Let the Mental Lead the Physical

There's a lot of talk in coaching about the mental side of the game. I hear a lot about thinking the game, building mental toughness (which I contend is really just confidence), etc.

I really believe in the mental side of the game. Bobby Knight, Hall of Fame coach from Army, Indiana and Texas Tech, said, "Mental is to physical as 4 is to 1."

I believe that he is underestimating the mental side of the game.

I believe that the mental leads the physical. The way you think manifests in physical action. If you think "quick", you become quicker. Want to play stronger? You have to think stronger first.

Visualization and mental practice are extremely important parts of a program that helps players improve and get better.

I have, over the years, espoused different thoughts. Some, contrary to traditional coaching. That is because of my commitment to the mental side of the game.

I have also found that some of the mentalities I teach are 180 degrees from the things that I have taught earlier in my career.

This Unique Triple Threat Leads to More Assertive and Mentally Prepared Players

One of the things I am known for is my "Triple Threat."

My triple threat is simple, your first threat is "Shot,"your second threat is "Shot, "And your third threat is "Shot.

I have gladly taken a lot of grief for that, over the years, by the unenlightened and those that don't wish to explore any deeper.

"Shot, shot, shot" is not a mandate to fire the ball when you touch it (only I should do that!). Rather, it is a mentality that leads to a physical action.

Watch your players. They are drastically different when they think about shooting than they are when they think about doing other things (or nothing).

Look at their body language when they think shot...

Their knees get bent, their eyes go on the rim, their butts go down and they are more ready to play. The entire court opens up because there is nothing that you can't see when your eyes are on the rim. Their footwork gets better; they are quicker and more assertive.

Compare that to their basketball position when they think about other things.

The Moment You Are Most Open to Shoot

The next thing is that I believe that you are never more open than the second that you catch the ball.

If you weren't open, you wouldn't catch the ball.

How many shots are passed up or are rushed because the shooter didn't realize that he was open and then tries to shoot it later in the process? Why didn't he shoot it when he was open? Maybe he didn't notice he was open because he was looking for something else.

You can always turn off your shot.

You can be in shooting position and pass or dribble the ball.

But you can't be in a passing or dribbling position and shoot it.

The result is a quicker and more reliable shot and a more open shot.

How "Think Shot"Reduces Unnecessary Dribbles

It also reduces unnecessary dribbles.

When I work with players and they put the ball on the floor, I'll ask them, "What is the purpose of your dribble?"

Most have no answer, but the ones that do usually come up with, "to create space." "Well," I'll ask, "why do you need to create space when you are open when you catch it?"

Why don't they see that they are open? Could it be because they were looking for something else?

I believe that the purpose for a dribble is to go by your defender.

If you need to put the ball on the floor to take a shot and that dribble doesn't get you by your defender, how good of a shot is it?

Why Indecision Is the Player Killer

And lastly (at least for this discussion), I think that indecision is a player killer.

How many times does a player get the ball and hold onto it while he figures out what to do next?

When you teach the traditional triple threat (pass, shoot, dribble), do you teach your players what to look at first?

Do they drive when they have an open shot, shoot when they are guarded with an opportunity to go by their defender? Why don't they know they are open when they get the ball? Are they looking for something else?

Indecision is a player killer.

I had a discussion with an AAU team at one of my camps. They had just come from another camp and we had a discussion about triple threat.

I asked, "Does anyone tell you where to look first?" One of the players said, "Yes. We were taught to peek and look for the next pass." I asked, "Peek, what's peek?" He said "Peek at the rim and then look for the next guy."

How does that appear to you? The name of the game is "Basketball."

The primary objective is to put the ball in the basket.

But for these players, putting the ball in the basket was such a low priority that they were only to "Peek" at the basket before they "Look" for the next guy.

Remember what we said about too many primary objectives? Their coach could not understand why they shot so poorly as a team. Shooting became an afterthought.

If you want to shoot the ball better, it has to be a higher priority.

This Doesn't Replace Teaching Roles, Situations, Etc...

Again, I want to emphasize that these are mental actions. They should lead to better, more definitive physical actions.

It doesn't take the place of teaching roles, situations, etc. I spend a lot of time teaching those aspects.

But I also teach that it is more effective to learn how to interpret and take advantage of them when you are thinking shot.

How about putting the ball on the floor. I see player after player catch and dribble with no purpose and then when he's done, he's in the same spot he was when he started. What did he accomplish? What was his objective? Mentally, what was his purpose?

Only One Reason to Dribble

As mentioned earlier, I believe that there is only one reason for a dribble, and that is, to go by your defender.

Going by your defender puts the defense at a severe disadvantage and can quickly break down a team's defensive principles.

Dribbling with no purpose stiffens the defense and makes it more difficult to play against. Let the mental lead the physical.

