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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II

In a July 3 post I wrote, "Success at any form of competition is based on several factors: mastery of fundamental techniques, supreme focus on the task at hand and maintaining a state of calm in the heat of battle." An article by Philip E. Ross in the August 2006 issue of Scientific American takes an in depth look at the first of these factors and concludes, "Effortful study is the key to achieving success in chess, classical music, soccer and many other fields. New research has indicated that motivation is a more important factor than innate ability." Ross is a contributing editor at the magazine, a chess player and the father of Laura Ross, a chess master. In a sidebar to the main article, Ross writes, "Researchers have found evidence that chess grandmasters rely on a vast store of knowledge of game positions. Some scientists have theorized that grandmasters organize the information in chunks, which can be quickly retrieved from long-term memory and manipulated in working memory." If you are wondering what this has to do with basketball, read on: "To accumulate this body of structured knowledge, grandmasters typically engage in years of effortful study, continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence. The top performers in music, mathematics and sports appear to gain their expertise in the same way, motivated by competition and the joy of victory."

Ross notes, "Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam--most people relax...In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields."

When I read this article, I immediately thought of Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, Jerry Rice, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods, who are among the most fascinating and compelling athletes of all-time. What I respect most about them is that they all worked tirelessly to improve their skills and did not stop doing so even when they reached the very top of their games. Pete Maravich spent hour upon hour with his "homework basketball" drills--dribbling, shooting and passing. Before Pat Croce owned the Philadelphia 76ers he served as a trainer for many professional athletes and he identified Julius Erving as one of the hardest working athletes he ever saw. Erving and Maravich were teammates briefly with the Atlanta Hawks (before a court order sent Erving back to the ABA's Virginia Squires) and the two future Hall of Famers used to stay after practice to hone their skills in one-on-one games; Erving later did the same thing with another future Hall of Famer, Squires' teammate George "Iceman" Gervin.

Jerry Rice has said that when he watched game film he focused more on one dropped pass than the 8 or 10 that he caught; he also went into every training camp with the mindset that he might get cut unless he put forth the utmost effort at all times. I once asked Scottie Pippen how he would would most like to be remembered as a player and he instantly replied, "A gym rat. A guy who worked very hard to make sure that his game was complete in every area and wanted to be looked at as one of the best players in the league." The work ethics of Jordan, Bryant and Woods are very well documented.

Each of these great athletes unquestionably has certain gifts in terms of size, speed and/or hand-eye coordination--but what set them apart is how hard they worked to refine and hone those raw materials until they glistened like precious jewels.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM



At Thursday, July 27, 2006 8:25:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Two Michael Jordan notes, from my college summer as a SLAM intern, transcribing hours of interview tapes:

* One strange phrase that kept coming up again and again was that "Michael Jordan is the best practice player in basketball". At the time, it sounded like the most ridiculous praise (akin to saying how good a writer's penmanship is) -- I mean, practice doesn't count unless you're the 12th or 13th man on the roster -- but now I totally know where they were coming from.

* The only point in the interview where Jordan gets angry is when he hears "The Breakfast Club" mentioned -- his workout routine with Pippen and Harper. I swear to God, you could "hear" MJ staring down the interviewers (Tony Gervino and Russ Bengston) and demanding to hear how they'd heard of it. The man was a secretive control freak about practice. Seriously, he's the best and most overexposed athlete of our time ... but is it documented anywhere what his workout routine was?

At Friday, July 28, 2006 3:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Practice is where it's at--that's where the great ones develop their games. John Wooden used to sit on the bench during games with a rolled up program in his hands and Phil Jackson is often observed picking his fingernails during key moments of games--these championship coaches understand that you work hard in practice so that the game itself becomes easy (or easier) and that a large part of a coach's job takes place behind closed doors in practice. If a team is not properly prepared when the ball is tipped off, it is too late for the coach to do anything. That's why coaches who rant and rave during games get on my nerves; just sit on the bench, make your substitutions when necessary and draw up a play during a timeout if need be--if you didn't cover the rest of it during practice then it's too late now. People make fun of how Bill Belichick dresses and his impassive look during games but he really doesn't care what people think; he prepares his team during the week and when the game is going on he is focusing on the action and not trying to put on a show so he gets on camera.

