The Twice As Good Myth, Nov 26, 2012

This is not necessarily about basketball.

So you’re sitting there watching a sporting event with some friends, and the conversation gets around to evaluating certain ballplayers. Inevitably, you and your friends will disagree on the worth of different players. So while talking about some players, one of your friends says player X is twice as good as player Y. Now everybody knows that your friend means player X is a lot better than player Y. But I get the feeling that some people really believe certain players, all playing in the same league,  can actually be twice as good as some other players.In short, they think some players are 100% i.e. twice as good  than some other players.

Let me state firmly that there’s absolutely no way any player can be twice as good as any other player while playing in the same pro, college, or high school sport.  Superior players are only maybe 10-15% better at most than the worst players in the league.

Let’s compare Lebron James to Brian Scalabrine. James is currently thought to be the best player in the NBA (an opinion I share) and one of the five best all-time. (Some people think he is the all-time best, but I’ll reserve judgment on that until he proves he can win a few more titles.)  The recently retired Scalabrine was thought by many to be the worst player in the NBA during his years of service. I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s just say nobody ever considered him a HOFer or that he failed to live up to his potential. While every player, even the great ones, have room for improvement in certain areas, Scalabrine  probably played as well as his ability allowed him to play. He managed to hang on in the league for more than a few years with ability that suggested he was better suited for Euro ball. (Not to slam Euro leagues who have a lot of excellent players quite superior to Scalabrine.)

So how much better is James than Scalabrine? Probably not more than 15% at the most. Is that a shocking statement to make?  You say ” What!!!!! James is way, way, WAY!!!! better than Scalabrine. Probably 50% better!!!” you shriek while throwing Cheetos at your computer screen.  That would be a false assumption for you to make and a waste of Cheetos. (All right, I pick snack food off the floor and eat it like you do. )

Let’s look at this realistically and choose other sports for my statement . Firstly, let’s look at golf. A lot of you play golf, and if your like most golfers, you don’t play very well. Which means you have a tough time breaking 100 on a regular golf course. So you’re the average golfer trying and occasionally succeeding at breaking 100. What improvement would allow you to better 100 and start on the path to breaking 80 and be considered a real good duffer er I mean golfer?

Well, you could start by putting better, by better club selection, by being in better shape, or by making smarter choices with your golf shots. But for the greatest improvement in your golf game (especially if you can’t break 100 even while improving in the areas I’ve mentioned), you must improve your swing. I don’t play much golf now, but I used to play a lot of it. And I was not too bad. I could occasionally break 80 on a good course. (Can’t do that now.)

The one thing I noticed about bad players and good players was that the good players had much better swings than the poor players. It was easy to tell that even while watching practice swings. And of course the good players usually putted much better than the bad players. Putting is also a golf stroke of sorts, but usually dissimilar to a regular swing. Even so, the vast majority of good golfers putt much better than players who can’t break 100.

So right now you have difficulty breaking 100.  You’re in good health, you’re relatively young (40 or under),  and you get a pro to help you and/or you read a lot of   books about golf and study the swings of the best players like I did. So after taking the pro instruction to heart and reading books about how to have a better swing, you hit about 100,000 practice balls, you improve your swing by 5%. So what do you shoot now after improving your swing by just 5% ? You probably are now breaking 90 with no problem and occasionally shooting in the low 80s. “Just by 5% improvement?”  you ask skeptically. Yes, just by 5%.

So what happens if you improve another 5% making it a total of 10% from the baseline where you had difficulty breaking 100? You’re probably shooting in the low 80s and high 70s.So now what if you miraculously improve another 5% and make it 15% since you started your grand improvement method. Welcome to the nirvana of golfers, the fountain of youth, El Dorado, the big Powerball: the scratch golfer.

There’s only one problem: just as I could have spent all my leisure time at the practice range and never been a pro golfer (even though I was well above average when I played), it will be exceedingly difficult for the average hacker to improve 15%. Certainly the average golfer or athlete can improve considerably, but it’s just very difficult to improve one’s performance by 15% if you’ve been playing for a number of years…unless you’re a superior athlete. But we’re talking the average athlete, and if you seen a super athlete like Charles Barkley try (and fail) to improve his golf game on that show with Hank Haney the golf pro, you know how hard it is to get better at golf. (Remember, golf is flog spelled backwards).

