Disrupting the Flow: How Fan Feedback Loops Effect Player Development

(originally published on Deep(ish) Thoughts in November 2016, but still written by yours truly)

As Kevin Durant settles his long frame into Golden State, everyone has heard the same condemning refrain. ‘Superstars would never have joined forces 20 years ago; players just don’t want to compete anymore.’ An oft-used rebuttal to this criticism has been that because fans and media members only care about championships and winning, exactly in that order, players have the same priorities. The witnesses and judges of a player’s career and legacy take winning titles so seriously that an NBA great without a ring is seen as an agent without a cell phone. But the effects of the flawed fan rubric extend beyond summer decisions to the actual learning and playing of basketball. Individual fans, media narratives, and the interaction between the two effect more than the national conversation surrounding a player or team.

Think about the last time you watched a game in person. When were you applauding or cheering? If you’re like most people, it’s usually after a bucket. Scoring triggers the most frequent positive crowd reaction. This may seem like a mundane observation, but it has very real effects for those on the court. Scott Savor, founder of Secrets in Sports and consultant for high school, college, and NBA teams, boils player development and performance down to what excites a player. Once that’s clear, a development plan[1] can be reverse engineered. However, given the overwhelming positive response garnered by scoring, and the positive stimulus this feedback provides, fans at all levels can shift what motivates player performance and decision-making. It gets their figurative juices flowing; but when you think of juices, just think of synapses and resultant biological reactions.

The peak state of performance, at which athletes are most effective, is something psychologists call a ‘flow state.’ This has long been colloquially referred to as being ‘in the zone.’ In the flow state, every action is purposeful and comes without conscious thought. An athlete’s mind relies on hours of preparation and accumulated muscle memory in order to carry out actions which are simultaneously scripted and ad-libbed. An essential aspect of this state of mind is feedback, which determines whether or not an outcome was successful. Set a good screen, teammate gets sinks an open shot, crowd goes wild. That’s a successful action with a successful result, reinforced with positive feedback. However, what if the teammate in that scenario misses the open shot? The screener still sees that the screen was successful in creating a good look, yet, the positive feedback has dialed down to simply seeing witnessing an open teammate take a shot. No bucket, no crowd noise.

For players developing their both their mental and physical skills, that uneven weight placed on making shots proves to have real consequences in how they motivate themselves.[2] This is a classic case of rewarding results over processes. Even at the youth level, where the ‘fans’ are just parents, the same patterns of praise generally exist. The current generation of youth ball players emulates the NBA players who wanted to be ‘like Mike.’[3] It takes a concerted effort on the part of a coach to counteract this experiential and cultural feedback imbalance. Judging by the level of coaching education in the United States, those efforts aren’t being made on a large scale. Coaching training in the U.S. pales in comparison to that of Canada and some European countries, in large part, because it’s not mandatory.

This paradigm of fan influence doesn’t exactly mean that we’re raising generation after generation of chuckers hell bent on shooting themselves into the basketball pantheon.[4] In another context, list all the players you think are good passers. Now qualify that with how many players you think are good passers when that pass won’t result in an assist. Those two lists are certainly different. Maybe the explanation to that difference can be obtained through realizing that hockey assists do not incite excited fan murmurs and gasps. Shooters knocking down corner threes don’t give the point and nod to the guy who passed out of the double-team. That’s reserved for the assister. It’s up to NBA coaching to create a tactical game plan around the true motivators of players. Savor highlights understanding what a player can and cannot change as a key in player development.[5] However, it’s also up to coaches at developmental levels to reward the little things, causing that intrinsic flow state motivation to develop as many feedback inputs as possible.[6] In his words, “praise is the ultimate reward from a coach.”

This is, to an extent, an issue endemic to the American pipeline, where packed stands and online mixtapes start in middle school. Notice how well so many European-trained players contest shots with their hands straight up rather than swatting at blocks. Given the massive cultural shift necessary for American basketball to eradicate this problem, all-encompassing solutions don’t seem possible.[7] That’s the reason great coaches are great, and why it’s so hard to be a great coach. Beyond the requisite ability to compose sound strategy, it requires that players buy into fervently carrying out the little things. Every offensive and defensive scheme involves at least a couple players doing things that they’d probably rather half-ass. Buying into a good scheme erases that because players compel themselves into their flow state.

There absolutely are NBA players who chase thrills on defense, look no further than Tony Allen or every Celtics guard except for Isaiah Thomas. Andrew Bogut undoubtedly enjoys thumping unsuspecting defenders with well-crafted screens. Ask Joe Ingles about the satisfaction extracted from a timely swing pass or well-spotted post feed.[8] But these more unnoticed aspects of winning basketball motivate perhaps a smaller number of players than the traditional box score fair. This isn’t a new revelation, just a different explanation. Substituting glory for praise lends itself to the ‘selfish player’ mantra. Kobe has great vision on the ball but doesn’t use it. Rondo has great vision but hunts assists. Maybe these guys have been conditioned to play ‘selfishly’ rather than compelled by born instinct. It’s likely a combination of both. So next time you’re in an NBA arena,[9] give it up for the dirty work. Although these plays often go unmentioned, they’re certainly not unmentionable.


[1] Or game plan.

[2] Unless you’re one of those fatalistic individuals who values nature head and shoulders above nurture.

[3] We’re actually on the third or fourth generation of this cycle

[4] Looks sheepishly at Kobe Bryant

[5] Cannot and will not both apply here, though some players adapt what they will change as they age.

[6] Could you imagine if coaches told parents to cheer after every pass and screen? It’d be super weird, but might work.

[7] But, it is possible!

[8] It’s no accident that two of these guys came up through the Australian youth basketball ranks. Either because the Australians have a training advantage or because of my cognitive biases. Still, no accident.

[9] Or on NBA Twitter.


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