Basketball is a serious business, especially at our level where we are playing in the best competition in Europe, with a lot of expectation and a lot of pressure. But basketball is also fun, and that is something none of us who work in the sport should ever lose because we are very lucky to have this job.
For all of us, our first involvement in basketball came when we were very young. You get a ball in your hands, and you just want to play: take a shot, dribble and have a good time with your friends. You’re not even thinking about what you’re doing, and you definitely don’t feel any pressure – you’re just having fun and enjoying yourself.
Many years later, if you continue to play and eventually reach a high level, you will have other objectives whenever you step on the court: you have to play as a team, think about your defensive responsibilities, analyze the opposition... all these things. But you should never lose track of the fact that basketball is a game, or lose that starting point that made you want to play in the beginning: it should be fun for people to play, and fun for people to watch.
As a coach this is a very difficult balance to achieve, because you obviously want your players to focus on their role and do everything possible to win, but it’s very important because players can only deliver their best if they are also enjoying what they’re doing.
Your best comes from those moments when you are just playing. And although every coach talks to players about the importance of the game and the pressure of the moment, at the end of the day it’s just basketball. Even in the biggest games, you have two baskets, your teammates, the opposition, and the ball. That’s all the game is, and that’s not going to change whether you are playing in the backyard with your friends or in a championship game in front of thousands of fans. The important thing to remember is that when you’re having fun and enjoying yourself, more often than not you are also able to give your best.
This is the same in every job. If you go into the office every morning feeling tense because you’ve got a boss who is on top of you all the time, you’re probably not going to do a great job, because your best comes when you can be creative and have the confidence to work from your own initiative.
In fact, a lot of the time it’s a coach’s job to keep your players calm. If you’re playing for a championship, you don’t need to motivate your players; they’re already motivated enough to win a title. So if you’re playing a big game and something goes wrong, it’s easy for players and coaches to start thinking too much and make the game too complicated. So sometimes you just have to take the pressure off your players and tell them, “Hey, it’s just a game! Relax, just play! You shoot this shot thousands of times in practice and now you’re too tight, you’re thinking too much.”
But this doesn’t mean, of course, that players can be too relaxed. For anyone lucky enough to be playing or coaching at this level, it’s because you started with fun, and then followed that with hard work over many years and now you reach the moment when you have to show a lot of people what you can do. So players have to be focused and understand the pressure, but they also need to have the freedom to just play.
Finding that balance is difficult, and it’s different for every person. Probably the greatest job for a coach is finding that balance for your individual players, but also for your team as a whole. You have to work a lot to be successful if you want to win. But at the same time, you must remember that you’re just playing basketball, and that you’re playing against another team that also wants to win. So it’s a difficult situation to manage, but the best players are often those who can find this balance more easily and combine those two elements of working hard and still enjoying themselves.
It’s also important to remember you can get different kinds of fun and enjoyment from basketball. It doesn’t only come from running the floor, taking shots, making alley-oops. Doing those things is fun, but if you want to win you also have to play defense, and that can be fun too because enjoyment comes from hard work. If you’re in a group of people where everybody is working hard to achieve a common goal, that process can really bring people together and be very rewarding.
For a coach, you know that being successful in basketball needs a lot of hard work and a lot of different tasks to be completed: getting rebounds, passing the ball, taking shots, dribbling the ball, playing defense. You have to combine all those things within the team, taking into account the individual abilities of each player, and for a coach this is a great challenge and a great source of enjoyment when it goes well.
We are very lucky. At Real Madrid, we are playing for a great team that is famous all over the world, with thousands of fans and in the highest level of European basketball against lots of other great teams, competing for big prizes. In that situation, if you lose what brought you here, that would be a big mistake. You have to continue to do the things that allowed you to get to this level, the things that will bring the best out of you.
And that all starts with the love of basketball. It all starts with fun.