Maybe Jordan was messing with the interviewers, because "The Breakfast Club" is hardly a secret--it has been discussed in many articles. Basically, MJ, Pip and Harp met at Jordan's house with Jordan's trainer, Tim Grover. They worked out (MJ had a full workout facility in his house) and talked about different on court strategies. I don't know what specific exercises they did, but the existence of "The Breakfast Club" is hardly a secret--and, if you look at pictures of MJ, Pip and Harp early in their careers compared to what they looked like later in their careers, you know that the workout program was very effective.

At Monday, August 07, 2006 11:24:00 PM, Blogger alternaviews said...

"They worked out (MJ had a full workout facility in his house) and talked about different on court strategies"

From what I've read, they often practiced in ABSOLUTE silence (as in not even small talk). So I'm not sure what your source is on that.

"What I respect most about them is that they all worked tirelessly to improve their skills and did not stop doing so even when they reached the very top of their games."

I think this work ethic stuff is overdone by the media.

The media hypes the work ethic of the all-time greats, but there are often other players who work HARDER.

Tiger Woods has publicly admitted that Vijay Singh is the hardest-working player on tour -- he'll commend a Mike Weir by saying that Weirsy works as hard as anyone... except Vijay. (An actual quote from Weir's Masters win.) This includes Woods, who went scuba diving, while Phil Mick was studying the British Open course.

This is not false modesty by Tiger.

No one in the golf community thinks Woods works as hard as Vijay. (If anything, this is a knock on Vijay's workaholism. Tiger is certainly dedicated enough, and then some.)

Woods works hard, but he also works smart and knows how to relax and balance his life. Vijay works harder -- and is no slouch in results (a few majors). But work ethic is not the only factor that separates guys. Woods was a prodigy. Vijay was not.

Work ethic is relevant only insofar as it impacts results.

Why do you admire the great ones for their hard work more than the role players, some of whom work just as hard? MJ's hard work made him $400m. He said he played for the "love of the game," but how can he prove that, when he also had supreme adulation and money? (If anything, he proved his love for BASEBALL, by quitting and enduring humiliation to play a sport at which he was a lesser player than in bball.)

Do you really have any objective or even subjective basis to say that MJ worked harder than the Grant Long's of the world? (Long's work ethic I believe was described in a great Dave Barry piece.)

For all of MJ's work ethic, he is supremely gifted. According to The Jordan Rules, early in his career his diet consisted of Doritos and he didnt workout.

Sure, later on he became a gym rat, but so what?

What does it prove that he worked out when he had to, to avoid being embarrassed by aging?

The work ethic of the greats is admirable, when they dont get complacent. But there are pressures there to keep them in line -- ridicule or criticism if they fall, and continued praise (all-time great status) if they stay on top.

I think it's human nature that you're going to push yourself in areas where you have great ability. What's more admirable is where a lesser talent uses work to become great. But you just list the guys w/most talent -- how can you measure their work, when their talent already separated them from the pack?

Why not admire guys who grew up in tough circumstances and worked to stay out of trouble? This is a bball blog and yet two of your three recent heroes (MJ, Kobe) had very good middle-class upbringings. (Not sure that Pippen's was so good...I believe Pistol's was a good background.) What about guys who worked their way out of tough neighborhoods?

And why is work ethic relevant, when it is off-the-court, and purely subject to MEDIA ANECDOTE (i.e., HYPE) ?

The media hypes work ethic, b/c the ruling class wants the workers to believe that if they work hard, they'll succeed and join management. That, of course, is a lie that is used to motivate the workers to work harder, thereby enriching the ruling class. That's the ways of corporate America -- the ones who sponsor and own the media, and the ones who can actually afford tickets to NBA games.

Many broken dreams are founded on the ruling class' "work ethic" mantra. Watch HOOP DREAMS. Read ANIMAL FARM.

Here's an area (unlike off-court chemistry between players) where I absolutely agree with you that we shd only judge what we see on the court, and not what we're told by the media about off-court matters.

I'm just not buying into this class-driven media stuff on work ethic. I enjoy the basketball analysis, but not the agenda stuff.

Before you talk about MJ's work ethic, why don't you review how his Nike shoes were produced by the work ethic of Indonesian slave labor -- and then sold for $120 (per pair), enough to incite inner city murders. (There were enough such murders to make an SI cover story.) And all the while, MJ said that he'd look into the labor stuff (...I think we're still waiting on that one, aren't we...?). I guess it goes in line w/ his "Republicans buy shoes too" thing.

