe in those you work with.  Dan Abrahams will give you the knowledge and tools to recognize brain work behind what behaviors your players are displaying to you, and techniques to reach them and bring about substantive improvement.

Opportunity is knocking.  Answer by signing up through this link today.

http://www.danabrahams.com/blog/mental-toughness-workshop-orlando-2013-06.php

 

Marquette Mauls Miami

Admittedly, this is a cheesy title befitting a school newspaper, and I would have preferred something better , but it simply wouldn’t be true.  It is what they did.  Marquette got into Miami and pushed their offense five feet higher up the floor and away from the basket.  The angles of the game changed for Miami.  Post passes were longer in the air, drives into lane needed an extra dribble, and players on the wing were not in position to shoot on the catch.  More often than not, the extra time meant Marquette’s rotations beat Miami’s ball movement.  The Hurricanes shot the ball poorly, and to a man will feel they didn’t “play their game.”

They didn’t because Marquette imposed their will over Miami in a text book defensive performance in terms of tactics and effort.  An effort applied for the duration of the game.  I stand in appreciation and admiration of their accomplishment.

Thoughts on the Final Push

We won our group in the first round of State Cup this weekend.  It wasn’t easy, nothing after the month of August has been for this eclectic group, but now we are in the final sixteen and by the end of May, we might just be state champions. 

Our weekend was symbolic of our season.  We opened against a tough Florida Fire team at 8am.  Our starting line up was unpredictable, our substitutions inexplicable, and our result, a nil-nil draw, unsatisfying.  To be fair, a draw against a quality opponent in the Fire was a decent result, but the manner in which it came about was the issue.  We played without a plan intermittently passing and punting to no avail.

Our second game was a horrific mismatch against a team ill-equipped to compete at the State Cup.  We won 6-0, but resolved nothing of ourselves.  The Fire beat Weston 2-1 in the other game meaning a draw would send us through, and a shutout win, or win of any kind by two or more goals would win us the group.

I watched nearby as our players warmed up, and there was no energy.  I read into the casual movements the wear and tear of a long season, the frustration of unmet goals, undefined roles and uncertainty over the future, individual and collective.  Kevin Lynch and other parents tried to prod the boys to greater effort with little effect.  It crossed my mind more than once that I could not coach a team like this, mainly because I would not allow this to happen.  Some season long joke, impromptu comment or even physical assault in the form of a random tackle would break this monotony. From outside their circle I could only watch….and hope.

The game started well.  We pressed, kept the ball in their end and were duly rewarded with a goal.  Nonetheless there was a counter current of bad, and by bad I mean over-sensitive officiating, pushing against our progress.  Assyed Sanchez picked up a yellow card for a late rush on the ball, and five minutes later a second yellow followed by a red for a challenge on the Weston keeper.  We would have to survive 45 minutes a man down. 

There was shouting, anger, and another yellow to Randall Congreaves for dissent,  but then there was focus and unified support.  The parents got loud and supportive, every bit of hustle and fight welcomed with applause and a call for more.  The players settled in and worked their asses off closing down spaces, winning tackles, connecting  passes and posing just enough threat on Weston’s goal to stay on the front foot.  We rotated our lone striker through the second half to stay fresh, and behind him stood a fortified, but active block of eight.  Weston never threatened us, and we won the group with a 1-0 win.

I alluded earlier to the uncertainty of the future, and it is palpable as the season winds down.  All teams are temporary.  This group as presently constituted will play together as long as they last in the State Cup.  After that, there will be change, perhaps negligible potentially massive, but it will never again be as it is now.  It is at this time of year with my teams that I look in the eyes of each of my players and let that sit and resonate, and hopefully fuel each one of them to some greater level of purpose and play to respect and honor the time they have spent together in the entity of team.

Comer over Craft

Two guards led there teams to victory tonight in the first round of March Madness.  One was no surprise, as he is reputed to be “the best defensive player” in college basketball, and his team a number two seed.  The other led a fifteen seed over a two and is best known as Austin Rivers high school teammate.

I’ll take Brett Comer over Aaron Craft.

Craft is the poster boy and media all-american of Ohio State.  He may well be a terrific guy, but I can’t watch him play without picking him apart.  He is hailed for his defensive prowess, but other than maintaining a solid stance, sliding himself into a red-faced fury and taking the occasional charge, he does not impact the game on that end of the floor as one would expect of the “best defensive player in college basketball”.  Offensively, he directs traffic , but is a subpar shooter, low efficiency penetrator whose passes seldom approach incisive.  Creative is beyond the realm.  He is a functional, team-first player on a good team.

