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Practice Makes Perfect

13 Aug

October 24, 2011

For every athlete that reaches the highest level of their sport, there is a certain amount of dedication that had to be given to their profession. There is a specific amount of time that they have to devote to their sport in order for them to excel at it. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of best sellers, Blink and Tipping Point, says that it takes more than 10,000 hours for any person to become an expert at anything. For some players, that time is shorter than it is for others. But, a little practice is often the difference between an athlete flourishing in a sport or being just another athlete. It is the difference between a career littered with All-Star appearances and a Hall of Fame career. It can be the difference between becoming a champion and falling short in the playoffs. Practice dictates the level of success that a player can achieve.

“If Coach tells you that I missed practice, then that’s that. I may have missed one practice this year but if somebody says he missed one practice of all the practices this year, then that’s enough to get a whole lot started. I told Coach Brown that you don’t have to give the people of Philadelphia a reason to think about trading me or anything like that. If you trade somebody, you trade them to make the team better…simple as that. I’m cool with that. I’m all about that. The people in Philadelphia deserve to have a winner. It’s simple as that. It goes further than that … If I can’t practice, I can’t practice. It is as simple as that. It ain’t about that at all. It’s easy to sum it up if you’re just talking about practice. We’re sitting here, and I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re talking about practice. I mean listen, we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we’re talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last but we’re talking about practice man. How silly is that? … Now I know that I’m supposed to lead by example and all that but I’m not shoving that aside like it don’t mean anything. I know it’s important, I honestly do but we’re talking about practice. We’re talking about practice man. We’re talking about practice. We’re talking about practice. We’re not talking about the game. We’re talking about practice. When you come to the arena, and you see me play, you’ve seen me play right, you’ve seen me give everything I’ve got, but we’re talking about practice right now. … Hey I hear you, it’s funny to me too, hey it’s strange to me too but we’re talking about practice man, we’re not even talking about the game, when it actually matters, we’re talking about practice … How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?”

Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson is a lock for the Hall of Fame. He was one of the most explosive and dynamic guards that ever played in the National Basketball Association. Generously listed at 6’0”, he dominated the league with his scoring and passing, amassing 24,368 points and 5,624 assists while averaging 26.2 ppg and 6.2 apg. Allen Iverson was a fierce competitor and a prolific scorer of the basketball. With his exaggerated crossover, lightning quick first step, and track speed he could not be guarded by anyone in the National basketball Association. He even befuddled the game’s best player, Michael Jordan, with a few in-and-out dribbles, a swooping cross, and a jumper. Allen Iverson was a special talent and a special player. His fearlessness when penetrating and willingness to take hits in the paint inspired his teammates to play harder in games. He won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award and took his team to the NBA Finals in 2001, but Iverson never won it all. Iverson made only one appearance in the Finals and was never crowned a champion because Iverson never got better as a player. He scoffed at practice, but it could have taken him to the next level of his career.  Because he was better than everyone he faced athletically, and did not have the drive to improve himself technically as a basketball player, AI never steadied his jump shot. Practice could have helped his scoring in three ways. It would have improved his overall field goal percentage through better mechanics and better accuracy on his jump shot(he has a career .425 FG%). Having a consistent jumper would have given him bigger lanes to drive through on his way to the hoop, which would get him more easy baskets. And, his expanded knowledge of the game would have helped him to better identify when to attack within the confines of the system. This would also help his teammates play more cohesively with him, rather than standing around and waiting for him to make a play. Iverson was great without any practice, but how dominant could he have been if he dedicated more time to bettering himself?

Albert Haynesworth should be the most dominant player in the National Football League, and for two years, the last one a contract year, he was. He showed up to camp in the best shape of his career, and bullied every lineman that set up across from him in 2006. He often bullied two or three linemen that lined up across from him. Haynesworth when practicing and playing hard was as dominant as any defensive lineman that played in the last decade. His style was reminiscent of the late Reggie White, imposing and chaotic. In his last two years in Tennessee, he garnered 14.5 sacks while facing a constant double-team and the occasional triple-team. Albert freed his teammates from defenders because he was so dominant during his contract year. And then, the Tennessee Titans made him the highest paid lineman in the NFL as a reward for his hard work and practice. Haynesworth immediately stopped working as hard in practice, showed up to offseason workouts out of shape, and therefore struggled in his last season in Tennessee. He was run out of Tennessee for his lack of effort in practice and lack of production in games. He took the same attitude to Washington and failed miserably there under Coach Shanahan. Even though Albert Haynesworth dominated the league in Tennessee, his lack of commitment to the game of football was his undoing once he attained his first big contract.

