Last summer I was coaching at a camp with my old high school freshman coach, Buck Chavez. Buck is a legend in my hometown and a tremendous player back in his day. He played at Idaho state and professionally in Mexico. So when a camper asked him what the best part of his game was, my ears perked up.
Buck replied simply, “my best skill as a player was my conditioning.” I paused for a second. Did I hear that right? Did he just say his best skill was his conditioning? I knew that Buck wasn’t a great athlete, but he shot the lights out, was a creative passer and fierce competitor. So, of all his abilities, why did he say his conditioning was his best skill?
Buck went on to explain the reason why conditioning helped him to play well beyond his athletic ability; he could run opponents into the ground. That was his best skill.
As I thought about it, I started to realize the ripple down effects of being in great shape. Here’s what I came up with.
1) It’s Demoralizing to Play Against
You know that guy that you play against in pickup who never stops moving? Who crashes the offensive boards hard on every shot? Who sprints the floor in transition every time? Let’s call him Runnin’ Ricky.
It sucks to guard Ricky. When you’re choosing teams and you realize you’re matched up against him, you let out a little groan, “ahhh, shit…”
Playing against Ricky is demoralizing. It’s demoralizing to be huffing and puffing, hands on your knees and to look up and see your opponent breathing lightly and bouncing on his toes, ready for the next play. It feels like you’re playing catch up. You’re just responding to what Ricky’s doing rather than dictating the flow of the game.
Psychologically, being in great shape puts a step ahead of your opponent.
2) It Improves all Your Other Skills
When you’re tired, all your skills decline. Science tells us that your motor skills deteriorate and your reaction time declines. As much as you can try to focus, you’re a worse shooter, a worse passer, a worse ball handler and a worse decision maker when you're fatigued.
Getting in better shape is like a cheat code. You can improve all your skills without actually having to put in more time working on them. You can shoot just as many shots, practice your ball handling just as much, but if you’re in better shape, you’ll be a better shooter and a better ball handler when the game comes around.
3) It Weakens Great Offensive Players
If you’re guarding a guy who’s a great offensive scorer, what better way to take him out of his game than to wear him out? Most great offensive players don’t want to expend energy on defense. They want to get by with the least amount of effort and then focus on offense.
Just look at the NBA. Most teams hide their best offensive player on the other team’s worst player to save his energy for offense. There just aren’t many Kawhi Leonard’s out there who carry the burden of being the focal point on offense and lock down the other team’s best player on defense.
4) It Creates Defensive Mistakes
On offense, Buck was nonstop movement; always cutting, screening, probing. One false step by the defense, one second of poor positioning or lost concentration and Buck was ready to take advantage of it. He was ruthless in that way.
And the more he moved, the more tired the defense would get. The more tired they would get, the more mistakes they would make. Simply by making the defense guard more actions, you create more opportunities for the defense to make mistakes.
You become a great offensive player by doing 2 things; causing the defense to make mistakes and punishing them when they do. Being in great shape helps you create more mistakes in the first place.
Being in Great Shape is Available to Anyone
You can be in great shape if you want to. You can be the guy in pickup games who’s opponent groans, “ahhh, shit…” But it’s a conscious choice that you have to make. You have to dedicate yourself to the process and push through discomfort.
It’s simple, but it’s not easy.
This is why being in great shape was Buck’s competitive advantage; Nobody else was willing to do it. Nobody else was willing to put in the amount of work he did so it allowed him to be a step ahead of his opponents.
In that way, I think Buck was wrong when he said conditioning was his greatest skill. I think his greatest skill was his work ethic. He was willing to work his tail off to be in great shape and in doing so, created a big advantage over his opponents.