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Focus is the glue

I’ve been playing a lot of basketball at work these days on lunch and coffee breaks. As a programmer who sits most of the day, it’s nice to have a place to go to spend some energy. I’ve been keeping track of my progress in shooting free throws and my percentage has been steadily improving. I think I shot 80% last week (using a general warmup and then 10 in a row as my benchmark).

I had what I like to call a “micro-epiphany” the other day when I went out to shoot baskets. I started thinking about what it takes to be successful at basketball and realized that there are two primary areas of skill required: mechanics and focus.

Image of a basketball going into a hoop with a sunset in the background

(image courtesy StuSeeger, Flickr).

To succeed in putting the ball through the hoop you have to be solid in your mechanics. Your guide hand needs to support, but not influence, the weight of the ball on your shooting hand. The ball should be positioned in your shooting hand in front of your head and not above it. When you release the ball you need to have a proper follow-through that directs and puts the proper amount of spin on it.

The amount of weight you put into your shot is also influenced by the usage of your legs and the proportion of force you exert with your arms. When you break it all down from a mechanics point of view there are lots of things going on in a shot. Add in other variables like juking defenders, shooting from the triple-threat position, jump-shots and you can see how the number of points of failure in the mechanics of a shot can grow exponentially. In order to combine all the elements of a successful shot you require an understanding of all these mechanics; more importantly you need to have focus.

Focus is like the glue that holds all the pieces together. When I was learning to shoot in high school we would do many drills that broke down each of the components of a shot into the basic parts. It’s necessary to break things down when you are working with complex processes because people, by nature, develop bad habits. I haven’t played ball competitively since the end of grade 12 and it was surprising to me how bad my shot had become when I first picked it up again almost 6 weeks ago. Luckily I had a solid foundation of skills and the knowledge of how to do “corrective surgery” on my shot techniques that I was able to improve significantly and bring my shooting percentage up.

However, even if I was perfect in all of the mechanics I would fail to make my shots count if I didn’t have a focus on what I was doing. It’s hard to describe it accurately so I’ll attempt to convey a brain dump in words of what goes on inside my head during a shot when I’m attempting to focus.

“Ok, setting up for a shot, feet are planted, I know what I’m going to do.”

“The ball is going to go in the hoop, I’m aiming for the back of the rim because historically that’s where I hit a higher percentage of my shots”

“Good leg extension, I need to followthrough with my hand and point to the rim. Don’t forget to reach for the cookies“.

“The ball is going to go in, I aimed for the back of the rim.”

“Release felt good, that shot is going in.”

I don’t know if that accurately conveys what happens in nearly a microsecond, but it’s roughly what goes on in my head during a successful shot. The things I’ve bolded are what I believe to be the most important parts of making that shot. Here’s the breakdown as I can categorize it:

  1. Have a plan.
  2. Reiterate the plan.
  3. Reinforce good habits I know.
  4. Express confidence in the plan. Reiterate again.
  5. Celebrate victory upon execution.

Having a plan is important. It helps focus my energy into a consistent framework that I know has worked in the past. Reiterating things helps me to re-focus if distractions start to creep into my mind. Talking to myself about the good habits I’ve developed helps me to avoid falling into the bad ones. Expressing confidence solidifies the action I’m about to take and removes any doubt in my mind that what I’m about to do will be successful. And claiming victory, which may seem unimportant, is crucial to seeing that ball go through the hoop. The last few moments before the ball leaves my hand are a critical point in the timeline of the shot. Everything up to that point has been mechanics but once the ball leaves my hand I can’t let down in my mental focus. It’s almost as if I will the ball to go through the hoop and my mental concentration is just the final exclamation point, the stamp of approval, on the entire process.

“Swish. The ball went into the net. I knew it would. That was a great shot!”

Once execution is complete and I can see the results of all my hard work I find it helps to reflect on what went well and give myself a pat on the back. Positive reinforcement of this kind works much better than beating myself up over the few mistakes I may have made in the process of taking the shot.

I’m sure there are many parallels that can be drawn between what I’ve talked about here and other facets of life, but I’ll leave that up to you the reader to do.

All I know is that it feels good to play ball again. It feels good to focus!