If you think I’m way off about how much percentage improvement it would take to improve your golf game substantially, just think if you improved your swing by 1%. You would now most likely be breaking 100. At least breaking it more than shooting over 100. Who wouldn’t like to improve whatever they’re doing by at least 1%?

Let’s look at another non-basketball sport, tennis. I used to play a lot of tennis before physical problems derailed my crack at  Federer and the rest of those hackers. (Stop laughing.) Okay, as in golf, I was never going to make it to Wimbledon. But I was not too bad. They have a seven point system in tennis to evaluate players with seven being at pro level. I was not at pro level. Probably about four level.

Again, what would I have needed to improve my game. Well, like virtually all other average players, a better swing. But athletic ability is also very important in tennis, much more than golf. Nobody is trying to stop you from swinging a golf club, and you don’t have to run after your shots. In tennis, excellent athletes can frequently defeat better players i.e. players with better strokes by just keeping the ball in play. Many tennis players with good shots try to hit the ball too hard, or try too difficult shots and end up beating themselves. I used to play against a friend who was very fast and played a very conservative game. He was faster than me, and could beat me when my arm was giving me trouble. For a while, my sore arm improved, and I started whipping him. He couldn’t figure it out. Then he  improved his shots, and we were failrly equal. I had better shots, he was the better athlete.

But let’s say we have two tennis players who are friends and have played each other for a long time. They’re both about equal in strokes and athletic ability. They’re decent players at about the 4 level. They usually split their matches over the course of a season.

But then one player X goes and gets pro instruction and improves his game by just 1%. What happens then? Then he starts winning about 55-60% of the matches. “By just 1% he starts winning that much more”  again you wail disbelievingly and throw the remaining Cheetos and a stale M and M at the screen. Yes, just by 1%. In fact if player X is all of sudden better than player Y by 5%, he will regularly crush player Y every time they play. 6-2, 6-3 no problem. If he improves by 10%, player Y might as well start playing his kid brother if he wants a decent match, because player X will usually beat him love and love. Player Y  might win a game every now and then, but usually he’ll get his gluteus maximus severely kicked. 15% improvement and player X is now playing pros.

But again, it would almost be impossible for a player who has already  played for many years and is a good player to improve by 15%. Obviously, in tennis with athletic ability being a large part of the game with the strokes, it’s very difficult for seasoned players to improve by 5%.

You can look at the top four men’s players (Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Murray) and see that there’s very little difference overall in their ability. Nadal looked like he was king of the hill, but he’s been hurt and has slipped a tad. Ditto for Federer. That’s all it takes for a player who was once dominant to start losing their edge. The second-tier players beneath the top four are all excellent players, but lack one or more things that would put them in the class of the big four. They might need better shots (or improvement in one particular shot), be quicker and faster, stronger, be in better shape,  smarter, have more focus, or need to play harder. But it would be very difficult for them to do so. And as athletic ability i.e. speed is very important in tennis, a player’s length of  time at the top is shorter than players from other athletic sports. Many players are done by the time they’re thirty, whereas in golf, many players are just hitting their stride.

How about Tiger Woods when he was whipping the rest of the world? How much better was Woods when he was on his incredible streak before the big crash? 15-20% you say? He probably wasn’t better than someone like Phil Mickelson by more than 1 or 2% that’s what.  They say Woods has slipped (he has), but he still won three or four tournaments this last year and could still win some majors. He probably is only about 1 or 2% behind his form from four and five years ago. Because pro athletes are so close in ability, it only takes relatively modest improvement (1-5%) for a player way down the list to jet to the upper echelon. It’s just that making that improvement is the hard part.