Comer is bereft of hype, but comparable in physical qualities and Craft’s lauded tenacity.  He is inferior as an on ball defender, but is crafty off the ball.  He too is a below average shooter, and moderately superior in finishing at the basket.  I favor him for his vision and audacity.   He threw an inbounds pass off the back of an unsuspecting Hoya defender, killed three valuable seconds with a perfectly weighted cross court pass as he was about to be fouled with thirty seconds to play.  Neither play registered a statistic, but both were winning plays.

On the night, Comer had ten assists most of them clever, one of them transcendent.  With 1:30 to play, and Georgetown making a desperate run, Comer caught the ball on the right side of the floor and drove at the basket.  He was cut off, and could have pulled the ball out and drawn a foul. He threw the ball high over the closing defender….to a teammate at full extension, who dunked.  Game over.

Neither player has clear professional prospects, but unburdened by hype, I could enjoy Comer for all that he is rather than critique him for all that he isn’t as I do Craft.

Inside Jason’s Bucket List

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(The following is an adaptation of a story related by my cousin Jason Cefola)

I have a bucket list. A few weeks ago, I checked an item off my list. I was in Canada with my in laws and joined my wife’s uncle on a dog sled excursion. I am contrary to my cousin writing this post, a dog lover, and within that love I hold the pack animal in special regard. Pack animals are bred to perform a task in common cause with others. There is a noble simplicity to their existence that resonates with me, and brought me with my uncle in law to a remote part of Canada where neighbors are miles apart and the snow sits in feet not inches.

I was greeted by an older gentleman and the chaotic symphony of thirty chained dogs standing on their sleep boxes hailing my arrival. I was invited into the dog cage, and did all I could to restrain my anxiety as our adventure began. Over the next ninety minutes, we tediously laid out chains, harnesses and brought the dogs over to the sled. Some dogs were timid, others ranged from dutiful, playful and belligerent. Each owned a personality. Our guide seemed to weigh these personalities in harnessing each of them to the three sleds we would ride into the snow. Once all in place, a thunderous clash of individuality ensued with barking, snapping and fighting, and much of what we spent the last ninety minutes doing was undone as we took another hour to reassemble the dogs.

Once again there was fire among the dog’s, but an ever so subtle difference as rather than clashing, they were like a great Army of War’s no longer fought, ready to do what they do. With a burst and bark echoing through the snow covered mountains, we were off the dogs striding in unison and building speed.

The speed soon diminished to six or seven miles per hour, and so did the barking. As we moved through the snow, the only sound was the breathing of the dogs that carried us. Their pace and rhythm machine-like, and wholly irreconciliable with the process of assembling the dogs to the sled. We would stop periodically more so we can take in the sweeping landscapes than for any rest required of the dogs. At rest, they resumed barking and bickering, but in motion remained a beautiful machine.

After several hours, we returned to the dog cage, unharnessed the dogs, fed them, chained them and watched them fall into their sleep boxes for a well earned rest. I may come back, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow. Someone else would be in my stead, but the dogs would be up tomorrow barking and waiting for their next romp through the snow at the head of a sled.

For the last several months I have followed this blog. Initially I suppose because my cousin wrote it. It covers sports and talks mostly of teams, two things I have little experience or understanding of, but there has always been a sense of deeper truth and applicability to the writing that kept me reading. As I stood on my dogsled and was carried through the snow covered mountains to the singular sound of eight dogs breathing in unison doing the only function they exist to perform, I understood team and purpose and what the hell my cousin is trying to convey.

The Duty Within the Duty

Coaches have a duty to get the most out of their teams, and this generally equates with winning games.  I love winning.  It fills my heart with joy.  I believe winning is the result of doing correctly all the things we did in practice with a level of commitment and execution superior to our opponent.  Winning raises the stature of your team and enables them to play more games in front of more people….some of them scouts.

Winning is also a function of talent.  You cannot win at a high level without it.  Talent comes in many forms.  Some players adhere to the talent code, and build themselves through hours of dedicated practice a level of talent that changes games.  For others, their talent is innate.  They are gifted in a few particular attributes be it size, speed, explosiveness or some pleasing mix of the three that makes them at the early levels of play, close to unstoppable.

It is with this particular group that the duty within the duty arises.  As a coach, it may be easy to feed at the trough of their talent, but without some push to expand the talent or refine it, you are negligent. 

In my basketball coaching career, I have been around a number of players below 6′ 4″ that have had talent to play in college, but for the exigencies of winning have had to play in the post.  At the college level, the success of these players turns on an ability to change positions and play on the perimeter.  In coaching this type of player, it is imperative that you give them the skill work necessary to do so even if the interests of your team require them to play out of position.