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Mind the Gaps: Mental Toughness in the Flows of Basketball

In tennis, there are breaks between points. In basketball...

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

On September 10th, Iga Świątek won the US Open. It was her third Grand Slam victory and her second in a season that saw her win a mind-boggling 37 matches in a row, including the French Open title. She is the top-ranked woman in the world - it is not particularly close - and is in pole position to be the premier player of her generation. Notably, she has been an outspoken advocate for mental health. The most vocal component of her advocacy has been her well-documented and highly visible employment of sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz, who travels with her full-time and attends all of her matches.

Part of the mental side of her game - and in tennis as a whole - is what happens between points. Points whir by at a fast pace; it is between points where players can react, recover, and refocus. Iga is particularly intentional between points. In the US Open final, she repeatedly (and controversially, according to my grandmother) raised her racket when her opponent was set to serve, indicating that she was not quite ready. Although the server is meant to dictate the pace of play (hence the supposed controversy), the fact remains that tennis players have regular opportunities to practice mental toughness during matches, and even have some latitude to extend these opportunities.

The point of departure for this article is that gaps in basketball are both less regular and less flexible. There are long stretches of constant play, and there aren’t many ways for individual players to dictate pace for their own sake. Taken together, I’m curious about how players psychologically deal with the temporal flows of basketball.

In many sports (tennis among them), there is the gentlemanly beginning of a coin toss. One player calls heads, the other gets tails, and the starting formation of the match is determined. Basketball opts for the polar opposite: the ball is chucked into the sky by the referee for two giants to squabble over. Crucially, in the time counting down to tip-off, players don’t know whether they are preparing for offense or defense. The moments before the game, already packed with some anxiety, are marked by uncertainty.

Play then proceeds in a calmer fashion. One team is on offense and the other is on defense. Simple. But then the complexity starts branching out. There could be (non-exhaustively):

a foul on the floor or the ball is hit out of bounds (defense). The roles remain the same. Everyone gets a moment to reset. The team that is on offense can adjust the length of the break based on how quickly they inbound.

a timeout. The roles remain the same. Everyone gets a while to reset. The team that is on offense can adjust the length of the break based on how quickly they inbound.

a foul on the shot (defense). The game enters a weird liminal space where no one is really on offense or defense. The player can typically take as much time as they like. Perhaps even longer than 10 seconds. Perhaps.

a missed shot or block. The roles may reverse, depending on which team comes up with the ball.

the end of a quarter. The roles are dictated by whichever team started on offense the previous quarter. Everyone gets a while to reset.

an offensive foul, a made shot, or a turnover. The roles reverse. Everyone gets a moment to reset. The team that was defending can adjust the tempo based on how quickly they inbound.

a steal. The roles reverse immediately.

I’ve tried to highlight three themes here. First, there is a continuum of outcomes with regard to roles. With some outcomes, players switch roles. With other outcomes, they don’t. And with still other outcomes, the roles may reverse or don’t even really matter. In other words, at any given moment, players need to be ready to completely switch gears into an offensive or defensive mindset. And these mindsets, to be sure, are quite different - one of the many reasons that any action that occurs in mid-court, where players are often bereft of these mindsets, leave professional basketball players looking like peewee football players.

Second, there is a continuum of outcomes with regard to flexibility. Some outcomes leave the ball in the hands of one player, who is free to dictate their own pace. This is largely up to the player’s preference in how quickly they like to shoot their free throws. Other outcomes leave the ball in the hands of one player, who is free to dictate their team’s pace. As in tennis, players are likely to take their time if their team is losing or experiencing a bad run of form, and vice-versa. The rest of the outcomes leave players with little individual agency; they are strapped into the game and must go with the flow.

Third, there is a continuum of outcomes with regard to time. For some outcomes, play continues. For other outcomes, there is a brief pause. For certain outcomes, players get a longer breather. These breaks likely hold diminishing marginal returns. Brief pauses are probably enough to serve as an effective stopgap between role switches, or at least provide a moment to recollect oneself. Longer breathers - those that constitute full stops in play - may be helpful to screw players’ heads back on, but might take players out of the game flow.

