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Innovation in Basketball Training & Finance with Idan Ravin & Minerva

Chris Ballard profiles NBA skills trainer Idan Ravin in his article “The Hoops Whisperer” in the October 26, 2009 Sports Illustrated. Ballard writes:

“Other coaches, however, dismiss Ravin because he is not part of the basketball fraternity. (Ravin says the Bobcats’ Larry Brown in particular challenged him about his credentials). True, Ravin has not played for or apprenticed under a legendary coach or paid his dues as an assistant. But the players don’t care.”

What makes a great coach or trainer? Is playing for or assisting a great coach the only way to become a great coach? Is assisting Larry Brown the only way to be a great coach or is just the best way to coach just like Brown?

Recently, Dan Pink’s blog featured an interesting factoid from Jerry de Jaager and Jim Ericson’s new book See New Now:

“A study of the top fifty game-changing innovations over a hundred-year period showed that nearly 80 percent of those innovations were sparked by someone whose primary expertise was outside the field in which the innovation breakthrough took place.”

If the only people allowed into the basketball fraternity come from the same background and work for the same coaches, when will anything change? They simply perpetuate the same ideas from generation to generation.

I have argued with former players who now train players about things like the crossover step and hip turn on defense. Players are adamant that they never cross their feet on defense, even when I watch them play defense and they cross their feet. They believe strongly in the plant-and-drop step method. They have been taught for so long and by so many good coaches that crossing their feet is wrong, that they insist they must not do it.

These players suffer from the curse of knowledge, and eventually, their argument ends up with something like “I played in the NBA, so I know better” or “My coach won 500 games, so he knows better” which really has nothing to do with the argument of whether or not the crossover step or the hip turn is the best approach to use for defensive footwork.

The November 2009 issue of Wired features an article titled “Who is Minerva?” about a nobody who posted economic reports under a pseudonym in South Korea and eventually grew to such stature that the daily press cited his predictions and online posts. Because nobody knew his true identity, he was able to take on the aura of authority and was viewed as an expert.

Eventually, he was arrested and his identity was outed. Because he lacks a formal economics degree, he lost his credibility.

“Among the experts who testified on Park’s behalf was Kim Tae-Dong, an economics professor at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University who once served as an adviser to South Korea’s president. ‘Minerva is a much better teacher than I am,’ Kim said later. His writing is so easy for ordinary people to understand. I was surprised by his lack of a formal economics background.'”

The Wired article describes the curse of knowledge:

For those who already hold authority, the best way to keep it is to speak carefully and conservatively. This is why the people that we listen to most closely in times of economic certainty…have trouble warning of impending crises until they are obvious to just about everyone. The authorities have too much at stake to risk being wrong.

Basketball coaches generally grow more conservative as they grow more successful. If you do what everyone else does, and lose, you blame the players. However, if you go outside the box, everyone blames the coach. Therefore, when going outside the box, you have a chance for tremendous success (which inspires jealousy in others) or you fall on your face.

In Ravin’s case, he succeeds:

His training methods can be exotic, but what sets him apart is the way he relates to players…’He knows the game so well and in turn knows his clients so well that he knows exactly how to get into their heads,’ says Anthony. ‘Especially mine. Not only does he push me physically but he also pushes me psychologically.'”

Most basketball people are beholden to the traditional way to teach skills, the traditional drills and the traditional systems. We see a successful coach or trainer and believe his or her success is due to what he does. Recently, people saw Vance Walberg’s success at the high school and junior college level and copied his offense; people see Phil Jackson’s success and use the Triangle.

However, more often than not, their success derives from how they do things. As Anthony suggests, Ravin’s success is not necessarily the drills that he does, but the way he relates to the players and the way that he treats the players to gain their trust. And, because he started outside the traditional path (a lawyer who started by coaching 12-year-olds), he devised his own methods and added his own innovation that many inside the fraternity fail to see because they have too much to lose.

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