Articles & Resources

Time Helps... Quality required when it comes to practice by Adam Naylor

Posted by Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group on Mar 19, 2012 8:05:00 AM

by Adam Naylor


Dr. K. Anders Ericsson has been the leading researcher on practice and mastery of skills in all domains of performance. Many people have heard his theory that it takes 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at anything. It’s clear that time is a critical factor in skill development; however, time is only one aspect of the theory. What defines practice as “deliberate” is possibly even more important than the time aspect, since the 10 year / 10,000 hour clock doesn’t really start ticking without it! There seem to be three important factors that dictate the quality of one’s practice time that coaches and athletes should strive to work toward. These factors might seem obvious, but there are not many athletes who train this way 100% of the time to maximize time and energy during practice sessions.

1)      Practice a task that is challenging. If the task is too easy to achieve, very little learning occurs because success is nearly automatic and eventually boredom sets in. If the task is too difficult to achieve, very little learning occurs because the individual is struggling so much that frustration typically leads to lack of effort. The designers of video games are masters at creating this first element of quality practice. They understand that if a game is too easy and the levels do not progress beyond one’s current ability, the player will get bored and quit playing the game. They also know that if they start a player at the hardest level right at the beginning without allowing them to slowly build skills and stretch their ability, the player will become extremely frustrated and quit because the challenge is too hard. In order to achieve element #1 of quality practice, practice drills and experiences should be challenging, without becoming overwhelming.

2)      Have an objective for every repetition. In golfmany players go out with a bucket of balls to the driving range and “just hit” or bring some balls to the putting green and “roll some putts”. While at the range, each ball should be directed at doing something specific (i.e., trying to hit a high draw at a target or working to feel the sensation in a specific part of your body while learning a new swing technique). While on the putting green setting up a specific drill or task to achieve will improve the quality of practice. While working on technique, training aids can assist the quality of practice, as long as the training aid is used with a specific purpose. This ensures that there is total attention and engagement in the activity. Since the mind runs the body, this is a critical element of learning and trains the body to feel the motion, rather than just making strokes with no real plan or purpose. This message clearly transfers to any sport or skill.

3)      Look for feedback from every repetition. Just to keep the golf example rolling – every shot hit at practice tells a story. If this information is ignored because of lack of attention, an emotional reaction, or any other distraction the learning curve is not advancing as quickly as it would from total engagement in the activity. Feedback allows for the recognition of patterns, immediate error correction from poorly executed shots, and positive reinforcement from well executed ones – all critical factors for effective learning and mastery of skills.

If an athlete follows these three principles of quality practice during sessions the individual is doing everything possible to reach their potential. Add 10 years and 10,000 hours to the equation and expert performance is likely to follow!

Remember to Save the Date for the BSMPG 2012 Summer Seminar - May 19-20th in Boston MA. 

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Topics: Basketball Related, Adam Naylor

Give Up Control: Build a Better Athlete

Posted by Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group on Sep 4, 2010 5:19:00 PM

By Adam Naylor and  Matt Shaw

Strength and conditioning programs are written and, ideally, followed by athletes. Often time's athletes record weights and reps on workout cards. When it is time to condition, the strength coach shouts out times and, occasionally, encouragement (or sometimes just let the "beeps" do their motivating best). This is all a quite reasonable approach to building faster and stronger athletes. The question however that must be asked is, "Does it build better athletes?"

Better athletes being one's that bring enthusiasm to the gym, make optimal performance gains, and can execute basic principles of preparing the body for play away from a coach's watchful eye... empowered athletes that learn better, sustain gains longer, and perform at their peak potential. Writing programs and closely directing athletes' workouts lead to physical gains, but will this approach alone lead to excellent performances?

How the strength coach directs his or her weight room can be the difference between good and great athletic performances. The art of this performance difference is in being less a director of conditioning programs and more of an empowerer of athletes. The key to this transformation is understanding the coaching nuances that encourage and teach "mindfulness."

This lies in giving athletes both choice and voice. Ellen Langer, psychologist at Harvard has spent decades examining how developing cultures of mindfulness creates greater learning in classrooms and better health in wellness settings.  Individuals who are regularly encouraged to engage their mind (not just their body) and have direct responsibility in their activities, have sustained health, better attitude, and greater ability to commit knowledge to memory. This mental engagement can be fostered by giving athletes choices on a regular basis... encouraging them to make decisions and consider the details of their training.

Similar to creating a mindful approach to the gym in your athletes is "questioning" athletes.  It has been found that "questioning" during the coaching process leads to superior long-term athlete development and greater athletic self-competence (Chambers & Vickers, 2006). Questioning involves asking questions to stimulate the athlete's analyzing of their own technique. This cognitive stimulation leads to improved self-awareness ultimately increasing autonomy and learning.  Asking questions as simple as, "Wow, how'd you do to that?" or "Tell me the keys to a good front squat?" make a better athlete and a better teacher-coach.

It is important to note, not all athletes are created equal when taking this coaching approach. A tightly structured coaching environment helps novice athletes learn fundamental techniques. As an athlete skill level increases, overly structured coaching may decrease motivation and prevent continuous improvement. Lack of cognitive freedom can produce boredom and unchallenged individuals. Experienced athletes reap benefits from mental engagement and freedom of choice. They are more motivated and progress in training most efficiently.

