Unearthing The Nonverbal NBA
“What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is a classic scenario that can be seen multiple times in any single basketball game. A player is removed from the game by his head coach and moves toward the bench. Rarely is anything said by the player toward the coach (although this does occur now with more frequency than it did in previous decades). Instead, nonverbal cues tell the entire story.
I can think of one specific circumstance in which a player came off the court with his shoulders slumped, eyes rolling, and sort of flopped onto the baseline out of bounds while giving his coach the “stink eye.”
When I spoke to this player after the game he defensively noted, “I didn’t say anything!”
“You didn’t have to say anything. You might as well have given your coach the middle finger in front of 20,000 people because what you did was really no different.”
Therein lies the power of nonverbal communication. Even if you have never played basketball at a competitive level, I’m quite certain you have been a participant in a similar dance somewhere in your life.
If you have ever been in a romantic relationship, you have likely experienced a scenario where you asked your partner how his or her day was. The response might have been “good.” However, that word alone means nothing. It is all about how the word is communicated.
For example, if the person says the word “good” in monotone with a lack of positive facial expressions of any kind, almost instantly you become skeptical of what is being communicated. Said differently, the words being stated do not match the affect of the person stating them.
Of course, the person always has an alibi in these situations because if you were to follow up and inquire about what was wrong, they could respond by stating something like, “I said I was good.” This is similar to the player who told me “I didn’t say anything” in the example above. In both cases, the words are ancillary. The message has already been communicated nonverbally and nothing further is required.
So often it is nonverbal communication that is the undoing of both coaches and players in the NBA and yet it is something that is rarely discussed or addressed with specific interventions.
The study of nonverbal behavior in earnest began in 1872 with Charles Darwin’s work studying the facial expressions of humans as well as other animals. Such work was extended by the likes of Sigmund Freud, who studied the implicit and unconscious meaning of behavior. Depending on the study, it is estimated that anywhere from 50-70 percent of our communication is nonverbal.
Nonverbal communication contains many different categories. Paralinguistics, for example, are things like pauses in speech, vocalizations that are free from specific speech content, rate of speech, pitch, volume, etc. Kinesics are what we commonly refer to as body language such as movement of the hands, facial expressions, movement of the eyes, etc. There are a number of other components, but this should be enough to demonstrate a basic idea of what is meant by “nonverbal communication” in this context.
Research indicates that people send nonverbal cues frequently, but are often unaware of the cues they are sending. Assisting people in becoming aware of these cues can be helpful. For example, I often use cameras when conducting couple’s therapy to help both members of the partnership become more aware of their own nonverbal patterns of communication. Often they will say something to their partner like, “I don’t do that” to which I respond, “Let’s check out the tape.” The response is often one of shock and embarrassment and a realization of, “I really do do that.”
It is important to note that the process of watching oneself on film leaves one extremely vulnerable. During my doctoral training, I had to watch every session I did for over four years on film with feedback from my supervisor and colleagues dubbed into the tape as they watched behind a one-way mirror. What was addressed on these tapes was not simply technique, but also my nonverbal ways of communicating and how these impacted the patients I worked with. It was a terrifying experience for quite a while, but one that ended up teaching me as much or more about myself than any other.
Athletes are used to watching video to improve their games. The same sort of process can be used to help them become aware of their nonverbal communication tendencies and alter them where appropriate. What is often forgotten is that nonverbal communication is no different than verbal communication in that it is in part a skill that can be taught and refined. It is not some mysterious entity that a person has no control over. It is just that most of us do not take the time or simply aren’t placed in situations consistently in which we can watch our nonverbal behavior and subsequently become more aware of how these behaviors tend to impact the people around us.
