Monday, May 29, 2006

Effort is a Skill

There's been this crazy perception floating around NBA circles for years now that somehow effort is the easiest and cheapest part of the game. I don't know how much this flourishes among players, but I've sure heard plenty of fans admiring guys who make amazing shots every fourth play while taking the other three off. They assume that as long as the talent is there, occasional greatness will naturally develop into winning consistency. It rarely happens though. That's because effort itself is a skill, no different than shooting or dribbling. It takes practice and concentration to develop. Saying a guy will just decide to turn it up someday is the equivalent of saying a defensive specialist will just decide to start putting his jumpers through the net. It's not that easy.

Sports like distance running and amateur wrestling show us that effort isn't accidental, but an intentionally rehearsed trait. You simply don't see anyone at the highest levels of those sports who hasn't learned to gut it out, keep their mind focused, and give it all in every moment. How many hours of grueling practice lie behind that ability? The sidelines of those sports are littered with athletes who had great physical tools but, for whatever reason, couldn't develop the mental discipline necessary to give the consistent, world-class effort that success demands. Because basketball rewards specific skills like shooting, it's easier for people without that discipline to advance to higher levels, but that doesn't mean that they're going to be successful when they get there. And it certainly doesn't mean that they're going to be able to develop that discipline without intentionally working on it. Merely being a basketball player doesn't grant automatic acquisition of a trait that wrestlers and runners spend lifetimes learning and practicing.

You can prove this point for yourself at your local pickup game, especially if (like me) you're a weekend warrior who just loves to shoot around with buddies. Next time you're out there, try to play the game perfectly...hustle after every loose ball, block out on every board, follow your own shot instead of watching it, run back hard in transition. You might anticipate some physical stress from doing this, but you know what you'll probably find? The mental strain of doing it will get to you long before your body starts complaining. You're going to have a hard time remembering not to watch your own shot. You're going to find yourself unconsciously lapsing into old, bad habits rebounding. You may be able to change your playing style for a sequence or two, but you're not going to make it for a whole game without your brain getting really, really tired from having to think (and chide you) every second you're out there.

Now much effort would it take for you to change your game permanently, or even on a consistent basis, game to game? How much practice would you have to do? In how many outings would you have to repeat your behavior before it became second nature? There's no magical light switch. Making a decision to give a little more here or there doesn't matter. Either the discipline is there, and repeated, and evidenced, and worked on, or it's not...much like physical strength or good shooting form.

Effort guys ARE talented, just like shooters are talented. Their talent development has just been in a less obvious area. An effort guy who can't shoot worth beans is no less talented than a shooter who plays the game a like a roadside construction flagger when the ball isn't in his hands.

I cringe every time I hear people downplaying effort as if anyone could give it if they really wanted if it wasn't a skill in its own right. How often have you heard the question, "Would you rather have talented guys who don't work that hard or guys who aren't that talented who give a lot of effort"? At the NBA level, the answer to that question is NEITHER. Both will cause you to lose, just in different ways.

There cannot be a gap between offensive/athletic talent and effort at the professional level if you're going to win. It's as simple as that. It's time to stop glorifying one while taking the other for granted. If you look at the great players and the great teams--Magic's Lakers, Bird's Celtics, Jordan's Bulls, Duncan's Spurs--they all had this in common: they had a lot of talented guys who also worked very hard at working very hard. And this was true of everyone from the best player on the team on down to the 12th man, or else they didn't stay on the team very long. That's not an accident, nor a nice ideal...that's what winning takes.



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