The spring is a great time for players. The season recently ended and they have space to reflect on how it went—the good, the bad and everything in between. The insights generated from that period of reflection allow players to put together a strategy for how to get better during late spring and summer. With time to work on their game on the horizon, the possibilities for growth are endless.
However, it’s easy for players to skip the crucial planning step and jump straight back into training without a clear plan of attack. This post dives into how to effectively plan for the summer by examining how I (poorly) attempted to create a plan when I was a player in college.
In the spring of 2014, I was heading into my final summer as a college basketball player. A week or two after the season ended, I made a list of the things I wanted to improve on. Here’s what it looked like:
There are a lot of things to note, both good and bad. Let's start with the good:
1) I wrote it down
I’ve posted about the importance of writing down your workouts beforehand. Physically writing down the areas that you want to work on is important for a few reasons.
First, It forces you to be clear. It’s tempting to skip the writing down step because you think you know it. But often, we just have a general idea of what we want to do and our mind glosses over the details. Writing it down forces you to clarify your thinking.
Second, writing it down allows you to refer back to it later on in the offseason. Ideas and thoughts can change shape over time without us noticing. But words on a page provide a sturdier reference point to what you’re actually trying to accomplish.
2) The “How” column
Rather than simply stopping at what I wanted to improve on, I thought about how I was going to measure my improvement over the course of the offseason. I made a conscious effort to write down my commitments to each area of improvement.
Long-term goals are useful for providing motivation, but short-term commitments provide clarity on how to actually get there. They show you what the immediate next step is in the long journey toward your end goals.
Now, the bad...
1) There are 17 things!!!
Nobody can possibly put enough time/effort/thought into improving in that many areas. You hear stories about NBA players going into a summer and revamping their game. What they do in those offseason is usually get significantly better at 1 or 2 things. Just 1 or 2. And I thought I could get better at 17?!!!? Probably not a good idea.
LeBron James is a good example of how to do it right.
In the summer of 2011, LeBron went workout with Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post game (watch the video here). In an article on Grantland (R.I.P), LeBron talks about his offseason mindset (full article here): “he [Olajuwon] taught me a lot about the low post and being able to gain an advantage on your opponent. I used that the rest of the offseason, when I went back to my hometown. Every day in the gym I worked on one thing or I worked on two things and tried to improve each and every day.”
Just one or two things. Not 17.
LeBron was also very intentional about what he chose to work on. From the same article, here is LeBron’s coach, Erik Spolestra, talking about his offseason plan:
"Shortly after our loss to Dallas in the Finals, LeBron and I [Spolestra] met. He mentioned that he was going to work on his game relentlessly during the offseason, and specifically on his post-up game. This absolutely made sense for us. We had to improve offensively, and one of the best ways would be to be able to play inside-out with a post-up attack.”
LeBron didn’t choose to work on his post-up game because he thought it would look cool or help him with his own numbers. He decided to work on his post-up game because it made sense in the context of the team. The Heat needed new ways to score and having a post-up presence would help the team be successful. In a different offseason, it may not have made sense for LeBron to work on his post-up game.
It’s important to remember that the skill you choose to focus on in the offseason is only as useful as it fits into the context of your team. If your coach follows the Moreyball philosophy of 3’s and layups, it doesn’t make sense for you to work on midrange pull ups.
If you have a star lead ball handler coming back next season, it doesn’t make sense to spend a large portion of your time on advanced dribble moves. Maybe you should work on your ability to shoot the ball, use off-ball screens and space the floor. Remember: your skills are only as useful as they fit into the context of your team.
2) I didn’t distinguish between my strengths and weaknesses
It’s very important to be intentional about how much time you are spending on your strengths and your weaknesses. I wrote a post on this a while back explaining my opinion on the strengths vs. weaknesses argument. (Quick summary: It’s important to work on the weaknesses that inhibit your strengths from flourishing. But once your “weaknesses” are passable, your time is better spent making your strengths even more dangerous.)
In my offseason plan, I just wrote down everything I wanted to get better at, regardless of whether it was addressing a strength or a weakness. For example, was it really worthwhile for me to spend time on my jump-hooks? Probably not. Yes, my lack of a jump-hook was a weakness of mine, but it didn’t have a negative impact on any of my strengths.
