Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Art Rondeau on the Psyche of Shooting: Part Two

At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Art Rondeau, a Trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and Peak Performance Coach. Art has worked extensively with professional athletes in a number of different realms, and his role is part of what makes his perspective both diverse and unique. Art has compiled a number of works for Hickory High, operates his own blog (Game Time at the Garden of Good and Evil), and has comprehensive list of testimonials listed here. I was fascinated by Art's work and his approach, reached out to him for a few insights on possible misperceptions and issues with the game, and the NBA, and he kindly obliged. You can find more on Art at artrondeau.com, and follow him on Twitter @ArtRondeau. The following is part two of our two part exchange. To access part one, click here.

Angus Crawford: Dwight Howard, one of the league's elite big men, is shooting 54.8% from the charity stripe this season. Despite the ghastly appearance of that figure, it's actually a near six percent uptick from his 2012-13 conversion. Poor free-throw shooting has long plagued Howard's offensive arsenal. It has been reported that Howard frequently and confidently splashes a high percentage of his freebies on the practice court, although such success is yet to translate to any in-game environments. Why might this be, and, if you were working one-on-one with Dwight, how would you approach (and seek to amend) the issue?

Art Rondeau: Regarding why Dwight Howard -- or anyone, really -- might hit many more free throws in practice than in games: much of that has to do with the differences of shooting free throws in practice than in a game. (Clever answer, huh?). In games, players mostly take 1, 2, or 3 free throws at a time. But in practice, we often see a player go to the line and take twenty. And once he hits his first free throw, he is not going to move from his spot. Someone could pull the fire alarm or there could be an earthquake and that player's not going to move. Some bad free throw shooters don't get comfortable on their first free throw but do so on their second. But in practice, taking 20 in a row is like taking one 1st free throw and nineteen 2nd free throws.

In practice, nobody is behind the glass backboard waving foam fingers. The gym's not extremely loud or incredibly quiet. No one is trying to ice the shooter (calling timeout to force him to the sideline), no defensive players are switching sides and making comments, etc.

Game free throws are taken after a player is hit (unless you ask the guys who get called for the fouls -- they never touched him). Hit a muscle hard enough and it will tighten up and affect its ability to extend during the shot. Shooting twenty before or after practice doesn't usually include getting hit first. Also, the major reason that free throws are missed is because of what happens when balance is lost (spoken about in detail in this Hickory-High podcast). Tightened muscles and fatigue affect balance and game free throws are usually shot after a player has been exerting himself. If practice free throws are taken at the beginning of practice -- or at the end after some rest and water -- loss of balance from fatigue is less of or no longer an issue.

All of these things can contribute to higher practice free throw percentage and/or lower game free throw percentage. And this doesn't even get into the emotional differences experienced in the two settings. Players going to the line in practice probably feel much more relaxed than in a game (the exception here being if the team is going to run sprints if the player misses his practice free throws). A player in a game can be happy he's going to the line; angry because he got hit so hard; unfocused because he got into a scuffle after the foul; exasperated because he's been hit the same way the last three times down court but it's only been called this time; nervous because the game is on the line; etc. In a nutshell, different emotions have different corresponding blood chemistries and those differences can affect strength, muscle fluidity, energy, etc. So, emotional differences between practice and games can have a major impact on the player's body and that, of course, would affect his shooting.

As to how I would fix it, there are 3 things I would do first: 1) Get him to take practice free throws like he takes game free throws; 2) Set up an NLP anchor (emotional trigger) so he feels the same way every time he shoots a free throw (think Pavlov's dogs); and 3) Have him do some special exercises to fix the balance problems.

The balance exercises have the biggest impact. Everyone benefits from doing them. The same season that former Knicks center Chris Dudley had his career-best made streak, San Diego State's Matt Watts jumped from his career 50% to lead the WAC at 90% and both of them improved their free throw shooting so much because of the exercises. At the end of the next season ('99-'00), I showed Allan Houston the balance exercises because he was missing a lot of critical free throws at the end of games and others mistakenly thought that he was choking. From the beginning of his career through the end of that season, he shot an excellent 83.7% (1442 of 1723). For the next four seasons after learning the exercises, Allan shot 90.2% (1094 of 1213). During his injury-shortened final season, he dropped to his pre-exercise average of 83.7% (36-43).

There are other things to look at but, before I would do that, I'd see how much the player improved by doing the three things listed above. Often, significant improvements are seen by the next game. It has never taken me more than 10 days to get an elite basketball player (NBA or NCAA) to shoot well from the free throw line.

AC: When we were talking in person at Sloan a couple of weeks ago, you were drawing upon examples from your work to help to adequately portray the value of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. You briefly cited working with former New York Knicks guard Allan Houston, and how your NLP training helped him have his career-best season in many categories. Can you elaborate on this, and/or perhaps offer some of your history of providing Peak Performance Coaching (at any level of basketball) and where you've found tangible results?

AR: My peak performance program is based mostly on NLP (with a few tweaks) and certain other performance technologies. Shooting a basketball is a great way to quantify results but performance improvements can be seen in other areas that can be harder to quantify. For example, if someone believes he's a bad defender, that belief will affect his play and, in certain circumstances, slow him down a fraction of a second. At the NBA level, that fraction of a second can be the difference between making the stop or not. Changing the belief will help him improve his defense. That improvement is harder to quantify since all five players need to play good defense for 24 seconds to get a shot clock violation and if one of his teammates slips up, points will still be scored. Video analysis helps but that's a rear-view determination. Each shot, on the other hand, goes in or it doesn't and, while secondary analysis is very possible (and, lately, very probable) we also know the result of the shot right away.

