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Tales From Sloan: How to Develop the Modern Athlete


Celtics Hub is at the MIT Sports Analytics Conference for the next two days so be sure to check back often for full coverage.  Here is a write-up on the first panel discussion of the day led by Malcolm Gladwell:  Birth to Stardom: Developing the Modern Athlete in 10,000 Hours?

“God-given talent.”  “Million dollar talent, 10 cent brain.” “Workout warrior”.  These are phrases often used when attempting to explain why a player is good, bad, successful or unsuccessful.   When Derrick Rose dribbles full speed up the court, long-striding past hapless defenders only to rise up and throw down a thunderous dunk over less explosive front court players it’s divine intervention right?  Or is it his work-ethic?  His hours spent in the gym honing his skills.  Or is it the time he took to diagnose situations, running plays in practice, working with coaches?  These types of questions are not isolated to players as entertaining as Rose, but rather are useful points of discussion for any athlete.

To kick off the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference moderator Malcolm Gladwell, statistician and author, poses the question, “what makes an athlete?” And with the help of four panelists with intimate knowledge of the sports world, he attempts to answer that.  The panelists included:

  • Mark Verstegen, CEO, Athlete’s Performance
  • Justin Tuck, Defensive End, NY Giants
  • Daryl Morey, General Manager and Managing Director Basketball Operations, Houston Rockets
  • Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN Analyst and Former NBA Coach

Gladwell preempted the topic with a concise explanation of the 10,000 hour theory, which theorizes that in order for a person to reach the highest point of achievement in a particular field, they need to spend at least 10,000 hours of intense focus.  This idea totally negates the idea of a person with “God-given” talent.  Let’s be real.  Why would anyone spend that much time on something they had already mastered just by being born?  So, is there such thing as a “natural”?

Jeff Van Gundy and Daryl Morey began the discussion by agreeing on Tracy McGrady.  With his physical tools (6’8″ height, huge wingspan) McGrady is the greatest example of a “natural” to which both Van Gundy and Morey can point.  The topic gets expanded to why he did not become great and then to why players who seem to have all the talent in the world, fail to reach their highest potential.  Here is where the the idea of “focus” in the 10,000 hour theory gets interesting.  Should all players focus on one thing?  There are obviously certain skills that certain players have an easier time picking up.  Some players take this ease of operations to mean that they do not need to work as hard when really, their time would have been better served working on other areas of self.

Justin Tuck provided the best anecdotal evidence of the “talent” vs. “hard-work” debate.  Growing up in Alabama, he played on the same High School basketball team as NBA journey-man Jamario Moon.  Moon, as Tuck describes, could jump, dribble, shoot, and easily dominated his opponents but never put in the time to become truly great.  Tuck also had the opportunity to play against Gerald Wallace, who played for a rival high school.  Wallace was renowned for his work ethic and drive, something that still continues today.  Obviously, Wallace has had the better career to date.

The conversation shifted to what makes certain athletes work harder than others and if the harder worker consistently provides a better result, should they be more valued.  Mark Verstegen continued the discussion by emphasizing the cognitive part of training.  Morey agreed and noted that a lot of GMs tend to fall in love with talent and physical skills but do not pay enough attention to their cognitive strengths, their ability to play through pain, and understand all facets of the game.  Van Gundy agreed and spoke about one of the most cerebral players in the game, Shane Battier.  Battier, Van Gundy asserts, never takes a play off whether in practice or in a game.  This type of focus makes up for his lack of athleticism.

Probably the most interesting point of the discussion came when Morey talked about how the Houston Rockets evaluate players coming out of the draft and during free agency.  Morey explained that when evaluating players, the Rockets focus on a player’s weaknesses instead of their strengths.  Despite sounding like a very pessimistic way of operating, the idea is really smart.  By evaluating a player’s weakness, Morey can most accurately predict whether that weakness can be overcome.  Morey uses Chuck Hayes as the best example of this.  Hayes went undrafted coming out of college but has solidified his place in the NBA because his lack of height for his position (listed at 6’6″) is made up for in a variety of different ways.

The panelists began discussing specific examples of players who failed to reach their potential while offering thoughts on why.  Morey instantly though of Marcus Banks.  Drafted early in the first round, Banks was supposed to be the Celtics’ point guard of the future.  With Celtics’ GM Danny Ainge known for making good draft choices, it seemed odd that he would miss so badly on a potential franchise cornerstone.  Morey offered this anecdote from a pre-draft interview with Banks as a reason:


What do you really want to do with your life?


Be a male fashion model.

Apparently, Ainge did not get the memo.  What he saw was a lightening fast point guard who was built like a running back.  However, without this intense focus on basketball, Banks is currently not playing while finishing out the last year of his contract and is not likely to get another one in the NBA.

There are many things that make an athlete but all of the panelists agree that in order to be successful in any professional sports’ league, athletes need to have a healthy balance of talent, smarts, and work-ethic.  As Van Gundy said during the panel, “Soft, selfish or stupid.  You can be one of these things, but you can’t be two.”  If an athlete does have one of these qualities, it needs to be balanced with something positive.

  • Batman

    Sounds really interesting
    Say hi to Zach Harper for me!

  • Bingo Banana

    As a singer/songwriter I can say: Yes, there is "god-given" talent. Exercise let´s you mold your talent, but there are certainly different levels of natural talent. I´m convinced everyone can sing, but some need hours of training, others need no trainig at all. Your talent defines how long it takes.

    All the guys who entered the NBA draft and never got drafted worked their butt off, too. The only thing where we have to get real is that it´s not necessarily god-given, but developed through a myriad of external circumstances that shape your personality and approach to certain situations in every moment of your life.

  • Jay P

    "Soft, Selfish, Stupid" I love that line and it instantly got me thinking about so many different players, and why some are "great" some are "good" and some are awful. Every time, you can make an argument that the awful ones do in fact have a least two of those.

    The greats? And I mean the all time great, as in Champions (this does not play to James, or Anthony for example, as they would clearly fall into the selfish category) don't have any of those 3.

    • No fool

      Lebron is not a selfish player.

  • rav

    Basketball is one sport where god-given attributes really are necessary. If you have the skills of say a Quinton Ross but the height of Earl Boykins you're not going to be an NBA player/

    • jacksobd

      What about Anthony Carter? Not quite as small as Earl Boykins but he does seem to buck the trend, no?

  • kyle4beantown

    I liked the Stromile example as someone that Morey and JVG discussed fitting into Gladwell’s theory. Wrote about it here: http://kyledaustin.com/post/3684130919/1000hoursa… . Also, Iverson – talking about practice – would seem to be just like McGrady, in not needing repetition.

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