“Tracy McGrady was 1,000 hours of practice,’’ Van Gundy, now an NBA analyst for ABC and ESPN, said sarcastically at the conference. “He should be a Hall of Fame player. His talent was other-worldly. He was given a great leg up in the race against other players. He’s as close as I’ve ever seen to someone with a perfect body and a good mind… I just wish I could have changed his practice habits and his mentality.’’’

Jeff Van Gundy, former Head Coach, Houston Rockets

“McGrady was the most gifted player I’ve ever had on the roster. I do think (his talent) got in the way of Tracy’s development. Much of the game was so, so easy… When it’s that easy to dominate at that young age (that McGrady did), because of your physical tools, his wing span was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ. But my sense was that all of that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights.’’

Daryl Morey on McGrady, General Manager, Houston Rockets

“That could be it,” McGrady said. “I just think I could cruise through practice and still be effective. Some guys have to really go out to really have an impact on practice. My ability was just I had God-given talent to where I could just cruise through practice and still be an effective practice player… I was inconsistent. Some days, I have really good days where I just go hard and a lot of days where like, ‘Uh,’ and I just go through the motions. But I work hard. But I’m just not the best practice player.’’

“I got by and I still was head and shoulders above what I played with, and I think that’s what they were saying,’’ McGrady said when asked about comments by the two. “Like, if I would have went the extra mile of practicing hard, who knows what I could have been? But that part I don’t really buy into. But I think the way I work out individually, to get ready, to prepare myself for the season (has been acceptable).”

“I really don’t see how, maybe I’m wrong on this. I don’t just see how going hard in practice is going to take my talent to another level. I just don’t see that… As far as the team jelling and practicing like that, yeah that’s how you make your team better. I’m saying me personally, I just didn’t see how me practicing hard was going to take my talent to another level. I always felt like working on my individual skills was taking my talent to another level… Now when I say I wasn’t a great practice player, it’s not like I sat out of practice. I was participating. I always participated.’’

Tracy McGrady

Regardless of his views on practice, Tracy McGrady also has had a storied career in the National Basketball Association and has an outside chance to reach the Hall of Fame. He led the NBA in scoring in consecutive years, and was one of few players in this generation to average thirty points per game. Tracy was a gifted athlete, tall with long arms and a great vertical leap. He was explosive off the dribble with great touch and range on his jump shot. McGrady was unstoppable with the basketball, until the playoffs. During the regular season, Tracy McGrady has a healthy 20.4 ppg. average scoring 32.1 ppg. in the 2003-03 season. In regular season games, teams allowed McGrady to roam free, and he looked amazing. Because he was so physically gifted, he scored the basketball almost at will in exhibition games. However, despite tyrannizing defenses in most of his NBA seasons, McGrady only reached the playoffs seven times in thirteen years. And in the playoffs, teams focused all their attention on keeping the basketball out of his hands. McGrady’s averages dipped in the playoffs though his assists did rise slightly, and because he did not practice purposefully with his team, McGrady never learned the finer points of the game of basketball, like moving without the basketball, fighting for positioning on the court, and facilitating plays for teammates. Moving without the basketball helps a player get easy baskets when a defense is focused on him through misdirection. Positioning insures that a player gets the shots that he wants. And, facilitating for teammates makes it more difficult for a defense to isolate that one player.  All of those skills make players better individually and helps them to make the game easier for their teammates. They would have served Tracy McGrady well. McGrady is the only scoring champion to never reach the second round of the playoffs. Despite immense talent and a high skill level, Tracy McGrady never beat a team in the playoffs.