In part 1 of our interview, I mentioned some details of Allan Houston's outstanding shooting during the '99-'00 season. The results were significant but the "results of the results," even more so. We set a goal to get Allan onto his first NBA All-Star team and, since a majority of the games we worked together were prior to the coaches voting for their All-Star selections, that's a goal that we met. And despite being off the program for over 50 regular-season games that year, his results in his games on the program allowed him to set his career-best FG% and 3Pt%.

What isn't realized is that had we not worked together for one game, Knicks history might be very different. As is mentioned in the NY Post article, Allan and I first worked together late in the lockout-shortened '98-'99 season. He was in an 8-game slump and scoring fewer than 14 points per game. The night after our session, Allan scored 30 points on 10-for-17 (58.8%) shooting and the Knicks beat the Charlotte Hornets by 5 points. Had Allan scored fewer than 25 points, the Knicks would have lost. As it turned out, this win was crucial. All else being equal, losing that game would have meant that the Knicks would have tied Charlotte for the 8th playoff position at the end of the regular season -- but Charlotte would have beaten the Knicks 2-out-of-3 that season and, thus, won the tie-breaker. The Hornets would have gone to the playoffs and the Knicks to the lottery. Instead, the Hornets went to the lottery and the Knicks made their odds-beating march to the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. How many things would be different now had the Knicks gone to the lottery instead?

One more example from that special '98-'99 Knicks season helps illustrate how quickly NLP can work: my first Knicks client that season was Chris Dudley and he had set his career-best made-free throw streak while being on my free throw program. That program is 90% physical and, in fact, I originally developed my NLP-based program to make up the 10% of the free throw program that's mental. All season long, I tried to work with Marcus Camby, as well. Marcus is a great guy and was always friendly towards me and I never convinced him to work with me during the regular season.

During the Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks lost game 4 to the Pacers by 2 points. Marcus had played a great game but gone just 4-of-8 from the free throw line. After the game, I was waiting outside the Knicks locker room to speak with Chris and Marcus walked up to me and said, "What can you do to help me?" He was in a suit with his gym bag over his shoulder, and I asked him how much time we had. He said they were leaving in 10 minutes to go to the airport to fly to Indianapolis.

In the middle of the crowd and without a ball, I showed him the basic exercise that Chris also did during his career-best streak. Marcus did the exercise fine and I knew I could ask Chris to do the exercise with him on the road. But Marcus had shot just 57% from the free throw line all season and was shooting 57% from the line in the playoffs, too. I knew I needed to change his belief about his ability to make free throws; I knew that I couldn't change it too much or his brain would reject the new belief (trying to convince him he was a 90% free throw wouldn't have worked); and I knew I had to do it on the fly. So, when Marcus was distracted by his agent calling over to him, I used a quick technique to plant the suggestion that Marcus was a 70% free throw shooter. Then we shook hands and I wished him well in Game 5. The result? Marcus shot 69% from the free throw line for the rest of the playoffs and the entire next season. We only worked together that one time but I've been fortunate to learn some powerful tools, and they came in handy.

AC: Where do you see the future of research into NLP and the psychological side of shooting to be headed? Is it a well of information that is yet to be properly tapped, in your eyes? Much time and advanced analysis has been devoted to matters such as spacing, positioning, contested/uncontested shots, and per-minute data, for example, but is there any part (of shooting) left over where we still have more to discover?

AR: This is a great question. As advanced as we are, we are only beginning to tap into the possibilities of humans to perform at higher levels and most of the research has been into improving size, strength, and endurance. As important as those are, without the ability to perform his or her best when it matters, someone who could be the best at something might never achieve those heights. Earlier, you asked about higher free throw percentage in practice than in games and, although I pointed to a lot of physical reasons for that, for some players that would be strictly a mental issue (a limiting belief or not accessing the right emotional states during the game). That would be an easy fix for me but I'm one person and need to market my services better. Ideally, I'd train people to work with all 30 NBA teams. You're still going to have a winner and a loser in any game but imagine if both teams shot 50% or better, no matter which game you watched? If you're interested in basketball, that's more fun. If you're interested in marketing, teams with losing records who are playing well have often sold out games and sold more merchandise than teams who are losing and losing badly.

The increase of advanced analytics and video tracking have the potential for backlash, and mental performance programs are the way to counteract it. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in effect, states that when you measure something, you change what you're measuring. If you put a thermometer in a glass of water, you don't get the temperature of the water, you get the temperature of the water after the temperature of the thermometer has changed it. Advanced analytics and video tracking are "measuring," and there can be a corresponding change in performance. Media coverage is "measuring," as well. One of my clients was leading the Big East in 3PT% for six weeks and was then interviewed in detail about why he was shooting so well. The result? He immediately went into a six-week slump (as they said during his great shooting streak, he was "unconscious." Asking him questions made him conscious about his shot.)

What's going to happen when some reporter or coach looks at advanced analytics and tells the player "you can't make shots from the left sideline"? The player thought he was just having some temporary trouble but he may now believe he actually can't make the shot. That would need to be fixed and mental changes like that aren't ordinarily going to come from watching game film. Teams need someone with my skills as much as they need someone who is great with analytics. Analytics show patterns, they don't show why the pattern exists and they don't tell you how to change the pattern. We're really just scratching the surface in both advanced analytics and mental performance. But a team utilizing my program and a stats guru would have a powerful advantage over their opponents.

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