5 things I learned about Management from pickup basketball

There is a social experience that is unique to any other experience that I can think of. It happens under a very specific cultural framework, and to some degree, in the vast majority of cities or towns in the world. In playgrounds and parks, school gyms and YMCA’s, pickup basketball games happen every day. In walking distance from my house, there are over a dozen opportunities, on any given week to show up, get on a team and play basketball.

Personally, I’ve recently become addicted. I love the game. I love the physicality of it, the strategy, the excitement, the competition. I love everything about it. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the culture of it. I can show up at any number of courts for a game, and within a few minutes, I am part of a team. There are four other people who I now share a goal with. I may know them. They may have come with me, I may have seen them play before, I may have never seen them before in my life. But now, we are a team. We are in a relationship and our success is now dependent on each other. Almost as soon as your team is assigned, your adversary is chosen, or you choose your adversary. Again, perhaps a stranger, perhaps your best friend, now a significant part of this person’s responsibility is to keep you from succeeding.

When it works well. there is an efficiency in relationship building that I have found particular to pickup basketball. We haven’t trained together, we haven’t run drills together and practiced “plays”. Our assignments are often random or dependent on whose free throw goes in and whose doesn’t. Essentially, we are on this team together because we showed up at the park at more or less the same time. And yet it works. Sometimes it works magically. I thought it would be fun to explore the ways that this very specific structure of team building, our more correctly, team development, translates to doing business, and in particular, what I can learn as a manager from playing pickup basketball.

1 – Culture trumps rules

Every court in every playground is the same. Except how they’re not. The rules of play are really more or less the same, but there are nuanced differences wherever you play. As subtle as they are, the differences in the culture from one court to the next are important. An understanding of the particular rules for a court, which are usually unspoken is important if for being successful. There is a court that I play that the painted sideline on one side of the court is ignored and the crack in the concrete a few inches further is understood to be the courts. The first time I learned that I was guarding someone who I thought stepped out of bounds. Because I didn’t know this “rule”. There are no refs, there’s no replay, you how the rules are decided are built over time and are particular to each court. Knowing the rules of Basketball is important, but no more important than knowing the culture of the court. Management requires an understanding of the rules – how things happen in the industry, but also an understanding and nurturance of the culture – how the people you work with succeed. 

2- Know your team and your place

I am probably a pretty average size guy, though when I get on the court, I’m a little bigger than Shaq. If you asked me if I was a good basketball player, I would say it really depends on who I’m playing with. The point is, sometimes I’m one of the bigger guys on my team and sometimes I’m one of the smaller guys. Often I try to play a support role for the people on my team that I know are better than me, and sometimes I know I have to step up and make points. As a manager, my role is different on every project. It’s important to know how to support the strengths of your team; who thrives in which positions. It’s also important to know when you need to take it to the rim yourself. Roles can change in the middle of the game. If something isn’t working, it may be that the roles need to mix up.

3- Share the ball

Everyone wants to win, but more importantly, Everyone wants to play. For many, myself included, delegation is one of the most challenging aspects of management. It’s so much easier to just do it yourself, and you know it will be done well. The problem is, that’s not managing. If I take the shot every time, my team will lose interest in playing, even if “we” are winning. The more the ball moves around, the more open shots will reveal themselves, and if your teammates aren’t making open shots, it could just be they need to start taking more. 

4- Challenge window

On the courts, the games that are the most fun are the games that are the closest. The harder the battle, the more everyone steps up. If teams aren’t well matched, it frankly isn’t as fun. No one likes to lose really badly and it really is much more gratifying to win a close battle than a runaway blow out. As a manager, keeping employees challenged enough so they don’t lose interest but not so much that they can’t succeed keeps the level of engagement high. If the prize is too out of reach, or too in reach, motivation won’t be at its potential. How well matched are your games. Are your goals for success too easy or too hard? Maybe it’s time to mix up the teams? 

5- Adversary today – Teammate tomorrow

The person whose shot you blocked yesterday could be the same person who hit you with that great assist tomorrow. The game has roles but it’s just a game. The relationship will go beyond 12 points. As in all things, approaching your adversaries with respect has many benefits, especially if that adversary is going to be your teammate tomorrow.



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