To excel at basketball, it’s mind over matter

Elite basketball coaches value psychological traits as a prime game skill

five middle-school girls play basketball

Physical skill is important for success in sports such as basketball. However, communication skills, confidence and a good attitude may be what gets players to the top of the game.

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Want to be a great basketball player? You’ll need to be fit. Being tall can help, too. But coaches seeking elite athletes don’t just look for such physical traits. In fact, those are way down their list, according to a new study. What interests top coaches most is what’s in your head.

Michael Rogers is a PhD student at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. For the new study, published in Sports Medicine, he surveyed 90 coaches from 23 countries. They coached college, professional and international basketball players, both men and women. Rogers asked what they looked for when recruiting players.

The coaches came up with 35 key traits. Some were physical, such as endurance and speed. Others were psychological, such as attitude, confidence and motivation. Then the coaches ranked which attributes they valued most. And psychological traits came out on top. The most prized traits were competitiveness, work ethic and attitude. Coachability and toughness also made the top five. All are psychological. Only one physical trait — agility — made the top 10.

These results don’t mean physical skill isn’t important. But they do suggest it’s not enough. To excel in sports at elite levels, you need the right mindset. Top coaches want players who are “optimistic, easily taught and trained — and determined to be more successful and to work harder than others,” Rogers says.

Timothy Baghurst specializes in coaching education. He is a professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The new findings did not surprise him.

Researcher Michael Rogers explains his research and what it might mean for young athletes and their coaches.

Among athletes with similar fitness, he says, “psychological characteristics define winners and losers.” But few student athletes are taught these skills, he adds. “Most coaches don’t teach communication skills or confidence or how to control anxiety.” Still, he says, knowing these traits are important may help aspiring athletes.

The study was funded by Basketball South Australia. The group promotes basketball and wants to know how to find players who can help Australia win Olympic medals. But this study could do more than help Australia bring home the gold, says coauthor Grant Tomkinson. He is Rogers’ advisor at the University of South Australia. The study’s lessons go beyond sports, he says. “I think it’s a life lesson. If you focus on the little things, such as attention to detail, having heart and communicating properly, it can lead to success in all aspects of life.”

Avery Elizabeth Hurt is a science journalist and author who hasn’t yet met a field of science that doesn’t fascinate her. 

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