Role Performance: The Forgotten Key to Success

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

If you have any interest in the NBA you have been paying attention to the 2010-2011 version of the Miami Heat.  Ever since LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach and join Dwyane Wade, the basketball world has been abuzz.  Are they the greatest team ever?  Will they break the Bulls’ record of 72 wins?  Can anyone beat them?  Well, if the first ten games of the season are any indication the answers to those questions are a resounding, “Not even close,” “Yeah right”, and “Yes, the Celtics (twice), the Hornets, and the Jazz so far”.

Without a doubt the season hasn’t started off exactly how LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and Pat Riley had hoped.  As you can imagine, their 6-4 record has caused several people to start pushing the panic button.  Some have suggested that Pat Riley should fire coach Erik Spoelstra and take the reins himself.  Jason Whitlock (the great columnist for Fox Sports) even suggested trading Chris Bosh.  Yes, the naysayers are out in full force and everyone has an opinion about why the Heat are struggling.  Even LeBron offered his thoughts saying that he thinks he and Wade are playing too many minutes and therefore haven’t had enough energy late in games.  With everyone pointing out all of their faults it’s easy to think the sky is falling in Miami.

Well, if you’re a Heat fan (even one of those “new” fans who’s never heard of Rony Seikaly, Glen Rice, Voshon Lenard, or Tim Hardaway…you immediately pass my test if you remember Sasha Danilovic) I’m here to tell you not to worry…too much.  It’s still very early and the Heat are just too talented not to compete for an NBA title.  Furthermore, most of the suggestions about their problems are knee-jerk and shouldn’t drastically impact their season.  But (there it is), there is one problem which may ultimately be their undoing and it deals with roles.

Now, the Heat struggling with roles is not a new idea but I believe they are struggling with a specific aspect of roles which, to this point, has not been discussed.  Within Sport Psychology when we discuss roles we are interested in three components: Role Clarity (understanding your role), Role Acceptance (accepting your role), and Role Performance (having the ability to fulfill your role).  Most people are very familiar with the first two but spend little time thinking about the third.  Coaches and Sport Psychology Consultants spend countless hours helping teams with Role Clarity and Acceptance.  They have individual and team meetings to explain roles and develop numerous ways to acknowledge players’ performances in an effort to increase their Role Acceptance.  They believe that Role Clarity and Acceptance are key components to success.  They are not wrong about that but, unfortunately, too often they forget to assess whether or not a player has the ability to fulfill their role.  We saw this recently when, in a rather funny moment, Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh unsuccessfully attempted an extra point.  I’m sure Suh was clear about his role (make the kick), and as a former soccer player he probably fully accepted his role, but he clearly didn’t have the ability to perform the role.  While less amusing (for Heat fans at least), a similar thing seems to be happening with the Heat.  Let’s take a look at the three components of roles as they relate to the Heat.

Role Clarity

From the start this hasn’t seemed to be a problem.  There was even a Sports Illustrated article which suggested that Pat Riley convinced LeBron, Bosh, and Wade to sign in Miami based on the roles he envisioned for them.  LeBron would be Magic, Wade would be Kobe, and Bosh would be Kevin Garnett.  So, from the start their roles were pretty clear.  LeBron would be the facilitator, Wade the scorer, and Bosh the defensive anchor and rebounder.  Based on this, it seems that Pat Riley did a great job establishing Role Clarity.

Role Acceptance

This aspect was the talk of the off season.  Could three superstars learn to share the ball?  Who will take over in crunch time?  Will there be any jealousy?  Probably because of all the talk, LeBron, Wade, and Bosh made every effort to convince us that this wouldn’t be a problem.  During his “Decision” LeBron stated that he was excited about getting away from the pressure of being “the man” every night.  He genuinely seemed happy to share the load with his two friends.  All three of them talked about simply wanting to win and that personal accomplishments meant nothing.  Bosh said that he had already averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds and nobody cared because he didn’t win.  Now, he said, he hoped to average more rebounds than points.  Yes, they all seemed to feel pretty good about their roles.  Unless they were lying we can give them a check for Role Acceptance.

Role Performance

Here is where we run into problems.  Let’s look at each player’s professed role.  LeBron as Magic:  I’m not even going to get into the absurdity of this (Magic was a once in a lifetime player), BUT if anyone can approximate Magic it is LeBron.  He is a great facilitator and passer and, to this point, has done a nice job running the offense.  Wade as Kobe:  This is a pretty good fit.  Wade is an excellent scorer and, for the most part, has fit well into the lead scoring role for this team.  Bosh as Garnett:  Wow, where do I start?  Have you watched basketball in the last decade?  This might be the biggest square peg ever tried to be fit into a round hole.  Kevin Garnett is one of the best team defenders of this era, he’s an extremely physical player (despite his slight appearance), and most importantly he can have a tremendous impact on a game without touching the ball.  Garnett doesn’t need to score to be an asset; he influences the game with his defense and energy.  Bosh, on the other hand, needs the ball to be effective.  Always a weak defender, Bosh had his greatest impact in Toronto on the offensive end.  Bosh is a scorer which is fine when you’re surrounded by a bunch of guys who are one step from the D-League (sorry Raptors fans).  However, when you’re on a team with LeBron and Wade something tells me they don’t need you to score.  That’s exactly why Riley asked him to be Garnett and Bosh gladly accepted.  So again, Role Clarity…check.  Role Acceptance…check.  Role Performance…not so much.

It has become painfully obvious that Bosh is not suited to play the Garnett role on this team.  Did you see him cower in fear as Rajon Rondo (who is almost one foot shorter than him) dunked on him the other night?  He is not a good defender, lacks toughness, and simply isn’t a great rebounder (he’s only averaging 6 boards a game).  Sadly enough, he just doesn’t have the ability to fulfill his role.  He’s Ndamukong Suh kicking an extra point.

So when I hear announcers and other media personalities saying that Bosh just needs to “start playing better” I chuckle.  That’s like asking Mini Me to grow or Greg Oden to stop getting hurt.  The sad reality is that Bosh might not be able to play better in this role.  Sure he will have good games, and if they give him the ball more he’ll score.  But, he’s never going to be the Kevin Garnett everyone wishes he were.  He just doesn’t have the ability.  He may know exactly what his role is (clarity) and fully accept it (acceptance) but the third component (performance) will always be missing.

Is this a fatal flaw?  Only time will tell.  We’ll see how the season plays out.  But as you analyze the Heat (or any other team) be sure to remember Role Performance.  It might be the difference between a championship and disappointment.

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