Sunday, April 26, 2009

Study Time Creates Kobe Time

Sport psychologists are often called upon to help athletes improve levels of confidence. Specifically, consultants tend to work with a player's self-efficacy, or one's situational self-confidence. Self-efficacy refers to how an athlete feels about himself in certain circumstances, not necessarily his overall feeling in sport. For instance, a basketball player may be extremely confident driving to the hole, yet have lower efficacy on the perimeter (think Derrick Rose).

While trying to make a player more efficacious in situations, psych pros may employ various techniques, namely mastery experiences, performance accomplishments, verbal persuasion, emotional feedback, and, for the purpose of this post, vicarious experiences. Watching Kobe Bryant on Saturday, I couldn't help but think about his development, especially about his growth as a player while modeling (or vicariously improving) via Michael Jordan. Kobe has mentioned that he spent countless hours studying MJ. As a young player, he viewed Jordan's games, analyzed his moves, watched the way he interviewed, and more.

Kobe's performance this weekend only substantiated his study habits. After a dismal performance a couple of days before when he shot line drives, looked flat and fatigued, and didn't muster the showtime energy we are guilty of expecting nightly, Bryant came out fully fueled and focused (I guess the readers are correct in this site's latest poll). Elevating with a smooth stroke, eluding double-teams, and escaping Utah with a key win, Kobe seemed to become his powerful predecessor.

Many have commented on Kobe's striking way of looking like Mike on the court, in the air, even in the press room. But this day, he was him -- from the look in his eyes to the MJ patented fade-away to the intense smirk as it he was thinking, "You can't guard me." What really got me was the arm extension to complete a teammates' slap of a "five" as he strutted to the free throw line. The fluid movement that Michael made cool was eerily transplanted into Kobe's frame. My gosh, is that the old G-O-D in basketball shoes that Larry Bird reflected on after 1986's 63-point explosion, only reincarnated on the west coast?

It was as if Kobe prepared for the game by watching the famous Spike Lee "Double Nickel" staging at MSG or, better yet, threw in a DVD of one of Jordan's breathtaking takedowns of the Jazz in the late 90's. Was Bryant's mind ticking with images of a Mike-licking as he dribbled and sliced and soared and rebounded? Did he recall the long days of dutiful workouts and dreams of greatness as he zoned in on his uncontestable attack? It surely appeared that way, like he was re-creating moves from his mentor's days more than a decade ago. And with each point and masterful display of fundamentals -- yes, fundys combined with his athleticism are what allowed him to look so darn good, as in the ability to create space off a screen or refusal, to ball swing through in his triple-threat, to change direction with perfect footwork off the bounce -- he gained more efficacy, which, in turn, translated to global confidence and Lakerworld domination.

I wonder how Phil Jackson interprets it all...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Case of the Game Face

Derrick Rose's display today was mesmerizing. His play helped brush his Bulls past the hometown Celtics in a game that featured great point guard possessions on each end. Not to be outdone by his champion seasoned opponent, Rajon Rondo, Derrick, quite literally, rose to the occasion in the first NBA playoff game of his career. And it was no doubt a notable one.

Perhaps more impressive than his 36 point, 11 assist effort and perfection from the free throw line was his demeanor. The announcers continued to comment on how calm he looked. It's no surprise. Those that have followed Derrick's impressive rookie campaign and his brief, and highly heralded college year at Memphis, know what he brings to the court -- dazzling quickness, extreme explosiveness, and a sometimes deceiving, high octane game.

In psychological terms, Rose's self-regulation capacity could be termed efficient and effective. The lay fan may infer his ability to stay in control from his "game face", the outwardly expression one notices on an athlete, especially in basketball where close-ups are as normal as a Bulls' pick and roll. No studies come to mind that substantiate what a more effective game face is, intriguing as it may be. Is it best remain mostly dead pan during the action? Do more elite athletes show limited emotion? Except for his one second of flailing frustration when he picked up his sixth foul, it was if Rose had been through the game a million times. Maybe he had in his mind? In fact, during one timeout when the players go and chill in their seats as the coaches convene on court to discuss adjustments, the rookie PG looked so tranquil that he could take a power nap.

In Rose's case, his calmness shows in interviews as well. Nancy Lieberman was only able to get a quick peek of his smile during her post-game interrogation, posing the question to Derrick whether he knew the legendary company he was in when it came to his stat-stuffing performance at the Garden. An honest "no" with some pearly whites, and it was right back to his all business-like appearance.

