Great Teachers Part I: The Hoops Whisperer

20565The best coach in the NBA is a short, 38-year-old former lawyer who never played high-level basketball. His name is Idan Ravin, and he’s master coach to the stars: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and a dozen others, who swear by his magical touch (which you can see on video here and here).

So why is Ravin so effective? Because he learned two key skills.

First, he connects emotionally with the players. He identifies their learning style. Like a psychologist, he figures out what makes each player tick.

“The biggest mistake you can make is thinking these guys are stupid and inarticulate,” he says. “Whatever language they speak, they speak it well. And it’s not incumbent on them to understand me; it’s up to me to understand them.”

Second, Ravin channels that emotional fuel into high-velocity learning. His short, intense workouts (often no more than 45 minutes) systematically push players to the edges of their ability, where learning happens. There are no chalkboards, no lectures — only game-situation drills and a constant stream of short, concise signals. As Chris Ballard writes in his terrific-looking new book, The Art of the Beautiful Game, excerpted here.

Many of Ravin’s drills are intended to create a state of confusion. In one he throws tennis balls at a player, who must catch them while maintaining his dribble. (Ravin could be seen doing this in a Nike ad with Anthony a few years back.) The goal is not to improve hand-eye coordination but rather to create sensory overload. “You make the player focus on everything else except the game, so that the game skills become automatic,” explains Ravin. “You try to make the unreasonable feel reasonable.”

You have to give them bits,” says Ravin. “They all have ADD. They can’t sit through two hours of coaching theory. Not one kid wants coaching theory.” Instead Ravin makes everything interactive. “I have ADD too,” he says. “As a player I’d rather do it and fail, do it and fail, than have a coach move my hand to [show me] what to do. These guys learn by movement.”

It’s easy for the NBA establishment to dismiss Ravin as a dillettante; but they’re missing the real lesson of his story. Ravin is successful because he does precisely what every master coach does (and far too few NBA coaches do): he makes an emotional connection and uses that fuel to accomplish the hard work of building new neural circuitry.

Speaking of master coaches (and lack thereof), I spent the weekend at Notre Dame, watching my alma mater’s beleaguered football team lose to Navy for the second time in three years.

Hey Idan, if you ever decide to try your hand at football, I know a team that could use you!