Vince Carter showed all the promise of Michael Jordan when he entered the league. His athleticism was off the charts, he could finish over anyone in the paint, and when Vince entered the NBA , he was farther along in his progression as a basketball player than Jordan. He took the league by storm. Carter won the slam dunk contest by dunking the basketball in a way that people had never seen before. In his first few seasons, he hit game winning shots and led his team to wins in the playoffs which furthered the comparisons to Jordan. Vince Carter seemed to be on the way to basketball immortality and then suddenly plateaued. Carter’s shooting percentages never improved beyond what he shot in his first seasons. In the playoffs, teams double- and triple-teamed him, effectively stopping him from taking over games. Carter, like McGrady, was labeled a soft player due to his inability to win when it counted most, and is now considered just an afterthought in the history of the NBA. With his touch from the three point line, his amazing leaping ability, and his knack for finishing plays at the rim, Vince Carter should have rewritten the record books and won championships. But, his lack of a sound work ethic stifled his progression as a basketball player. All of Carter’s shooting percentages were erratic. He shot over 40% from the 3 point line only four times in his 12 year career, despite having good mechanics and a soft touch. He never shot 50% from the field despite getting a few dunks in every game. His free throw percentages moved from as high as 84% to as low as 69%. Players that practice consistently have percentages that convey their dedication. They either better themselves continuously over the years or their shooting efficiency stabilizes. Vince Carter wasted his talent by not honing his craft.

“This time, I just wanted to work harder than I ever worked, not shortchange myself. I didn’t put in the hard work and the time and that effort. I didn’t dedicate myself the way I do now.”

Michael Vick

Michael Vick posted his best season as a quarterback by far, and had one of the best regular season games in National Football League history once he learned better practice habits. In the first seven seasons of his professional football career with the Atlanta Falcons, Vick showed flashes of brilliance as a player, but underwhelmed as a quarterback. Vick never had to work to beat his competition and had a .671 winning percentage before getting a big contract there in Atlanta. He was one of the best athletes in the NFL, so he relied heavily on his natural gifts and set NFL rushing records for his position. However, the job of the QB entails accurate distribution of the football, and he seldom won the big game despite having the quickest feet of any quarterback and one of the biggest arms. Michael Vick did not prepare for his games properly with the Falcons. He did not put in the amount of repetitions that he needed to build trust with his receivers, and thus he never built a rapport with his teammates. In most of his tenure with the Falcons, his receivers led the league in dropped balls. Though he was seldom great in the Falcons offensive system, he won games despite poor completion percentages, few passing touchdowns, and low passing yardage which are all barometers of efficiency for a quarterback. When he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, he had lost his fame and some of his natural speed and quickness. It was Vick’s last chance to revive his career, so he studied film and worked harder in practice than he ever had. And, the end result was a year that catapulted him into the elite of the league. Vick completed 62.6% of his passes, had 21 passing touchdowns, 9 rushing touchdowns, 233 completions, and 3,018 passing yards, all career highs. He finished second in MVP voting and led his new team to the conference championship game. His hard work paved the way for his rebirth as an elite NFL quarterback and to being one of the highest paid players in the league again.

This is where Harrison made his career.

James Harrison almost did not make it into the NFL. He languished on the practice squad for years with the Pittsburgh Steelers before he was called up to play linebacker after a freak accident to a teammate. He was cut four times before he became a professional, three times by the Steelers. Had he hung his head and went through the motions as a tackling dummy for the Steelers, Harrison would have never realized his dream. He seriously considered retiring before his career ever started. But instead, Harrison hustled hard and impressed enough people to garner a spot each year. Once the coaching staff changed, the new head coach saw the talent that Jerome Harrison possessed because Harrison treated every practice like it was his last. Through his perseverance and hard work in practice he made a lasting impression. Mike Tomlin, the new head coach of the Steelers, moved him from the practice squad to the special teams unit, and his dream was fulfilled. However, whereas NFL players like Haynesworth or NBA guys like Carter would have been content to have succeeded on a lower level and stopped practicing as diligently, Harrison continued to practice purposefully. So far, his desire to be great has led him to two Super Bowl appearances, one ring, a NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and a Super Bowl MVP award. Harrison willingness to work has taken him to the heights of his profession.

Often, the only difference between a career sacking groceries and sacking a quarterback is the amount of work that a player is willing to put into his career. Practice is the fuel that feeds excellence. And, athletes need to understand its true worth.

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