So I guess the work ethic is good when you net $400m (and growing), but it isn't so admirable when you're the 8-yr-old Indonesian kid whose 20cents/hour work financed the Nike portion of that $400m. Is that right? That 8-yr-old Indonesian kid didnt make your list of admirable work ethics, did he?

At Tuesday, August 08, 2006 3:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I'm sure that the players did not talk during sets--kind of hard to lift and chit chat at the same time--but I don't recall ever reading or hearing that they worked out in "absolute silence." Part of the morning was spent working out and part was spent eating a meal that was specially prepared by Jordan's chef. Maybe the "shop talk" regarding basketball took place during the meal.

As for the rest of your comments, you either misunderstood my post or did not read the accompanying article. Scientific research has indicated a very strong correlation between hours of practice and eventual success in a wide array of endeavors--chess, sports and music, to name three.

When I listed the athletes who I admire for their work ethic it should be obvious that I am not saying that only those guys have a great work ethic. There surely are many other examples. I cited players whose stories I am familiar with and who I find particularly admirable. I have no doubt that there are many other examples of people who turned hard work into success. That, in fact, is my point.

Of course, I do not know the stories of every single golfer or basketball player and cannot say that there are not players who worked harder than Tiger or Jordan. I do know that Jordan was cut from his high school team. I also know that few people foresaw him reaching the level of success that he did in the NBA. He kept separating himself from others in no small part because of his tremendous work ethic. Perhaps his diet was not the best when he was young but no one can question how hard he worked on his game. When MJ played minor league baseball, his coaches commented that he was the hardest working player on the team; he was always taking extra batting practice.

The true greats display a great work ethic from the beginning, long before their talent--or anything else--separates them from the pack. They also maintain that work ethic long after they have reached the top, when most "normal" people would become complacent and satisfied.

Jerry Rice played at a small college, as did Walter Payton. It's easy to say that they had great talent after they had Hall of Fame careers, but nobody seemed to recognize that talent in their formative years. They separated themselves from the pack by what the article that I cited calls "effortful study."

Your sociological commentary regarding class struggle and Nike shoes is interesting but completely irrelevant to the subject at hand, namely how hard work becomes translated into success.

At Thursday, September 28, 2006 1:20:00 AM, Anonymous Henry Gasko said...

If work ethic is so important, and native talent so unimportant, why did Michael Jordan fail at baseball? Did he work less hard? Obviously not - even his baseball coach said he was the hardest working man on the team.

He failed simply because he was far less talented at baseball than basketball. Even his work ethic could not make up the difference. So when we praise the "work ethic" of champions in any field we should remember that, just like Michael Jordan playing baseball, there are thousands who work just as hard as the greats but never make it because that native talent is simply not there.

But the media needs heroes. And the general public needs to think that there is hope for everyone if they only work hard enough. It sells self-help books and articles in the any magazine you care to pick up. We're not ruled by genetics - we have free will and can achieve anything if we just "try" hard enough.

It's the American dream after all, and anything less is just un-American isn't it?

Don't believe a word of it.

At Thursday, September 28, 2006 4:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Failure is in the eyes of the beholder. Jordan had not played baseball since high school and entered the minor leagues as a 30 year old rookie. He hit .202 in Birmingham but was among the league leaders in steals. Then, in a higher level league in Arizona, he was hitting in the vicinity of .280 when the baseball lockout began. Jordan would not cross a picket line and gave up playing baseball, returning to the Bulls a few months later.

It is a bit unrealistic, to say the least, to expect a 30 year old rookie to dominate a sport that he hasn't played for 12+ years the same way that he dominated a sport that he practiced at the highest level day in and day out during that same period of time. I believe that Terry Francona, one of Jordan's managers and later the manager of a World Series champion, once stated that if Jordan had stuck with baseball through the lockout that he would have earned a callup to the majors--not a callup due to his impact at the box office, but a legit callup due to his skills.

Your sarcastic comment that people can achieve anything is of course a gross oversimplification of the articles that I cited. Jordan could never become a jockey because there are no 6-6 jockeys--and a great jockey likely could not become an NBA player.

Working hard does not guarantee success--but not working hard surely guarantees failure. Hard work is a common denominator among the most successful individuals in a variety of fields, from music to chess to various sports. Nowhere did my post or any of the articles I cited mention America or self-help books and many of the individuals who were mentioned are not Americans.


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