Making Practice Like Fortnite

It happened. I had a coach’s version of an epiphany after my first season as a head coach. As I began this offseason catching up on resources that were published way before I was hired, I heard a quote that rocked my world. On the Hardwood Hustle podcast, Steve Shenbaum (a captivating expert on communication, presentation and engagement) said something I’ll never forget:

Lectures are the dinosaurs of presentation. I don’t think our kids have ADD any more than they did twenty years ago. If a sixteen year old can play Clash of Clans or World of Warcraft for six hours, they don’t have ADD. They just need to be engaged. We have to find ways as coaches to make our presentations authentically engaging.

This quote hit home because I was the coach this past season who, when players seemed bored or disinterested, I blamed it on their short attention span. It made sense to me. That’s what (I thought) everyone said, and I never even gave it much thought. The explanation felt natural. But then I heard Steve say this, and I felt like my whole worldview on the subject changed. I was more in control of this situation than I thought. Heck, you could even say I was the problem.

Today, this palpable energy has shifted to a new game called Fortnite. Fortnite has quickly become a tool for misguided disparagement about “this generation,” but I don’t think it has to be that way. Although some coaches, parents and other adults may disagree, I think we should instead be using Fortnite as information to understand young people better. If we try hard enough, we can actually use Fortnite to craft a template for our practices—ultimately making our players’ basketball experience similar to their Fortnite adventures.

Traditionally, motivation in a basketball setting revolves around rewards and punishments. But as JP Nerbun explains, rewards and punishments build compliance, not character. The result becomes players doing things for the wrong reasons—they aren’t doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

And with the rise of Fortnite, we know that there’s a motivating factor that goes deeper. Kids aren’t playing Fortnite because of a fear of punishment, and there is something that goes beyond a gift of tangible rewards—they are truly moved into coming back for more and more. So the question becomes, what can we do to facilitate this type of genuine enthusiasm in our practices?

We can turn to Daniel Pink, who has found that we are motivated by three things: mastery, autonomy and purpose. As I wrote this article, I took a few hours interviewing two of my friends who are avid Fortnite players. I asked them simple and broad questions initially and then slowly worked towards more pointed questions as I unearthed their root motivations. It was clear that Fortnite met all three of these motivating desires.

With this in mind, we can use Pink’s research to structure a basketball practice that limits rewards and punishments (as Brian McCormick discusses here) and instead aims at a much stronger and deeper realm of enjoyment.

Mastery

Mastery revolves around our desire to improve. Think about anything you want to get better at—and then imagine working for months continuously without getting any better. Even for adults, this can be a discouraging scenario. For this reason, one of the coach’s biggest responsibilities is building an environment where learning and improvement is likely to take place.

  • Tangible Ideas For Practice
    • Utilize activities that are researched to improve skills in the competitive and unpredictable game setting (small-sided games!!!)
    • Practice (and fail) in the “sweet spot” (if practice is constantly too hard—frustration arises, if it’s constantly too easy—boredom arises)
    • Track progress on certain key performance indicators (individual and team wide)
    • Be intentional about the use of growth mindset lingo
    • Focus on the process rather than the outcomes

Autonomy

Autonomy may be the hardest for some coaches, as the traditional hierarchical structure becomes more blurred with the coach surrendering some of their power. In an autonomous environment, players have ample opportunities to lead and players are given the opportunity to self-correct after mistakes (Oregon football’s horizontal leadership is a great example of this). Simply, the players don’t feel a coach breathing down their neck the entire time. The coach acts more like a resource who supplements the team and invites initiative and collaboration rather than a boss who controls the team and creates a bunch of yes-men or yes-women. Although high standards can and should be maintained, there is a sense of freedom and space that is needed for both learning and growth.

When a team has autonomy, they can get to a point that Sherri Coale calls “shared ownership of goals.” Through this empowerment, players can now take responsibility in the improvement of themselves and those around them (which, in turn, plays into mastery quite a bit).

Some may think of a leader as a strong and powerful person who is in constant control of themselves, those around them and the environment in which they lead—but sometimes a leader’s biggest strength is having the humility to take a backseat so others can thrive. Daniel Coyle sums it up best: “The best leaders are leaders of teams that don’t need leaders. The best leaders should be able to leave the office for a month and things run the way they should run.”

  • Tangible Ideas For Practice
    • Non-coaching segments of practice where coaches sit back and observe (great idea from Jake Scott on Chris Oliver’s podcast)
    • Player-led intrasquad scrimmages (followed by an after-action review)
    • Player-led film sessions
    • Intentional question asking instead of answer giving

Purpose

Purpose is about working towards something bigger than oneself—something that is worthwhile and something that lasts. When a team has a purpose, the hours of hard work and preparation have a deeper meaning. Throughout the season (when things may be going well or even not so well), a strong purpose remains the main ingredient in the team’s perspective. A coach who uses basketball as a teacher of life is well on his or her way of developing this motivating factor.

  • Tangible Ideas For Practice
    • Have the players create a list of core values and definitions for the team (Tim Walton uses a glossary of terms with his teams)
    • Discuss on and off-court behaviors that reflect these values and why they are important (check out this from John Carrier)
    • Spotlight these moments when they occur. If you can show it during a film session, do it! As Coyle says in The Culture Code, “These small efforts are powerful because they transmit, amplify and celebrate the purpose of the whole group.”

After interviewing both friends, I found that there is one more resounding quality about Fortnite that should be noted here. In order to maintain such a high level of engagement, Fortnite provides a variety and randomness that keeps the game fresh. There is uniqueness in each new repetition—and despite a clear pathway for improvement, the specificity of every new situation brings along with it unexplored challenges and the need to find appropriate solutions. As my friend explains, “No two Fortnite games are ever the same.”

The novelty that my friend describes above must be a staple in all of our practices. This starts with involvement, as the coach must plan a practice that utilizes all of the resources that are available to him or her in order to maximize the participation of every player in the gym. In the words of Mano Watsa, the goal should be to “make sure our players are spending their time on the rides, not waiting in line.” And instead of using overly redundant on-air drills, coaches should implement small-sided games because they force players to be creative, explore their options and collaborate with each other in an unpredictable setting (just like Fortnite).

Sometimes, increasing our players’ intrinsic motivation can be as easy as asking them what they would change about practice or about which part of practice they like most. Before the start of last season, I had my players fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions asked them about what I could do to make the upcoming season an enjoyable experience—and the overwhelming response was to “play more basketball in practice.” This seems like a simple request, but it’s one that gets at a much deeper desire for excitement and competition. So instead of complaining about Fortnite on Twitter and making kids sound like the problem, let’s test our creativity and commitment in making sure our players enjoy their basketball experience.

Coaches, I ask you, what else can we do to encourage mastery, autonomy and purpose (while also promoting variety and randomness) and make our practices more like Fortnite?

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