The two most common challenges/criticisms to this approach are time and patience. A coach might complain, "I only have a limited amount of time to make a large number of athletes stronger. Where will I find opportunity to have intellectual discussions with my athletes?" Finding time is simply about building new coaching habits and realizing, as illustrated above, it is about quick thought provoking questions not extended debate. As for patience... simply find it. Seeing a skill performed perfectly the first time is nice, watching an athlete master a technique after a bit of struggle is most rewarding. A little extra time and patience are worthwhile investments that pay dividends in long term learning and high performance.

A comprehensive way of considering combining technical teaching with athlete engagement is by:  1. Taking sufficient time to educate athletes on the form and the purpose of exercises; 2. Encouraging an environment where athletes may begin to help coach fellow teammates or freshmen.  This will actually create a more efficient training environment.  There will be greater consistency in form when the strength coach's eyes are elsewhere. Furthermore, team communication and cohesion will be improved. This creates a win-win situation, where the coach can be most efficient, while the athletes can learn the most and make the greatest gains athletically.  Ultimately a strong, trusting bond is created between coach and athlete.

It is unfortunate when the coach of collegiate and elite athletes teach solely through direct instruction and feedback. This creates an athlete that is over-reliant on the coach and ultimately decreases motivation. Without the necessary cognitive challenge and stimulation, an athlete may become stagnant. We often we find the name of the strength coach on the doors of the gym, in reality however it ought to be the athletes' names there, claiming ownership over the gym and what goes on within. Encourage a mindful approach to strength training you will find athletes reaching their maximum potential.

Chambers, K. & Vickers, J. (2006). Effects of Bandwidth Feedback and Questioning on the Performance of Competitive Swimmers. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 184-197.


Topics: Adam Naylor, Sports Pyschology & Mental Training

Adam Naylor, Boston University

Posted by Kate Gillette on Aug 17, 2010 5:12:00 PM

basketball resources


Adam Naylor

How and why did you get into the field of sport psychology?

Sport psychology is what I was headed towards for a long time.  Growing up, I was not allowed to watch TV on school nights unless it was sports; therefore learned that there was some intrinsic value to sports.  Furthermore, my father was a congregational minister and as far as I can figure he did and still does most of his pastoral counseling on a basketball court.  You could say I am the second in my family to work in sport psychology.

After these initial foundations, I did my first research study in sport psychology as a senior in high school (on between point routines in tennis), taught my first collegiate sport psychology class as a senior at Trinity College, and did my first official applied sport psychology work during the first year of my graduate studies at Boston University in 1996, and as they say, the rest is history.

Who in the field has influenced or helped you the most? Influenced your philosophy? What have you learned from them that you can you share?

I have really been influenced by a great many people from within and outside of the field of sport psychology.  Currently, my greatest influences are my peers in the Professional Sport Psychology Symposium (Dr. Doug Gardner, Dr. Ed Kingston, and Matt Cuccaro).  We challenge each other’s thinking daily, share new research regularly, and simply push each other towards serving athletes and coaches as best we can.  It is great to have a bunch of colleagues that have worked with high school athletes through professionals in most every sport with whom to brainstorm.

Name 3-5 books everyone helping basketball athletes should have in their library and why?

The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer because learning is just about everything when it comes to developing as a player.  The player that learns the best tends to make the greatest gains.  This is a quick read that dispels many myths about how we learn and gives insights into optimal approaches to learning.

Mindset by Carol Dweck is a solid read that highlights the flaws with being an “ability-focused” individual rather than an “effort-focused” player.  It is a good read for athletes, coaches, and parents.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer is an interesting read that gives some practical insights into decades of research in neuroscience.  It is good for a basketball player because basketball is a game where quality decisions need to be made in a split second on the court.  Understanding why and how we make good and bad decisions is clearly valuable.

Priming Performance: A Collection of Writings for Consistent Mental Toughness by Adam Naylor is written for the athlete and can be used as a workbook.  O.k…a shameless plug for my own book, I admit… sort of.  This was written as a mental training resource that is accessible and practical for the competitive athlete.  Copies can be purchased at
What is the last book you read and why?

I just finished The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking by Roger Martin.  I read it because I truly believe that excellence in leadership, coaching, and sport requires integrative thinking.  This is a refusal to accept conventional options and the undesirable trade-offs that seem to accompany “real world” problems.  The integrative thinking finds creative solutions challenging problems.

Generally speaking, what is your philosophy for evaluating/treating a basketball player? How does it differ from other sport athletes?

The two big things I do when I evaluate any athlete are to get a sense of their goals/motivation and learn how they respond to adversity.  The athlete that is motivated by learning each day and competing with himself regularly has a great foundation for success.  Secondly, any athlete can play well when he is feeling good or is in the zone, but the great athlete succeeds when things are off and the game is a struggle.