When you put the ball on the floor, you think, "Lay-up, Lay-up, Lay-up."

Am I saying, "Get the ball to the rim at all costs, sacrificing all other parts of the game and disregarding all defenders. "?

Of course not. Indecision is a player killer.

Putting the ball on the floor with no objective and trying to figure it out on the fly makes a bad player.

By thinking, "Lay-up,"everything about the player becomes more aggressive and directed. Because the player is more decisive, he becomes stronger and quicker.

By thinking "Lay-up,"the player's eyes go on the rim and can see the whole game. He can see his shot and, just as importantly, he can see his counters and other options.

Over the past couple of seasons, how many layups has your team missed? I'll ask you, on each of those layups, what was your player's objective? Was it something other than taking a lay-up.

I wish I had a dime for every time a player penetrated to the rim and the team wound up with an empty possession because he was looking for something other than a shot.

Kobe Bryant on Why Damian Lillard Kept Passing Into Turnovers

I was recently watching an episode of "Detail."That's the show where Kobe Bryant breaks down the game.

In this episode, he was breaking down Damon Lillard's penetration and the Denver Nuggets' defense.

Time after time, Lillard would beat his man only to turn the ball over in trying to kick out to a teammate for a shot. He would beat his man on the dribble outside the 3-point line, get to the foul line, get the defense to collapse and then turn the ball over on the pass. Over and over again it would happen.

Bryant tried to get to the cause...

He felt that it was because Lillard did not get deep enough to freeze the defender. Because he didn't challenge the basket, the defense was able to release him, get into the passing lane and shut down the play.

From watching the play, it was really obvious that Lillard was on the dribble and his primary objective was to pass. With the pass shut down, he was not able to make any other plays and had to turn the ball over.

The purpose of a dribble is to get by a defender. To do that, the mentality has to be to think, "Lay-up, Lay-up, Lay-up."I believe that had Lillard thought "lay-up,"he would be able to challenge the rim. He then has total control of his defender.

If the defender releases him, as the defender had been able to do when Lillard wasn't thinking "lay-up,"Lillard has a score.

If the defender stays to guard the lay-up, Lillard would have an open lane to kick out for a shot.

Indecision is a player killer.

Understanding that the primary purpose is to go by your defender and thinking "Lay-up,"on the dribble removes the indecision. The ball handler becomes stronger, quicker, more decisive and more effective.

The mental aspect leads to a physical response, which makes him a more effective player.

A Different Way to Attack Screens

I believe the same thing is true when talking about screens. How many options do you give your players on a ball screen and how does he make his decision?

I ask the same question on pin downs and corner pins. Does your player watch the defender and then try to figure out what comes next?

Indecision is a player killer.

I believe the primary action off a ball screen is "over the top."

Anything else (turn down, drag, split, etc.) is a counter in the event that the defender shuts down the ball going over the top.

Force the defender to play you, force the defender to read and react to you.

Can he play you; can he stop you from going over the top? If you don't attack him, how will you know? Anything else is a counter. Get control of your defender and make him react to you.

Think, "Over the Top,"and see what physical action that gives you.

I believe when coming off a pin down, the mentality is "Curl, Curl, Curl."

Attack the defender, don't stand there and try to figure out what he is trying to do.

Indecision is a player killer.

Curl, and curl hard.

Can he play you? Anything else (fade, flare, bump, etc.) is a counter.

Get control of your defender. Make him read and react to you. Attack him and make him stop you first. If he can do that, counter.

But why give up your offense before you have to by trying to figure out your defender. Make him pay for trying to guard you.

If indecision is a player killer then remove the indecision from the equation. I'm not talking about being predictable or doing the same thing every time (though that's not really a bad thing).

Kobe Bryant said, "To be unpredictable you have to first become predictable."

I am saying that you should develop a mentality where you are going to dictate to your opponent and force him to react to you instead of the other way around. To do that, it requires a change in mentality. Then, the physical action will follow.

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Graham Lettner says:
7/29/2020 at 6:15:24 PM

Hi Don,

What interests me most about your writing on basketball is how applicable your thoughts are more broadly to life. I read it as life wisdom, applied to the arena of basketball.

When I reflect on my own past play, in high school and in college, you writing sheds much light. It makes it very clear to me what worked for me and why, and what didn''t work and why.

Today, it is a pleasure to be able to share the principles you teach with high school students and have them make a abrupt leap forward in their ability to put the ball in the hoop. It''s very gratifying for them, and for me.

Best wishes,


Black Diamond, Alberta, Canada


Paige says:
7/22/2020 at 2:40:02 PM

I Sent this to me coach!!!!!!!!🏀🏀🏀🏀🏀🏀🏀😁😁😅😅😅😃😃😎😎😎😎😉😉😉😆😆😆😂😂😂😀😀😀


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