With pro athletes and teams of any kind, there is a fun way this can be addressed that I have found to be particularly effective. It begins by having one member of the team pick a word. The word can be anything. Let’s say the word that is chosen is popcorn (which was actually the word that was chosen the last time I used this exercise). Once the word is chosen, two members of the team are to role-play a fictional conversation using just this word. All of the other members of the team are asked to watch the conversation and to note observations such as what both members of the conversation are feeling at different times, the kind of relationship they have, what both parties were trying to accomplish, etc. The amazing part of this exercise is that those observing are almost always accurate in their observations despite the fact that only a single word can be used by either person involved in the conversation. What this exercise effectively demonstrates is that so often words aren’t necessary to ascertain what is being communicated. Instead, nonverbal behavior tells the majority of the story all by itself.
Research over the last couple of decades has demonstrated that awareness and understanding of one’s own nonverbal cues as well as those of others is strongly associated with success in group or team endeavors. It is also strongly associated with high emotional and social intelligence, which helps predict success in myriad of vocational and relational life situations.
Of course, culture can be a very large moderator in nonverbal communication. Different cultures have different norms with regard to what is considered acceptable in terms of eye contact, touch, etc. Given the diversity of the NBA across many variables, this is a crucial consideration.
Trying to decide whether or not a player can play at the NBA level isn’t a particularly unique or difficult skill to develop. However, trying to gauge how well a player communicates with others and how well he will fit into an already existing team culture and structure is much more tricky. Sport psychology offers some insight into this, but traditionally it has been much more focused on helping individual players improve performance.
When scouting a college game live, I actually spend very little time watching a player actually play the game. I can see all of that on film prior to ever watching him play live. When at the game, I use this as a time to talk to the coaching staff about the player and how he interacts with others. I then watch how he carries himself throughout the day when he is not yet even in competition whether that is in warm ups or when casually interacting with others. There is so much to be learned by these interactions.
Once the game starts, observing how the player responds to almost any situation provides crucial data. What are his nonverbals like when the referees blow a call? When he gets taken out of the game? When his coach gets in his grill and challenges him? When one of his teammates misses him when he’s open?
Scouting Damian Lillard while I was consulting for an NBA team last season provided a perfect example of the importance of nonverbals. I already knew he had the physical ability to play in the NBA and had stated over a year ago that I believed he was a lottery pick in terms of talent. This was obvious. Again, it’s not that hard to identify skill-set and whether or not a guy can play.
However, scouting a game last season, I learned something much more important about Lillard. I was sitting on the baseline about 15 feet from the point guard as he drove the lane and got obviously hacked as he attacked the basket. The whistle never blew. Lillard sprinted back on defense without even a glance at the official. A few minutes later after a timeout, Lillard came out with a smile on his face and patted the referee on the backside and started up a casual conversation with him that had nothing to do with the foul call. I then heard the referee tell him, “I know I missed that last call,” to which Lillard replied by just kind of shrugging his shoulders as if to communicate “we all make mistakes.”
This was just one example among many that day that impressed me about Lillard. This information also jived with what all of the people who knew Lillard, some since high school, had told me. It’s worth noting that sometimes coaches lie to protect their players, so I always operate under the trust but verify protocol.
Players, if they are even mildly sophisticated, learn to lie to the media at a relatively young age. However, nonverbal communication doesn’t lie. Moreover, most young players (and, according to the previous research already cited, most people in general) aren’t aware of their nonverbals and therefore aren’t aware that such behaviors are being evaluated. I would contend that evaluation of such behavior can help separate two players of relatively equivalent skill level and is something that is too often explored at only a cursory level by talent evaluators in all sports.
Perhaps after reading this today it might slightly expand the way you watch basketball games. As opposed to just watching the skill of the players or obsessing over the numbers, look at the nuances of communication present in every interaction. So much can be learned from watching a game through this lens.
It is also my hope that NBA teams will continue to look at ways they can identify players’ nonverbal communication tendencies prior to drafting or signing and ways in which they can help current players and coaches become aware of these tendencies in an effort to improve team performance. And in the process, they might just learn something about themselves as people that might far transcend the benefits on the basketball court.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver. He previously served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.