Advice to Coaches: Call Players Relentless, Not Clutch

I recently read Relentless by Tim S. Grover. Grover has served as the personal trainer to MJ, Kobe, and D-Wade. Not a terrible résumé. There were two quotes that resonated with me from a coaching perspective. In the first one, coaches should consider referring to players as relentless instead of clutch. In the second, coaches need to determine what emotions their mission should provoke in game preparation.

“For Cleaners, every moment is a pressure situation, and everything is always on the line…It’s not a compliment when people say you step up for the big games. Where were you all the other games? Clutch is about the last minute. Relentless is about every minute.” – Tim Grover

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research from Mindset is famous for exposing the idea that young people should not be complimented for their intelligence. When this happens, students are led down a path where they no longer want to experiment at the risk of being wrong. What Grover speaks about with the term clutch is somewhat parallel to what Dweck says about being smart. A clutch player will not strive to be a consistent player.

If a player can consistently step up at big moments, it begs the question why that “step” could not have come sooner. And once that clutch label is given to a player, perhaps the player will be a little careless against lesser competition. Waiting until the team needs the boost or even going so far as hoping the team needs the boost to add to the ego.

The Outlier Case of LeBron James

LeBron James is a great counterargument that giving effort in spurts can work. Brian Windhorst had a story this past NBA season when he reported that LeBron was one of the slowest players on average in the league. Love him or hate him, anyone watching the game in the past decade is lying to themselves if LeBron is not in the conversation for best to every play. If he conserves energy, shouldn’t it be an excuse for every team’s best player to do the same?

My answer is no. First of all, he is the best player in the world for a reason. LeBron has over ten thousand hours of deliberate practice in basketball. He knows how to put in low energy in more efficient ways than younger players who have a lower basketball I.Q. Second, consider LeBron’s considerations on how he uses energy in the Windhorst article. He does not mention taking plays off on defense. If anything, he elects to rest on offense. Most coaches would probably want effort on both ends, but given the choice, will take defensive effort over offensive effort. Third, the numbers bear out that LeBron would be better if he gave energy in the other quarters. His +/- last year was much better in the fourth quarter and overtime than any other part of the game.

Quarter +/-
1st -0.3
2nd 0.5
3rd 0.0
4th 1.1
5th 4.5

Games can be won or lost by early runs and momentum swings. For the best player to allow this to happen by waiting for clutch opportunities could result in missing out on a clutch opportunity altogether. There is only one LeBron in this world and he is not on my team. Give me the players that have high energy every second.

Impact of Low Effort on Pick-Up Basketball

If that example is too extreme, think about a player on the playground with no coaching around. They might go one on one or play in a larger pick-up game, but will wait to play their hardest. Once the situation becomes urgent is when this player will start to give effort. The vast majority of time to improve during the competition is wasted.

There also needs to be some consideration given to the psyche of a player that is characterized as clutch. When we think of MJ or Kobe, inevitably we think of them taking a shot. Too often that can be translated as when the game is close and late, I must shoot. Coming down court with the attitude of “I must shoot” is great from a confidence perspective, but it is not always best for the team.

Former UConn assistant and current Boston University coach Marisa Moseley is an advocate for making the extra pass and getting uncontested shots. Based on the misconception of “I must shoot” the extra pass is ignored in the last minute of close games. This decision runs counter to everything that a team that believes in the extra pass preaches in the last minute. Why should the last minute be any different in terms of efficiency in a possession than any other minute of the game?

What Comes First: Have fun or Remain Focused?

“Before a game, I don’t want to see guys dancing and shaking and screaming each other into a frenzy. It looks good for the fans and the cameras, but all that emotion pulls your focus toward manufactured pregame hype and away from your mission. And what happens right after that moment of insanity? It’s over. Back to the sideline. Commercial break. Total letdown. Out of Zone.” – Tim Grover

The philosophy that Grover speaks about here is our society today. It is why over 800 million people use Instagram. Younger athletes want to emulate what they see on television. They want to have fun. And to that end, I do not have a problem with pre-game handshakes. In fact, these things can even be beneficial toward unifying a team or keeping them loose in high pressure situations.

Where I agree with Grover is that there is often a let down after the emotional charge. Relentless means the same physical effort throughout a game and the same level of mental focus throughout a game. In bigger games or games with more people in the stands, the players that get caught in all the extra hoopla will be in a less favorable position and for a reason that is well with their control.

Many young players quit playing sports because it is no longer fun. They need to have some freedom in pre-game huddles to enjoy themselves. I am in favor of striking a balance. For instance, a coach could tell players that the time up until the pre-game meeting is there for them to enjoy their teammates. Or the pregame warm up is for secret handshakes, but when the national anthem begins they need to be focused. Ultimately where Grover’s quote needs to be elaborated within the culture of any team is determining precisely what “the mission” is.

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