His outrageously excitable adversary, Kevin Garnett, unfortunately couldn't compete due to his nagging knee problem. In fact, KG's game face even for this game, one in which he wasn't able to come full force, was so intense that he wasn't able to parade on the bench in the second half. He felt he was a distraction to his teammates, as Lieberman reported in the third quarter. Though his peers wanted him by their side, he wasn't able to calm himself to a level where he could cheer and coach and support from the sideline. Huh... Maybe Bill Simmons' claim was accurate last year, inferring that the KG intensity was not an advantage, as it is something that cannot get any higher for fear of eruption -- nor lower itself to a controllable degree.

Imagine Derrick Rose playing with Kevin Garnett's emotional volume, writhing in facially wrinkled pain and blurting out swears to everyone, or nobody depending on one's interpretation, on every great play? From game face to event explosion.

What is best for performance? Whichever works, especially if it fits with the position, role, and personalities of the team. Both are entertaining. Both are effective. Though Rose's game face doesn't change, his gears sure do. KG rolls at one speed, over the typical limit in most cases. The only thing that could catch him this year was an actual part of himself. Darn. It would be tantalizing to see these two leaders, two game faces, go at it for an entire series.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mad Breakdown of Stats, Styles, and Coaching Shifts

What happens when you coach a team that finished first in its conference in free throw percentage, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, and rebounding defense?

You get fired. At least, in Kentucky you do...and if the school colors are blue and white.

Perhaps a trip to the Final Four could have saved Billy Gillispie. Though, according to new Wildcats coach John Calipari, only banners will save one from being banished in Lexington. National championship banners.

One could argue that Coach Cal brings with him a coaching style that allowed his Memphis team to finish at the top of Conference USA in field goal percentage defense and just a touch away from the best shooting team in the league (though free throws are not included in that...or 3-pointers). What else did his Tigers boast? Shot blocking, steal making, and rebounding. They were No. 1 in their conference in all of those categories.

Oh, and the Tigers outscored the Wildcats on average by a whole point, 75.1 to 74.1, placing the former third overall in Conference USA. Had the latter averaged the same amount, they would have moved up three ranking slots for fourth in the SEC.

What does all of this mean? Not too much in other years, perhaps, knowing that surprises and underdogs and Cinderellas have appeared in March. But this year, it's apparent there are two aspects of the game that scream consistency: scoring offense and rebounding, and the second is specific to the offensive end. Yes, being able to get stops is important, but not so much as point production (on the court and with the fans). Field goal percentage defense didn't help Gillispie save his job. From what others report, he stopped himself by not being able to impress the community and give the media what it wanted in charisma and personality.

Two of the remaining four teams in March Madness are first in scoring offense in their respective conferences: Michigan State (Big Ten) and North Carolina (ACC). Connecticut (Big East) is second, behind Syracuse, though the Huskies are ranked No. 1 in both Pomeroy and Massey ratings. Villanova, in this case of scoring power, goes from its own version of Wildcat to Tame-dog. It is sixth in Big East offense.

How important is being able to pound the boards? Extremely. The most important. Maybe even a stat that could have saved Gillispie. His 'Cats finished second in rebounding margin in league, but eighth in rebounding offense. Yikes. That is highway miles away from what his predecessor's Tigers accomplished. Memphis was No. 1.

What other teams finished first in cleaning their conference offensive glass? Michigan State, UConn, and UNC. Poor 'Nova was sixth. Majority wins though. Pounding and planting in the paint leads to more offensive attempts and more scoring. Maybe the Spartans aren't pretty to watch in a lay person's basketball mind, but they produce 71.8 points per game to lead the league, much to do with their No. 1 rebounding margin.

Who accumulated the same amount of points as Michigan State in the ACC this year? Maryland, which finished ninth in the conference in that stat. That shows why UNC is so extraordinary. Its pace is much quicker than any other team, demonstrated by the Tar Heels 90 points per game output. To know that they also have the fifth overall best assist to turnover ratio in the nation, one that is tops in the ACC, is something to note. No sooner did they demolish Oklahoma than did they realize they could play a much slower pace -- and still get the stops and scoring they needed to put the Big 12 foes in their own tar.

When one talks of balance and talent, its UNC. Right there with Carolina -- in Detroit -- is UConn. The Huskies have it all. The best scoring margin and rebounding offense in the ultra-competitive Big East, 80.2 points per game, and the best shot blocking in the country. It will be quite a challenge for the Spartans to stop the Huskies in their tracks and the Wildcats to stomp the 'Heels. But that is why they play the games...and Final Four hopefuls watch from home, and in some instances, a new one.

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