Sunday, September 09, 2007

Self-Coaching: Lessons From Basketball

Yesterday I hit the basketball court for the first time in years. I used to be quite the gym rat, but long ago replaced hoops with more practical exercise: jogging, weight-lifting, etc.

I was surprised how quickly my shot came back to me. Very shortly after coming onto the court, I was launching and hitting jumpers from beyond the three-point range. My legs had lost some spring, and my stamina was reduced. I wasn't yet ready for prime time.

Most surprising to me, however, was how the self-coaching kicked in. After years of being in a team environment, that coach's voice had become more a part of me than I realized.

My first free throws were off the mark: I was only hitting 50-60% of them--and that's *really* bad for me.

So, as if I had never missed a beat from college, I shot free throws. One after another. Again and again.

Each time, I made subtle adjustments. In my head, I talked with the coach's voice: square your body and distribute your weight, extend the follow-through, keep your eye on the front of the rim as you shoot.

When I'm at the foul line, every shot follows a routine: I center my body in front of the rim, with my feet just behind the line; I bounce the ball three times, look up at the rim and take a very deep breath; I bounce the ball one more time and place my hand on the ball with the middle finger touching the same part of the ball (part of the ball's labeling) each time; I fix my eyes on the rim, launch the shot, and follow through.

Bounce, bounce, bounce. Deep breath, look at rim. Bounce. Center the hand on the ball. Eyes on the rim. Follow through.

Every shot the same.

But it's the subtle factors that take a shooter from 50% accuracy to 80%. As I stood out there in the heat, I quietly coached myself in those subtleties. In the end, it turned out I had two problems:

1) My fingers were not sufficiently widely spaced on the ball. With my fingers close together, I was getting a bit less arc on the shot and putting a little too much launch into the shot. With the fingers spread just a little more widely, the ball hit nothing but net.

2) I needed to take just a little more time--just an extra moment--in that initial look at the rim after the deep breath. By slowing myself down and fixing my eyes more carefully on the rim, I made the rest of the shot more automatic.

Little differences, repeated and made routine, yield major results. But they have to be the *right* differences.

On the court next to mine, a group of teens was playing a three-on-three game. It was almost more like three one-on-one matches going on simultaneously. Each player first looked to shoot the ball, only later to pass. Many opportunities to drive the lane, draw defenders, and dish off to open teammates were lost. They couldn't really see the whole court or the high percentage plays. They wanted to shoot the ball, not play basketball.

Every so often they looked my way. They probably wondered what in the world I was doing at the foul line all that time, bouncing and shooting.

I had to keep missing my shots--in practice, not in a game--to get things right. The focus had to be on the process of shooting, not making points.

I left the court thinking how very much like the trading world it all was.


Becoming an Agent of Continuous Learning

What Works--and Doesn't--in Coaching Traders