NBA Finals: Who will "Turn it On"?

Thursday, June 3rd 2010, 11:10 PM

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant drives past Boston Celtics  guard Ray Allen in Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday. Bryant leads all  scorers with 30 points, adding seven rebounds and six assists.

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

Flipping the Switch

There is an old adage in sports that you can’t just “turn it on” whenever you want.  You can’t coast against weaker competition and then magically flip a switch and play great against a stronger opponent.  The prevailing logic has always been that anyone who thinks they can “turn it on” at any moment is destined to fail.  Well, the Lakers and Celtics might be changing the way we think.

The Celtics stumbled into the playoffs with a 27-27 record in their last 54 games and most people, including me, wrote them off as old and washed up.  The general sentiment was that they would quietly bow out in the first or second round and the Big 3’s dynasty would be over.  The Lakers on the other hand finished with a strong record and as the top seed in the West but still seemed to coast through the end of the season and even early in their playoff series against the Thunder.  For the last few weeks of the season Kobe Bryant specifically seemed to be unusually relaxed and less intense than we are accustomed to seeing him.  That prompted several people to speculate that he was more seriously injured than previously thought or that he was simply getting old.

Clearly the joke was on us.  Several weeks later the Celtics and Lakers look like the two best teams in the NBA and Kobe looks like the best player in the world again.  So what happened?  History shows us that very few teams can coast through the end of a season and then “turn it on” in the playoffs.  The Cleveland Cavaliers exhibited that phenomenon this year.  Once they had locked up home court advantage they rested LeBron and coasted through the end of the season only to get beaten fairly handily by the Celtics in the playoffs.  They tried to “turn it on” in the playoffs but after weeks of coasting were unable to do so.  This has happened several times in hockey as well.  In 2006 the Red Wings (#1 seed) were a prohibitive favorite over Edmonton (#8 seed), but after coasting into the playoffs they were upset 4-2.  This year Washington (#1 seed) was unable to “turn it on” in the playoffs and therefore was upset by Montreal (#8 seed). So why didn’t that happen to the Celtics and Lakers?  Are they anomalies or do they point to a greater truth about the ability to “flip the switch” on command?

My feeling is that they disprove the notion that NO team can “flip the switch” on command but they do highlight certain factors which are necessary for a team to successfully “turn it on”.  Most notably, teams and players who can effectively “flip the switch” on call possess two important characteristics.

  1. 1. They have had previous success which showed them what it really means to “turn it on”.

  1. 2. They turn it off for a purpose; not just for show.

Let’s take a look at these separately.  First, teams and players who can successfully “turn it on” are able to do so in part because they truly understand what it means to “turn it on”.  If we examine the phrase “turn it on” what are we really talking about?  Quite simply we’re talking about energy, effort, focus, intensity, hard work, all the components that are necessary to be successful in sport (and life).  As the competition gets tougher and the setting gets more pressurized it becomes more critical, and difficult, to “turn it on”.  In fact, it is often said that there is a dramatic difference between “regular season intensity” and “playoff intensity”.  Without truly understanding what “playoff intensity” is athletes and teams have a hard time turning it on.  Many athletes talk about the “A-ha” moment when they first realized what it really meant to work hard.  Football players who would train with Jerry Rice or Walter Payton would often say that they thought they worked hard until they saw Jerry or Walter and then they realized what hard work really was.  Unfortunately, many athletes and teams don’t fully understand what it means to work hard (or “turn it on” or have “playoff intensity”).  They think they are doing it but they really aren’t.  I do an activity in my classes where I will have students stand up and I’ll ask them to reach as high as they can.  Then I’ll ask them to reach higher…and higher…and higher one more time.  Each time they are able to reach closer to the ceiling even though they think they are already reaching as high as possible.  As humans we often don’t know how far we can push ourselves until we are forced to do it.  This is why many teams attempt to bring in players who are “winners” or who “have been there before”.  They believe that these players know what it means to “turn it on” and can teach their teammates how to do it.  One has to look no further than the NHL Playoffs to see this phenomenon.  The Flyers brought in Chris Pronger this year simply because he was a “winner” and “had been there before”.  They believed he truly knew what it meant to “turn it on” and that he could teach his teammates how to do so.  Pronger knows what “playoff intensity” is and, with his leadership, the Flyers made the NHL finals.

The players and teams who can “turn it on” are able to do so because they truly know what turning it on means.  The Celtics and Lakers have already won titles.  Kobe has been a great player for years.  They have experienced “playoff intensity”.  They know what it takes to be successful.  So when they “turn it on” they know exactly what that means.  The Cavs (and many other teams) on the other hand don’t fully understand what it means to “turn it on”.  In the Cavs case, one could argue that things came so easily to them during the regular season that they never faced adversity or were forced to “turn it on”.  Then when the playoffs came they were unable to respond to the challenge.

Another characteristic of teams who successfully “turn it on” is that when they turn it off it’s for a purpose.  They don’t just turn it off for show (“Hey, look at us we’re so good we can coast!!!”).  The Celtics turned it off to get healthy.  Doc Rivers even stated that he knew their only chance to win the title was to get healthy so he rested guys and sacrificed games in the regular season so they could get healthy for the playoffs.  Kobe knew he would need a tremendous amount of energy to lead his team to a title so he rested late in the season and now he looks like a rejuvenated player.  In both cases they turned it off with a purpose.  The Cavs on the other hand turned it off for show.  They were more concerned with their dance routines and having fun than preparing for the playoffs and it showed.

The ability to “turn it on” or “flip the switch” on command is a unique and difficult skill.  However, it is not something that is impossible to do.  If you truly understand what it means to “turn it on” and you have a purpose for turning it off you can be successful.  The Celtics and Lakers know exactly what it takes to win a title so they took the opportunity to rest before the playoffs because they knew they could “turn it on”.  Most athletes and teams don’t have that luxury.  More specifically, they don’t have that ability.  As a coach or athlete you may find yourself coasting through your season with the intent of turning it on when it counts.  In those times you might want to consider whether you really know what it means to “turn it on” and if there is a purpose to your relaxation.  If the answer to either of those questions is “no” you would be much better off stepping on the gas.  After all, you can always rest after you’ve won a championship.

Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA.  He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004.  Gentner served as an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College.  During his four years at IC he helped coordinate the undergraduate and graduate programs in Sport Psychology.  In 2009 he began his current position at GSU where in addition to coordinating the graduate program he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education.  He has published his research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences.  Currently he is completing a book on Sport Psychology Consulting techniques.  He is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant and since 2000 he has worked with individual athletes, teams, and coaches ranging from youth sport to professional levels.  For further inquiries or information about Dr. Gentner’s services or the graduate program at Georgia Southern he can be reached at [email protected] or 912-478-7900.

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