Tall. Fast. Quick. Strong. Explosive. Incredible wing-span. Absurd vertical jump. Basketball players, especially those in the NBA, are absolutely “freak athletes.”
Every player on an NBA roster has exceptional physical attributes. Out of those 15 guys on the roster, only about 8 or 9 get any meaningful playing-time. And out of those 8 or 9 guys, only one or two are considered “Superstars,” (e.g. your LeBrons, Stephs, and Westbrooks). So, are these Superstars great because they are significantly better athletes/physical specimens than the other guys? (Maybe LeBron isn’t the best example…) If all athletic success was based solely on physical attributes, then Steph Curry, at 6’3″ 190 lbs, would probably be one of the worst players in the league, and we would be awarding MVP trophies to guys who dominate in the dunk contest.
Obviously, this isn’t how it works–basketball is more than just raw athletic talent and being able to jump through the roof. You also need to be able to shoot, dribble, pass, rebound, block shots, get steals, etc. But, there are also plenty of players in the league who are freakishly athletic and can shoot lights-out…but they’re good, not great players.
So, what makes a great player? This is where cognitive ability comes in. You could be 6’10”, have great ball-handling skills, and be able to dunk from the foul line; but if you don’t have court awareness and repeatedly turn the ball over, it doesn’t help the team win and you’ll never see the court. The following players have certain cognitive aspects of their game that makes them great–and a nightmare for opponents.
Cognitive Ability: Biological Motion Perception
Steph Curry has an unbelievable ability to read opponents biological motion. This means that he has phenomenal anticipation skills and an elite ability to read body language. For example, having great anticipation skills allows him to know where to precisely pass the ball to teammate cutting towards the basket, or understand how to take attack an opponent in pursuit:
“This is what separates great players from good players.” In other words, Curry’s brain is able to read his defender’s positioning — a foot set at an odd angle, a nose edging his weight too far to one side — and use the right ball movement — a head fake, a crossover — to create open looks out of thin air.
The ability to read biological motion is a vital skill to athletic success–not just in basketball, but other sports as well:
In a study released in September of 2015, Thomas Romeas and Dr. Jocelyn Faubert of the Visual Psycophysics and Perception Laboratory in Montreal found that athletes who are experts at biological motion perception had superior results in predicting passes in soccer and had quicker reaction times. Non-athletes who did not have the expertise in motion tracking were less proficient at nearly every task. (See the study HERE)
Cognitive Ability: Dynamic Visual Processing
Golf is a sport that requires intense focus on a single ball that is lying still in the grass. Basketball is also a sport that requires intense focus–except unlike golf, players need to focus on 9 other people sprinting and cutting on a court, identify who is on offense/who is on defense, and also constantly know the whereabouts of the ever-moving round orange ball. Being able to process all of these moving parts, while also anticipating where teammates/opponents will end up, is what makes Rondo an elite point-guard with excellent passing abilities–he sees things before anyone else does.
This unique skill set is also what makes Rondo a great defender. During the 2009-2010 season, Rajon Rondo led the league in steals with 2.3 per game. (Steph Curry also led the league in steals, during the 2015-2016 season with 2.1 per game.) Both guys use their abilities to read body motion, anticipation, and process dynamic scenes to cause turnovers and wreak havoc. Rondo, especially, uses these skills to bait opponents into making passes that they shouldn’t; and once they do, he’s there to add to his steal total.
Cognitive Ability: Focus
Clutch. That’s the first word that comes to mind when people think of Paul Pierce. Time and time again, Pierce has gotten the ball in his hands with seconds left in a tie game…and more often than not he wins it right there:
Pierce isn’t the fastest or quickest player in the NBA, but he is one of the smartest. He has always used great moves and technique to get open shots for himself–becoming a 10x All-Star in the process. But the aspect of his game that truly makes him, well, “The Truth,” is his ability to focus and block out distractions in high-pressure situations. He repeatedly gets himself into “The Zone” during these situations, and is almost impossible to stop:
In the simplest terms, the “zone” (or “flow” as some sport psychologists’ call it), is generally described as “the pinnacle of achievement for an athlete”, and characterizes “a state in which an athlete performs to the best of his or her ability” (Young & Pain, 1999). It combines a balance of excitement and awareness, and is often associated with a relaxed yet focused high-level performance (Caruso, 2005).
There are many great athletes, in every sport, who have had stellar careers but couldn’t seem to capture that elusive championship or perform in crunch-time when the lights are the brightest, crowd’s the loudest, and pressure’s at an all-time high. Paul Pierce wasn’t one of those players. He had the cognitive ability to block out distractions and raise his game when it mattered most. That’s what made Paul Pierce an All-Time great.
Obviously physical attributes are important to success on the basketball court–these guys are some of the best basketball players and athletes in the entire world. But what separates the good players from the great ones is their cognitive abilities. Yes, many of these players are born with these talents, but you CAN train yourself to become better cognitively. The same rules of training that apply to the body apply to the brain. Physically, if you’re slow, you train yourself to work on speed and agility. If you’re weak, you hit the weights and improve your strength. It was believed for a long time that, cognitively, you were stuck with the skills that you were born with. But with new research supporting the concept of neuroplasticity training (essentially, rewiring the brain), that view has been proven wrong. Now, we know that if you have poor biological motion perception, sub-par dynamic visual processing, and difficulty focusing in chaotic environments–you can now train those skills.