I was a perimeter-oriented guard who’s game revolved around being able to shoot and use off-ball screens to make plays. My lack of a jump-hook did not impact those strengths at all and working on it was probably not the best use of my time (although it might have had the unintended benefit of improving my touch around the rim).
3) My “how” and “goal” columns were too vague
In the second column, my intent was to write down my commitments for each area of improvement. However, some of these commitments were wishy-washy. For example, my commitment to eliminate the travel on my jab step was to “be conscious of it during drills and games.”
A better commitment would be to spend 10 minutes a day, 3x week on Tues/Thurs/Sat practicing my jab step with perfect footwork. On Saturday, film the jab step to ensure that I haven’t slipped into bad habits. That is a crystal clear commitment that is hard to escape from.
In the third column, I wrote down my goals for each area of improvement. Some of my goals were precise and reachable, others were vague and allowed for wiggle room. For example, my goal for “extending my range” was to “be confident shooting from 3 ft behind the 3 point line.” What does “be confident” mean? If I'm confident but don’t shoot a good percentage have I reached my goal?
A better goal would be to be able to make 60/100 3’s from 3 ft behind the line by the last day of summer. This goal is precise, measurable and has a finite end point. If I don’t make 60/100 deep 3’s by the last day of summer there’s no wiggle room. There’s no way I can justify or rationalize my failure to reach the target.
As a boatload of psychological research has shown, we’re very good at justifying events and decisions after they occur. A precise, immovable goal wards off our human tendency to rationalize failure.
4) I didn’t have any accountability measures. If I didn’t reach my goals, the only person that would know is me.
I strongly believe in the importance of intrinsic motivation and the value of building discipline by following through on your personal commitments. However, having a teammate, friend or coach to hold you accountable will help push you through the inevitable dips of a long offseason. They’ll keep you on track when you’d likely falter on your own.
How would I make it better?
If I were to do this assessment again, I would change a few things.
1st, I would make my list a lot shorter. I would brainstorm as many ideas as possible and then whittle it down to the 1-3 most important areas. I would commit to spending 80% of my time on those 1-3 areas, while using the other 20% to explore and expand my game into other areas.
2nd, I would ask for the opinion of others as to what I should work on. When I made this list in 2014, I created it all by myself without any outside input. This was a mistake because I missed out on the valuable insight of my coaches and teammates who had a unique perspective on my game.
As a coach now, I love it when players ask for specific advice on what they should work on. So if you’re a player reading this, don’t hesitate to reach out to your coach.
3rd, I would ask a teammate or coach to hold me accountable. At the beginning of the summer, I’d make an agreement with that teammate or coach. I’d require that I check in with them every week to see if I met my “how” commitments from the previous week.
I would also go a step further and set up a consequence for not reaching my target. A great tool for this is a free app called Stickk. You input your goal and set the stakes for not reaching it. The stakes can be whatever you like, popular ones are pledging a certain amount of money to a cause that you oppose (e.g. pro-choice or pro-life organizations, Chelsea or Liverpool football clubs etc.).
If you fail to reach that goal, the consequence is invoked. You can invite your friends to referee you along the journey as well to include social accountability. I used Stickk to help me write 30 blog posts in 30 days about a year ago and I highly recommend it.
4th, I would make the “how” and "goal” columns as precise as possible. My commitments and goals would be precise, measurable and have a time-limit.
I look back at this list now and it reminds me of the phrase “the man who chases 2 rabbits catches neither.” But, in my case I was trying to chase 17 rabbits. I appreciate my ambition but it’s hard not to laugh. Did I really think I was going to be able to get better at all 17 things?
The planning stage of offseason training is often overlooked or dismissed. It takes discipline and a high level of intentionality to create a clear plan for the offseason. But the effort to focus on the most important areas, create commitments, and select precise goals is well worth it. Because when other players go to the gym without a plan, they end up working on whatever’s easiest or most convenient even if it doesn’t help their game.
By creating a plan, what you’re doing is battling human nature. Our human tendency is to do whatever is easiest in the short term—jog instead of sprint, zone out instead of focus, shoot around instead of doing intentional drills. With a well-crafted plan in hand, you now have a weapon with which you can battle human nature. Because the players who improve the most are usually the ones who are able to overcome our innate human tendencies most effectively.