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Study: In coaches’ eyes, ‘mental game’ makes standout basketball players stand out

Players, take note: To coaches, attitude matters most, says UND’s Grant Tomkinson, senior author of study

A UND basketball player practices alone on a fall day. UND archival photo.

It’s not just basketball coaches who could benefit from Phil Jackson’s mindful, disciplined approach to the game.

Basketball players could, too.

That’s a lesson that can be drawn from a new study on which Grant Tomkinson, professor of kinesiology at UND and adjunct professor at the University of South Australia, served as senior author. The study suggests that coaches believe psychological and “game intelligence” indicators – traits that Jackson, a 1967 graduate of UND and the winner of 11 NBA national championships, famously focused on – are in key ways, and for elite players, more important even than physical fitness in determining success on the court.

“In one sense, this wasn’t a surprise,” Tomkinson said. “We know coaches are going to go out and try to select athletes who have a great work ethic and attitude, are highly coachable and easily motivated.

“What was a surprise was that fitness and body size, while important, were at the bottom of the list.”

Understand, essentially all of the basketball players whom these high-level coaches recruit already are exceptional athletes: “That’s kind of a given,” Tomkinson said.

“But once you’ve got these fit, skilled athletes, then the coaches are saying, ‘Who’s coachable? Who’s resilient? Who’s got that grit?’

“These are attributes that have tremendous importance to coaches.” And both players and coaches alike can benefit from that finding, Tomkinson said.

Grant Tomkinson
Grant Tomkinson is a professor of kinesiology at UND and adjunct professor at the University of South Australia. UND archival photo.

Head up vs. head down

The study, published in Sports Medicine, is the first to examine key indicators for recruitment in basketball using a large panel of elite countries from International Basketball Association (FIBA)-ranked countries.

In the study, Tomkinson and his co-authors — who include lead author Michael Rogers, a Ph.D. student of Tomkinson’s at the University of South Australia — surveyed 90 basketball coaches from 23 countries to find out what indicators are used to recruit players for the big league.

Said Rogers in a University of South Australia press release, “We found 35 performance indicators that coaches considered important, and at the top of the list were psychological attributes.

“Coaches look for players who are competitive, have a strong work ethic, are excellent communicators, good teammates and can ‘read’ the game.” Being fit is a given, Rogers agreed: “It is the other traits that make a difference to the scoreboard.

“Game statistics are commonly used to recruit basketball players, but by watching players on the court, and how they behave outside of it, coaches can pick up a lot of non-physical factors that indicate whether a player is likely to make the grade.”

Tomkinson described it this way: “These days, coaches tend to spend a lot of time with their head down, looking at computer screens, looking at data,” he said.

“But a lot of those things that have emerged in this study, you can’t really objectively measure. So I think the best way we get a feel for them is with our head up, watching the players — not down.

“Integrating those approaches is the challenge, but it’s going to be the future. Because coaches need to be cognizant of all of the factors that make a good player, not just those that can be objectively measured.”

Resilience, motivation, communication

Phil Jackson’s coaching style showed he understood the “head up” approach, and more. According to Garrett Burke in a story at Sportscasting.com, Jackson’s knowledge of Buddhist philosophy “helped him to control his ego, stay calm in tough moments and gain a greater understanding of what is needed for a group of people to accomplish their goals.”

The strategy included incorporating meditation into practices, calming the players and at times even getting them to sync their breathing as one.

Moreover, “Phil Jackson’s best quality was that he could relate to nearly every player on the roster, regardless of their background or circumstances,” Burke continued.

“The NBA regular season can be a slog, and keeping 12 players motivated and invested in the process is often difficult. Jackson did that better than nearly every other basketball coach ever.”

Teambuilding is another word for the “head up” approach, and both coaches and players could take note. As Tomkinson said, “coaches, of course, work a lot on skills and on fitness. But I don’t know how often actually work on developing these less-tangible traits in their players.”

Given the study’s results, “maybe coaches should devote more time to those traits,” which in particular include attitude, coachability, competitiveness and work ethic.

As for players, “one of the benefits of this study is that it will help players better understand what elite coaches are looking for,” Tomkinson said. Yes, athleticism is vital, but attitude is what separates an already-skilled athlete from his or her peers. And a player who puts that insight to good use will stand out, because that’s exactly the mentality elite coaches are looking for, the study suggests.

As Rogers says in the University of South Australia press release, “resilience, motivation and good communication on the court are crucial in separating the ‘best from the rest,’ once players reach elite level, according to the coaches we surveyed.

“Interestingly, the least important indicators were physical fitness and movement skills.” Something to meditate on the next time the NBA Draft rolls around.


A YouTube video explaining the study can be found here.

“Player profiling and monitoring in basketball: A Delphi study of the most important non-game performance indicators from the perspective of elite athlete coaches” is published in Sports Medicine. The paper lists Alyson Crozier, Natasha Schranz, and Roger Eston – all from the University of South Australia – as co-authors, along with Grant Tomkinson and Michael Rogers.