What You Can Learn from a High School Basketball Game

At first glance, high school basketball and engineering school seem like polar opposites. 
I had never paid much attention to basketball until I started working part time at a high school. The students whom I tutor asked me to come to the game one night, and I was glad I did. I learned about basketball, and was surprised at how much of what I had learned could be applied to my own career. I am not one of these former high school athletes who tries to relive his glory days in his adult life. I am not the type to refer to myself as “coach” or constantly make sports references to everyday life. I never played high school sports; my high school teams were so bad, we had a baseball player (miraculously) get a hit, only to run down the 3rd baseline instead of the 1st baseline. Even so, I found that there was something to be learned from watching the way high school athletes perform and interact.
1.  Teamwork
    At engineering school, teamwork is a dirty word. To all of us, teamwork means unproductive meetings, uneven work loads, and awkward group presentations. When we go to our summer internships, teamwork is all of those things, plus a tacky inspirational poster hanging up in the office. Think back to your high school years; remember the drama? Remember the nonsense about significant others and friends and all of the interpersonal conflicts that kept appearing? You can see all of that in some of these basketball teams… well, at least the losing teams. You see none on the winning teams. Zero. The athletes may hate each other for all I know but for that time on the court, they work together flawlessly. These teams are able to put aside their differences and play together for the sake of the game. 
    It takes more than teamwork to win. However, the teams that don’t work together lose. How many group presentations can we pick out what works and what doesn’t work with the group dynamics, just based on the way the group presents? We know which group members get along together, and which do not. We know which group members are putting in the time and effort, and which are not. We know, by senior year, whom to pick as our design team members, and we know whom to avoid. When we treat our groups in this manner, we are asking to lose. Maybe instead of making excuses about why a group isn’t working, we can start looking at difficult group members as a challenge. Maybe working with a difficult teammate will instead be a topic of discussion during your next job interview; how you helped make the team work in spite of difficult teammates (without complaining about the teammate).
2.  Getting Out of Your Own Head
I watched a moderately skilled, hard-working player carefully during several games. In the heat of battle, he could play well, and made many of the shots he took. It did not seem to matter what coverage he had or how far away he was from the basket. He made far more shots than he missed. Except free throws. He consistently missed these.
    A rookie coach might send him to practice free throws. The rookie coach would quickly learn that he could hit most of them during practice. Why did the player struggle with them so much during the game? When he was playing the game, the fans are watching the ball. He acts, rather than plans, worries or concentrates, and his training and practice take over. However, when he lines up to take a free throw shot, suddenly, all eyes are on him. The cheerleaders chant his name, and the room is otherwise silent except for the little voice in his head that chants, “don’t mess up” or “here’s a collection of mistakes you’ve made over the years,” or some other useless garbage. He shoots, and misses. How many times do we stammer and stutter over our presentations? We have been working on a project for a semester, and are now considered experts in our field, yet when we go to present, that same “little voice” reminds us of how we can fail. That “little voice” is a protective mechanism from way back in our ancestry, when group membership was essential to survival. Today, it is good for survival situations, and not much else. Treat it like a TV that is running in another room; it is just some white noise to ignore. You can’t turn it off, but you can choose whether to listen to it.
3. Knowing Limitations and Strengths
    When working closely in a team, we often find that our individual strengths and weaknesses become very obvious. Working with others is a way to put a magnifying glass to ourselves and root out what is working and is not working for us. 
    Interestingly enough, entire teams can have weaknesses and strengths, and often they are greater than the sum of the parts; they can be different than the individual strengths and weaknesses of the team members. Instead of charging through work as a team, it may be worth identifying how to maximize the effectiveness of the strength, and mitigating the effects of the weaknesses. Some teams get distracted and get off topic when they meet as one big team; perhaps it is worth meeting in smaller groups to accomplish the bulk of the work where there is less distraction. Perhaps one group member is a strong writer; it may be worth lessening their load during the project and having them do the final edit of the paper. 
4. Playing To The End
    I watched a team that lost by almost 80 points. It wasn’t so much game as it was a total slaughter. By the last two minutes of the game, there was no possible way for the losing team to win. Yet, I watched the losing team play as hard as they had played when the game had started. Furthermore, the winning team could have sat down and not played at all, and still won the game. Yet, they played just as hard as they had at the start of the game as well.
    How many homework problems do we do most of the work, and then declare “good enough?” How many times have we decide that we have practiced a presentation enough? How many of the students that have dropped out, “check out” midway through the semester? Play to the end and learn what you can. Even if you think you will fail the class, you will likely have to retake it, and any information you gather during the remainder of the semester will help you next time. If you drop out, you will still have benefited from sticking it out and learning what you can; while the specifics of that class may not apply to your future, the ways of thinking about problems will, and eventually, you won’t be sorry you stuck it out. Good luck this semester, and I wish all of you success in your classes. And, don’t forget to relax occasionally. I recommend checking out a local high school game at Socorro or Magdalena. They are normally a few dollars admission, have snacks, and I have never regretted attending.

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Are you prepared?

Are you prepared?