Advice For The NBA’s Worst Teams
Many say the NFL is the land of parity. I would humbly submit that it is instead the land of mediocrity due in large part to the hard salary cap. Even so, it’s great fun to be a fan of a team in the league because virtually every franchise has a legitimate chance of making it to the playoffs and, once in the playoffs, winning a Super Bowl.
Life is much different in the NBA. Only a handful of teams have a legitimate shot of winning it all. Further, it’s fairly easy to decipher which teams those are before the first ball is tossed up in the preseason.
Conversely, there are teams in the league that have virtually no shot of making it to the postseason. These franchises are easy to pick out because those at the top are touting three-year or even five-year plans.
So what is one to do as a fan of one of these inevitable cellar dwellers? Rather than praying for wins that won’t come, what follows are a list of qualities and ways of interacting that good rebuilding franchises would be apt to adopt based on the psychological literature.
Set small, manageable goals and recognize progress
It can be easy to forget that NBA players are human. While they may not always show it overtly, players want to hear they are doing a good job. On teams that are struggling to get wins, it can be particularly easy to forget this. It is important for teams to set small individual goals for every player and celebrate the accomplishment of these goals. This will assist teams in not losing the attention of the player over time and help to maintain “buy in.” Solely focusing on overall team wins and losses quickly becomes demoralizing when the wins prove hard to come by. Focusing on and recognizing the achievement of small goals can help each player believe what they do is important.
Make it a collaboration rather than a dictatorship
Rather than simply setting goals for players, sitting down and forming goals together is ideal. This is an approach I have taken with athletes and also with clients in my clinical work from all walks of life. I am reminded of the response of an elementary school-aged girl I worked with when I asked her about this approach as our work together was coming to a close. She stated, “Well, if it’s your idea of course you are going to like it better than if someone else tells you to do it.” She said it with that duh sort of tone. There is brilliance in her words though, and I would venture to say that most humans feel the same about their ideas.
We live in a world today where seemingly everyone has something to say. Even if people aren’t “talkers,” they can tweet it, post it on Facebook, etc. As a culture we are great at being bombastic, but not so good at honoring someone else with the gift of listening. Perhaps there is no more important time to listen than when things are going poorly for someone. Being willing to listen means that coaches or management may hear things they don’t necessarily want to, but ultimately, creating an environment of open communication is much preferable to one where players keep things locked up inside and coaches or management instead receive information through the winds of gossip. This is not to say that what the players want will always happen, but it’s imperative to ensure they feel genuinely listened to. Sometimes just feeling heard can be motivating all by itself even before any behavior changes have occurred, while feeling unheard can be demoralizing and demotivating.
Take a genuine interest in the player’s career
In a hyper competitive business like the NBA, it can be easy to avoid forming close bonds with others because of the knowledge that major personnel changes could be made at any time, especially on bad teams. Avoiding connecting with others in this kind of environment is analogous to the person who breaks up with others before they have a chance to break up with them in romantic relationships to at least have the pain happen on their own terms. It helps one avoid initial pain, but it is not a good long-term strategy for living. If coaches and front office people demonstrate that they have a genuine interest in the player’s professional career and in the player as a person regardless of what happens in the future, it is much more likely the player will continue to play hard. The word demonstrate in the previous sentence was used quite purposefully as simply telling a player that you care isn’t nearly as effective as demonstrating as much everyday.
Have the back of your players
When the train begins coming off the rails, finger-pointing is a common behavior used by those riding on it. A coach stepping up and authentically and publicly taking the heat for the players in the midst of a storm is a gesture that goes a long way. Likewise, members of management having the back of the coaching staff or the owner having the back of the GM or a veteran player standing up for a young player tends to sustain a supportive environment. This kind of behavior reminds people in the organization that they won’t be left alone on an island after making a mistake. It also makes the person who made a mistake more likely to have the back of others in the future.
Maintain your cool
Basketball is an emotional game, and the emotions can run even higher when there are tens of millions of dollars involved. However, a coach losing emotional control when the ship starts sinking is a sure fire way to recruit players into considering finding the quickest way to jump off the Titanic. Emotion harnessed correctly shows people you care, but when emotion gains control of the person it is likely to become toxic. Losing one’s temper consistently can lead to players losing both trust and loyalty.
Failing to acknowledge the elephant
Good leaders have a responsibility to facilitate conversations that must take place for the unit to function effectively. Sometimes these can be very difficult conversations to have, and often the most difficult conversations are the ones that everyone can see but no one has had the courage to verbalize. A good example of this can be if the best player on a team is consistently showing up late or otherwise disrespecting his coaches or teammates. Everyone knows this is happening, but often coaches are likely to cut this player more slack because of their ability. Once this behavior is readily addressed the team usually engages in a collective exhale, but this is certainly not an easy process to initiate or execute effectively. It seems our culture has confused honesty and hostility. When this happens folks are apt to say something like, “I’m only being real.” No, you are being a jerk. It is possible to deliver an honest message so that it is not watered down but also do so in a way that it is not hostile. Mastering this art is perhaps the key to facilitating difficult conversations, especially with often-oversensitive “star” athletes.
Don’t be afraid to apologize
We all make mistakes. We are likely to make a few more when things aren’t going well. The majority of families or couples I see in therapy are going through some kind of difficulty, or series of difficulties, outside of their family or relationship when they seek therapy. When we are experiencing stress at a level that is significantly higher than our baseline level, we are usually not the best version of ourselves. This is no less true for professional athletes, coaches or members of management. It is likely that folks who are part of a losing season in the NBA will say or do a few things they regret. But just like any family, being willing to own a mistake and apologize is crucial. It always starts at the top, too. When those at the top are willing to own their mistakes, others will follow.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and a former team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio on Tuesday nights at 6pm. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.