March Madness

Last weekend I spoke with a strength and conditioning coach from the University at Buffalo. He lamented about athletes at the Division I level: “It’s a selfish culture. Everyone wants to go to ‘The League’; every guy wants his payday.”

He works with football players–“The League” references the NFL–but the same truth holds in college basketball. Almost every athlete, no matter how realistic his chances, dreams of getting paid to play in the NBA. And once he’s there the selfishness is incentivized.

In a study of nine seasons worth of NBA playoff games, researchers Eric Uhlmann and Christopher Barnes found that athletes who score a field goal receive $22,044.55 of additional salary. Athletes who pass the ball to a teammate who then made a shot lose $6,116.69. Hence, passing the ball instead of shooting is a $28,161.24 decision.

“But Ryan,” you muse, “surely there must be unselfish athletes and teams out there?” Indeed there are, but they exist in rare company and are created with intention.

I’m currently reading The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, by Daniel Coyle, He described Greg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, as an exemplar of creating a culture of selflessness.

Coyle describes the coach walking into a tense practice gym after a Spurs loss the night before to the Oklahoma City Thunder. His team, “imploded in a blizzard of misses and turnovers, including several by guard Marco Belinelli”:

“Greg Popovich walks in. He’s wearing a misshapen T-shirt from Jordan’s Snack Bar in Ellsworth, Maine, and shorts a couple sizes too big. His hair is spare and frizzy, and he is carrying a paper plate with fruit and a plastic fork, his face set in a lopsided grin. He looks less like a commanding general than a disheveled uncle at a picnic. Then he sets down his plate and begins to move around the gym, talking to players. He touches them on the elbow, the shoulder, the arm. He chats in several languages. (The Spurs include players from seven countries.) He laughs. His eyes are bright, knowing, active. When he reaches Belinelli, his smile gets bigger and more lopsided. He exchanges a few words, and when Belinelli jokes back, they engage in a brief mock-wrestling match. It is a strange sight. A white-haired sixty-five-year-old coach wrestling a curly-haired six-foot-five Italian.

‘I’m sure that was thought about beforehand,’ says R.C. Buford, the Spurs’ general manager, who has worked with Popovich for twenty years. ‘He wanted to make sure Belinelli was okay. That’s the way Pop approaches every relationship. He fills their cups.'”

Of course, Spurs fans know that Popovich is no nice guy (Check out the infamous video, “Greg Popovich Tells Danny Green to ‘shut the fu– up‘”) but he balances it masterfully, as his assistant coach Chip Engelland describes, “A lot of coaches can yell or be nice, but what Pop does is different. He delivers two things over and over: He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death.”

Coyle underscores the importance of “belonging cues,” three in particular that help create a selfless team:

  1. “You are part of this group.
  2. This group is special; we have high standards here.
  3. I believe you can reach those standards.

These signals provide a clear message that lights up the unconscious brain: Here is a safe place to give effort. They also give us insight into the reason Popovich’s methods are effective. His communications consist of three types of belonging cues.

  • Personal, up-close connection (body language, attention, and behavior that translates as I care about you)
  • Performance feedback (relentless coaching and criticism that translates as We have high standards here)
  • Big-picture perspective (larger conversations about politics, history, and food that translate as Life is bigger than basketball)”

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