Pros are people who’ve hit several million golf balls in their lives. When you’re a pro, and you’ve probably put in thousands of hours to improve your game, it’s just too hard after a certain point to get any better.I’m sure they still practice hard, but I don’t know if many golf pros past 40 ever manage to improve their swing to the point where they go from relative obscurity to being one of the frontrunners. Steve Stricker is an exception, but as a rule, it’s just too difficult. And with Stricker, he had an excellent game, it might have been he just had a lack of confidence for several years. Ex-British Open winner David Duval lost his confidence shortly after winning that prestigious tournament, and  I don’t even know if he’s on the tour anymore. At one point, some golf experts were comparing him to Woods. Now Woods is a player who has never suffered from lack of confidence.

Let’s get back to basketball. So how much would Scalabrine have to improve to be an equal of James or exceed him?   Was James 15% or more better than Scalabrine  at his peak? Probably not. Then you’ve got to ask why is James so much better than Scalabrine. A number of factors but chief among the reasons is that he’s a superior athlete to Scalabrine. Remember, being a great player consists of excelling in four major aspects of the game as I’ve written in a previous post. Two are mental and two are physical. James might have Scalabrine beat in all four, but most likely it is the two physical parts where he stomps Scalabrine: skills and physical ability.

Let’s put it this way, if Scalabrini would have been 10% better athletically (quicker, faster), he could have easily been an all-star. He didn’t have a bad outside shot and played hard and smart, it’s just that he was not quick enough to do much against pro level players. He  simply couldn’t move quick enough to be more than a marginal NBA player at best. Lack of speed or quickness hurts most aspiring basketball players when they get to a level of competition at high school level or greater. If you’ve been playing a friend of yours  one-on-one at basketball, how much better do you think you’d be if you could move just  1%  quicker? If previously  you were playing your friend at somewhat equal terms one-on-one, you’d now  start beating him more often than not. If you could move 5% quicker, you’d easily drub him every time you played. If you were both about equally quick, your being 5% quicker would allow you to dominate him.

At the NBA level, if you don’t possess outstanding athletic ability, you have to make up for it in the other three areas. You have to be very intelligent, have a lot of desire, and be very skilled.  That’s why players like Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and to a lesser extent Luis Scola have excelled in the NBA despite being somewhat less than thoroughbreds on the court. And Nowitzki is at  seven feet still one of the tallest players in a league full of very tall people.James is also more skilled than Scalabrine ever was, but his athletic ability allows him to display those skills.  Let’s just say that a slower James would still be a very good player, but not nearly as dominant as he is now.

If you play a lot of basketball,  as I once did, where would you like to improve?  If you could only choose one area of improvement, would you like to be a better athlete, smarter, have more desire, or  have more skill? I’ve seen thousands of players who were very skilled, smart, and had great desire but who just lacked the athletic ability to make it to the next level or play well at the next level. If I could have chosen one area, it would have been better athlete

.And from watching thousands of games in my life and playing thousands of hours, I can see that most players would have loved to have been better athletes. The athletic ability of my three brothers and myself was not equally shared. My older brother while just one inch shorter than me at 5’10, could dunk a basketball and run the 100 yard dash close to 10 seconds. I have good hand-eye coordination, but I didn’t come close to his abilities in running and jumping. I could shoot very well, but my brother could do that plus  outquick and outjump most of the other players on the court. He was offered two basketball scholarships AFTER!! he got out of the army and was the starting pg on a team that won the Texas  Amateur basketball championship.  His nickname was “White Lightning.”   That’s the way it goes.  I could never beat him one-on-one at bb.  He would either easily outquick me or dribble up to me and jump about two feet above me.  But I could beat him in golf and tennis for what it’s worth.How much better of an athlete was my older brother than me?  In between 5-10%.

So I’ll repeat: the difference between a champion player in whatever sport you choose and a mediocre amateur is probably not more than 15% assuming the amateur is healthy and has played the sport for a suitable period of time. I’m talking athletes of about the same age. As previously stated, there are a number of factors separating the pros from the amateurs. And though is possible for virtually all amateurs to improve in  whatever  sport they’re playing, it’s virtually impossible for any athlete who has been playing for  a decent period of time to improve by 15%. If you’ve played golf, tennis, or just go down to the Y to play in the pickup games, you know you’d love to be better by at least five percent. Good luck in getting there, because it will take a lot of work for you just to make 5%. Or even 1%.

 

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