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In practice or in life, don't just go through the motions

One of the most overused, old-school idioms of coach-speak is that "practice makes perfect."

I figured, as a college student-athlete, I could pass a junior year sports psychology exam without too much studying, parlaying years of being an athlete into some version of on-the-court preparation for the exam. After all, it was multiple choice(s). Proving another coaching lesson about learning from mistakes, I remember one of the answers I got wrong to this day: practice, it turns out, does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.

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Translated into coach-speak, you play in games the way you (play in) practice, which is to say, if you go through the motions in practice, you'll get your butt handed to you in games.

You play the way you practice, which is why you should attack practice with intensity, focus and a desire to get better.

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Because of my job, I spend a relatively good amount of time in gyms, often arriving an hour before game time; and the idea that we play how we practice hit me recently as I watched a local Big Ten team's pregame routine.

John Wooden said that "if you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves." Wooden literally started the first practice of each season off by having his players take off their shoes and socks, as he proceeded to give his teams full of All-Americans lessons on how to properly put on socks and shoes. The lesson was that you can't practice if you have blisters on your feet.

North Carolina starts every practice with the same layup drill: Layup Drill No. 1 It is a simple, three-line, full-court layup drill. But, it is full of fundamental-building components.

Vince Lombardi is famous for evolving coach-speak, including saying that "practice does not make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect."

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And I guess that's the point I'd like to make.

As I watched this local college team's players and coaches get loose and begin taking shots an hour before their game with a top-10 team, a few bad practice habits caught my eye. One assistant coach threw players underhand passes with top spin. One of the team's top players faded away slightly and landed on his back foot on every jump shot. Little things.

I doubt many people there noticed. But, as it was a big game, I'm certain the scouts and other coaches there most certainly did.

No matter what you do, there is always room for improvement. And, if you're going to spend the time practicing at getting better at any skill, trade or sport, spend that time efficiently and effectively getting better.

If you're already in the 85th percentile, or are already the best player on the court or in the gym, keep getting better.

Don't go through the motions.

If you're part of an already talented team, push yourself to become better; don't be the weak link.

Don't just practice. Strive to practice perfectly.

If you're an assistant coach, be the best assistant coach you can be. Throw crisp passes, with backspin, that hit your players in their respective shooting pockets.

If you're a top player on your (fill in the blank with whatever age/level is appropriate) team, treat every shot like it's a game-winner, and certainly stop fading away.

I'm lucky. Where I work, striving for "uniform excellence" is one of our company's core cultural foci, defined as hitting as close to being perfect with the work product that we produce for our clients as we can. I'm unlucky in a way because I'm the one who, despite my better efforts, often falls shortest of hitting the mark that is that "uniform excellence." But, in what may be one of the rare examples of a lesson I've learned better off the court than on one, is that it's not about luck or "despite my better efforts." It's simply that my effort(s) need to be better.

If you're already pretty good, if the game comes easy to you, or if you're already part of a successful team, regardless of the sport (or business) or situation, don't just go through the motions. Ever. Strive for perfection. Practice perfectly. It's not just hard; it's damn near impossible. But, if you dedicate yourself to working toward being perfect, you'll end up being far better off than if you just go through the motions, throw a half-hearted (one-handed) pass (with top-spin), or if you fade away (on all your jumpers).

Being average is easy. Being perfect is probably impossible. But striving for perfection is somewhere achievably in-between.

Matt Laczkowski is a former Division I basketball player who writes a weekly Monday column for the Times. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or coach@with-character.com.

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