In theory, I think it is interesting to consider basketball along these lines. When we think of the pace and tempo of basketball, our minds tend to gravitate to Giannis streaking up the floor on a fast break, rather than considering the gaps presented above. Yet I think that the ability of players and teams to leverage these gaps is crucial to their success.

In practice, though, it is difficult to show that this is the case. The gaps in a game offer players and teams chances to reset - and also allow their coaches to intervene. For example, I might posit that the Bucks score more points in ATO possessions, on the basis that the time-out affords time to refresh. This is indeed the case - albeit by a relatively narrow margin of 3.24 points per 100 possessions (S/O to Adam for pointing me towards these data). But is that because of mental toughness, or because of Coach Bud’s X’s and O’s?

Likewise, it is difficult to distinguish mental toughness from physical ability. For example, a lot of ink has been spilled trying to untangle the mysteries of free throws. One might imagine that players would be more likely to sink the first shot, after a longer break in the action. Conversely, one might imagine that players would be more likely to sink the second shot, having used the first as a warm-up. Both mental and physical factors are likely at play, but it is hard to chalk up their relative impact.

(Side note for nerds like me: The main article cited in the free throw space finds that making the first free throw dramatically increases the likelihood of making the second (Arkes, 2010). This makes more sense from a physical than a mental standpoint; if players make the first shot, they can simply copy-paste their form for the second. The uptick is greater for infrequent free-throw shooters, supporting an explanation that the first shot knocks off the rust of rusty players before the second shot is sunk. However, as alluded to above, I was looking for data on whether players were more likely to make the first or second free throw. Redditors cite another article that cites the above article in a footnote (detective work!) that claims that it shows that players make the second free throw more, but having read and reread the article itself, I’m not sure that it actually shows that. Ambitious readers can let me know if they can interpret the marginal effects tables presented in the paper to that end.

Always cite your sources, kids:

Arkes, J. (2010). Revisiting the hot hand theory with free throw data in a multivariate framework. Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, 6(1).

Yet, the above breakdown would have me tentatively suggest some predictions. With regard to roles, I would expect that mentally tough players and teams perform better when role switches are preceded by a pause; they have time to reset for playing the other side of the ball. With regard to flexibility, I expect mentally tough players to shoot a higher percentage on their free throws, because they can best utilize the pause in play. I also expect mentally tough teams to perform better after taking a longer pause while they are playing poorly (and vice-versa). Longer pauses can be helpful to get things back on track, but detrimental when one’s team is playing well. Finally, with regard to time, I expect mentally tough players and teams to perform better after pauses of any length. They should be able leverage these pauses more effectively.

(To be sure, most of these gaps are experienced by the defense as well. I’m operating under the theory that good offense beats good defense. The ATO stats presented above offer some support for that; after all, opposing defenses were able to take a break prior to those possessions as well.)

I’d be curious if any existing data can be leveraged to support these suggestions. If not, I suppose that’s a future research direction, one that might involve me hand-coding play-by-play data...

To conclude, I want to offer a counterpoint. There is a reason that we are told to mind the gap: gaps aren’t necessarily good. Indeed, there is a wide body of work on flow, and it has been frequently applied to sports like basketball. It can be effectively argued that pauses are momentum killers and allow players to get in their own heads. Instead, they should just play. In other words, mental toughness is not leveraging the gaps for one’s benefit; mental toughness is staying alert between the gaps.

I don’t think you can make this argument after watching a game of modern basketball. Long stretches of play are followed by long stretches of standing around. Referees are quick to blow the whistle - except on our opponents, of course - and the ends of games can be excruciatingly choppy.

Thus, whether or not gaps are good, they are here for good. Mental toughness is certainly not limited to them, but the best players and teams must learn to mind them.