Applying Mike Massimino’s NASA Teamwork Lessons to Basketball

At the recommendation of a friend I read astronaut Mike Massamino’s book Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. When I read books I’m specifically looking for inspiration that I can bring back to the young people I teach and coach. Four themes stood out that will help me apply NASA’s teamwork model to basketball.

Nothing Gets Done Alone

“We have this idea in America of the self-made man. We love to celebrate individual achievement. We have these icons like Steve Jobs and Henry Ford and Benjamin Franklin, and we talk about how amazing it is that they did these great things and built themselves up out of nothing. I think the self-made man is a myth. I’ve never believed in it. I can honestly say that I’ve never achieved anything on my own.”

Social media puts a microscope on individuals more today than in Franklin, Ford, or even Jobs’ time. At the top of the basketball food chain, the NBA and the media that covers the NBA celebrate individuals more than teams. That is generally not the case at NASA or in the military. In these organizations, the group ego outweighs the individual ego. In basketball, this is a rarity.

Malcom Gladwell spoke in a parallel regard to how efforts get ignored with people that appear to be geniuses. Gladwell wrote that the “heroes” in our society are just ordinary people with the right blend of talent and hard work. Anders Ericsson’s research for many of the geniuses we know today centered on 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. In addition to the hours of practice, these heroes have also had the people and environment around them play a role to get them the necessary practice and feedback.

Individuals can be celebrated. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people played a role in getting us to the moon, but we know Neil Armstrong by name. The key to NASA though is that Armstrong views himself not by this one achievement but more simply sees himself as a pilot. He is humble and recognizes that one event does not define him nor can he as one individual define what NASA represents.

Very Few Jerks Have Been to Space

“At NASA, any crisis you went through you weren’t alone…It’s more about character, serving a purpose greater than yourself putting the other guy first, and being able to do that every single day in every aspect of your life. People ask me all the time what it takes to become an astronaut. It’s not about being the smartest or having the most college degrees. The real qualifications for being an astronaut are: Is this someone I’d trust with my life? Will this person help look after my family if I don’t make it home? Very few jerks have been to space.” – Mike Massimino

There is a little duplication with the way I feel about this quote in terms of the individual ego vs. team ego concept. I just like this one because of the tone at the end. “Very few jerks have been to space.” I have seen so many jerks in coaching AAU. This is always the first place to draw the line in picking players for a team. Talent is secondary to character.

Humor Overcomes Adversity and Divisions

“Humor is a great leadership tool. Most leaders, even if they’re naturally funny, they’ll get serious in front of the group and try to motivate people either by inspiring them or by cracking the whip. But if you can keep people laughing while they’re freezing their butts off, that’s good, too.” – Mike Massimino

Massimino is recounting a training exercise he endured in northern Alberta. The temperature trickled well below zero. In addition to the frigid conditions, Massimino acted as a leader for part of the exercise. In his eyes, Massimino was less accomplished than every person he was leading. Joking came natural for him and this became the method through which he communicated to the group. It was successful and proved two things to me. First, a sense of humor can be effective in the most adverse conditions. Second, a sense of humor can bridge perceived status gaps.

One bonus thought on this quote. The idea of forcing a person that is traditionally the leader (i.e. the coach) to take the orders from a subordinate (i.e. the player) could make for an interesting experiment.

Continue to Compete When Hope Seems Lost

“There’s an old NASA saying that Newman taught me: ‘No matter how bad things appear, remember, you can always make them worse.’ It’s true. Once a problem comes up, if you panic or act too fast, you will only exacerbate the problem.” – Mike Massimino

Massamino is speaking of course about the unpredictability of space. One of the areas that I’m trying to grow in with the unpredictability of games or scrimmages is slow starts. The other day I demonstrated a Mikan drill with a group of middle schoolers. I made 11 lay-ups in thirty seconds (that is not particularly impressive). I did not juggle any rebounds, but I did miss a couple attempts. Therefore, it was a goldilocks challenge in that it was reachable, but not easy since I was requiring them to use their weak hand on the left side.

As players began to attempt it, some of them quit before the thirty seconds ran out. Rather than try to do as much as they could in the last ten seconds, the players gave up. My score was out of reach, but getting better was not. This moment where a goal appears out of reach is exactly where players panic and act too fast as Massimino states. Players need to learn to go as hard as they can especially in these adverse moments. It is here where the competition often lets up as well recognizing that they can coast because they are ahead.

If a comeback win happens, great. The bigger point is building a culture to embrace an opportunity to close the gap and improve. Anyone can compete when games are close. Players and teams that play extra hard and stay tough mentally when the games or scrimmages are a blowout are special. They recognize how to close the gap from being a good player or team to a great player or team.

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