Perhaps unique to basketball, I like to take a good look at how the athlete works with teammates and responds to coaches.  The basketball team is so small and the environment so intense, it is important to be an effective communicator, take feedback well, and remain motivated regardless of the ups and downs of the team dynamic.

What has been the biggest mistake you made early in your career?

Early in my career, it was very difficult to “allow” an athlete to be uncomfortable.  During work with individual athletes I was too quick to lend a helping hand or make them feel better.  A modest level of discomfort is necessary for genuine cognitive change to occur.  Unless we truly take time to assess and challenge ineffective thinking it is unlikely we can adopt a more productive mindset for the long term.  Now if an athlete is “struggling towards success” I will support him through the journey, but will only throw out a life preserver if he is drowning in an unhealthy or ineffective cognitive spiral.

How has your philosophy changed in the last 3-5 years?

I don’t know if I’ve dramatically changed my philosophy over the past few years, rather I have simply added pieces to it.  The one thing that I feel more strongly than ever about is that my work is about player development not simply teaching of mental skills.  Goal setting, mental imagery, and the rest are valuable tools, but the seasoned sport psychology practitioner ought to be able to understand the social, psychological, and developmental needs of a player at the various stages in a basketball career.

What advice would you give for young professionals looking to follow in your footsteps?

Hone and refine your craft - truly become an expert.  Too many young professionals want to work in applied sport psychology so badly they rush to open their mouths and fail to appreciate primary research and gain a depth of understanding about psychology and its practice.  Too often this leaves them little more than motivational speakers with a graduate degree.  I suggest, taking many years working “athlete’s hours,” listening to coaches, and reading the “tough” scientific reads.  This leads to a depth of knowledge that leads to a long and successful career.

What areas do you address for those players that don't play significant minutes during the in-season?

With players that do not play significant minutes, I focus on maintaining motivation.  This can happen a few different ways: 1. By serving as a “bitch board.”  I am a safe spot where a player can vent frustrations, 2. By helping them appreciate and embrace their role, 3. By helping ensure quality practices regardless of playing time, 4. Lastly, by keeping minutes in perspective so they are able to perform well when their number is called.

What recovery methods have you implemented with your athletes during the season? During tournament play?

Mental recovery is just as important as physical recovery to assure excellent play.  Monitoring stress levels and sleep is key.  Furthermore, helping athlete chose time when focus is necessary and when they can simply flake out helps regulate cognitive energy.

During tournament play, it is important that players focus on the right things at the right times.  This means when the ball is in play, play.  When the game is over, reflect and learn.  Between games, rest.  Before the next game, refocus.

What arousal strategies would you employ for an athlete prior to competition?

There are myths on both ends of the spectrum on this one.  First, a player can be too pumped up to play well.  Secondly, a player can be too relaxed, hurting one’s ability to find the explosiveness and focus necessary for success.  With this in mind an athlete’s self-awareness is critical to pre-game prep.  Taking some time to determine what is the right emotional level for “me” is important.  A nice way to formalize this is to pick an adjective that sums up one’s optimal feeling and focus at tip off.  Answers could range from “mellow” to “pumped.”  Whatever a player’s word might be, it does give a clear target for one to strive towards during the day, hour, minutes leading up to the start of the game.

Pre-game mental prep is a true mind-body experience.  Meaning, the mind ought to find focus while the body finds a level of relaxed-energy that will lead to good play.  A simple way to focus the mind is to remind one’s self of two keys to success for the upcoming mind.  There are a variety of ways to manage one’s physiological arousal.  A few good diaphragmatic breathes are perhaps the simplest approach.  They can be done while stretching, reviewing a game plan, or moments before tip off.  A good breathe is a great skill as it both energizes and relaxes the body, while being a simple skill to add to pre-game prep.  Regardless of how one focuses his mind and body, it is important to be consistent and committed to the approach in order to lay the foundation for great performances.

What would you suggest basketball athletes do prior to shooting a foul shot?

Have a simple pre-shot routine.  A simple three step process is: Relax – Rehearse – Refocus.  Relax after the foul or the previous shot.  Take a few moments to slow your heart rate.  Rehearse by either mentally or physically doing a dress rehearsal of the shot.  Refocus narrow your focus to a small target at the hoop or a simple idea in one’s mind (i.e. “smooth).  Then shoot.  In essence get control of your mind and body and then commit to your shot.

What Recovering from injury?

When recovering from injury, don’t be mentally tough.  Yes, it sounds strange, but research has shown that mental toughness or an overly determined mindset when injured only leads to further injury or poor recovery.  The art to rehab is to be both patient and persistent in the training room and at the gym.
A player does not have to enjoy being injured, but he should take advantage of the opportunities injury presents.  Being injured affords a player to look at practices and games from a different perspective.  When healthy, a basketball player gets few chances to sit back to watch plays fully evolve and to appreciate the subtleties of the game.  The wise injured athlete takes this all in to be better upon return to play.  Furthermore, injury provides an opportunity to rest and recover.  A season can be mentally taxing.  Although the break is unwanted, taking advantage of the opportunity to recharge leads to sharper play upon return.  Injury stinks, but one can continue to grow and develop even with limited physical capacity.

Topics: Adam Naylor, Q&A