On Playing and Missing (Now with an Afterword)

July 2012

Outside my apartment building are several basketball courts to which many men in their twenties come to play. Passing by, seeing the play, I have been struck by how often these men fail to get the ball in the basket. Jump shots, lay-ups, shots from the foul line at the beginning when they are picking up teams—rarely does the ball go in.

I might write another piece about the failure of the American education system: we teach kids to compete, and to find pleasure and society in competing together, on teams, but we do very little teaching of the fundamental skills that would seem necessary to compete successfully (e.g., how to shoot a basketball, how to dribble a soccer ball, how to organize a paper or solve an equation). I am here of course imposing a certain idea of success, e.g., at basketball: scoring points, winning the game, getting the ball in the basket. The American system would seem, consciously or not, to rely on a different conception: having fun, being included, fitting in, not holding oneself or one’s teammates to too high a standard.

What interests me more for the moment, however, is how these young basketball players I have observed deal with what seems to me like failure, albeit minor failure: not getting a ball in a basket. There is certainly an autobiographical component to my interest. My own athletic career, such as it has been, has had its moments: at 57 I can still run five miles in 40 minutes; I have been at times a good squash and tennis player, and an excellent coach of kids’ soccer and baseball teams. On the negative side, although a great baseball fan, I could hardly play the sport because of fears of being hit by the ball when at the plate and of dropping it when in the field. Influenced in part by John McPhee’s book about the young Bill Bradley’s training regime, for a year or two I spent hour upon hour in the driveway shooting baskets, and yet I have always been at least as incapable as the young men I now observe. My shots rarely go in.

The difference between me and the young men I observe, however, is that, on account of my incapacity, I have rarely enjoyed playing basketball with other men. I recall, for example, a time when I was an editor of a weekly paper in North Carolina and was kindly invited to play in a weekly pick-up game which included the mayor of Durham and several of my colleagues. A few of these players, including one of my colleagues, could in fact shoot the ball quite well, and I was, in this regard (if not as regards defense, passing, running the floor, encouraging my teammates) one of the worst players. After a few weeks I had to resign.

So now I glance at the players on the courts outside my building, and I am struck by a certain attitude they have, or seem to have. Shooting a basketball is one of those sporting activities in which even the best practitioners, when playing in a competitive game, can expect to fail (not get the ball in the basket) at least half the time. And yet—and unlike baseball hitters who fail to get a hit more than two-thirds of the time—shooters, professionals and rank amateurs, seem to assume when they shoot the ball that success is more or less guaranteed. (Were it not for the baseball counter-example I might be yet more tempted here to make this an American phenomenon, a result of our obsession with staying positive (superficially at least), our desperate, silent struggles to put anything bad that might or may have happened out of our minds. Our team, or business, may be in last place, on the verge of being knocked out of the competition, but today, by giving it our all, staying positive, playing as a team, we’re going to win. And so, too, our basketball players assume that every one of their shots is going to, or should, go in.)

And yet sometimes (more than half the time), contrary to all the heartfelt-as-possible positivity of the shooter, the ball does not go in the basket. Strange. That’s the sense I have of shooters’ reactions. Something strange has happened; what was supposed to happen did not. Perhaps it was bad luck, the wind, a stiff or tilted rim. Something strange must have happened; otherwise the ball would have gone in.

I am reminded of a boy, 10 or 12 years old, who my son and I played a few pick-up games with at a Caribbean resort. The boy did not play defense, did not even seem to know what defense was. He stayed on the offensive end of the court, and when the ball came to him, wherever he was, he shot it in the direction of the basket. The impression he gave was of your typical prima donna “scorer” in basketball—all offense, no defense. The seeming difference was that, again, his shots rarely went it. Often, and much like the young men I now observe outside my apartment building, this boy’s shots were not even close, touched neither backboard nor rim. His team would have done better not only if he had played some defense, but if he had also stopped shooting the ball (or, say, if he had taken a seat on the grass or gone to the pool).

Decades older than this boy, I felt sorry for him. There was an impressive isolation in his play. In a sense he did not even recognize the game that he was ostensibly a part of and the roles that he or others were playing. He was more alone than I had been, shooting in my driveway. It was hard not to also feel some annoyance with this boy. It was no fun to play with him and little fun to play against him, and it was easy to imagine him imposing himself on his teammates at school. “Just give me the ball,” as professional basketball and football stars are known to say. “I’m supposed to be the shooter.” My son once played on a soccer team with a boy whose mother gave him rewards based on how many goals he scored—encouraging him to ignore that soccer is a team game and that it would make more sense to reward the boy, or the whole team, for team play or wins.

Plenty of examples of such boys, more or less grown up, can be found in the business world, or in most any organization, and also, interestingly, in the National Basketball Association. During the 2011-2012 season the New York Knicks had a superstar shooter who for most of the year was making about one third of his shots, while the rest of the team was making almost half of theirs. And yet this shooter, while also not playing much defense, was often taking twice as many shots as anyone else. Glancing at the box score the day after a game it was easy enough to conclude that the team would have been more successful with this player passing the ball or on the bench. And indeed, during a stretch when this player was injured and could not play the Knicks won every game they played.

One of the things that such superstar shooters pride themselves on is that they are not afraid to “take the shot” in pressure situations, e.g., at the end of important games. What was striking in the case of the Knicks player was that he was simultaneously not afraid and routinely unsuccessful in such situations. I do not know whether he “enjoyed” the obliviousness of the boy on the resort court or the positivity of the young men playing in my neighborhood. After the games he spoke in an admirably relaxed way, without regret, not blaming himself. Of course when he had taken that last shot he had expected it was going to go in and carry his team to victory. It was just a little too bad that the unexpected had happened, the shot clanged off the rim, the other team won. “We’ll come back tomorrow and try again. That’s all you can do.” Coaches and commentators are known to say things like “A shooter’s got to keep shooting,” “You can’t get your confidence back sitting on the bench.”

I might retort that the one thing not lacking in these circumstances is confidence, and that shooting is not a matter of confidence. At least one prominent empirical study has shown that the commonly held belief that shooters get “hot,” that a little success leads to more, has no basis in fact. Shooting is, above all, a skill which involves a set of techniques which are fairly well known and seem capable of being learned with the help of expert instruction and a great deal of repetition. This does not mean that, given such instruction and dedicating ourselves to the task, all of us can learn to be good shooters. Visual acuity helps and so, I assume, do long fingers and some combination of strength and flexibility in key muscle groups. But what I have also wanted to say is that I admire people who have found a way, however psychologically complex or culturally determined it may be, to enjoy playing games that, from one, perhaps too narrow perspective, they are not very good at.


A generous commenter reminded me of another commonplace of American sports in our times: to be successful athletes need to have short memories. I.e., forget about your mistakes and loses, focus on the next shot, play, race, etc. We might say that this commonplace is a subset of Yogi Berra’s “How can you hit and think at the same time?” (And as a Presidential candidate, at least, Mitt Romney’s maxim seems to be, “How can I get elected if I remember what I said to some different group of people yesterday.” I.e., like clothes in a dryer, his statements and policies tumble hither and thither as the demands of the moment propose. Or, as the wags would have it, the only thing he can remember is that he wants to be President.)

Among the things that interest me here is the likelihood that we never fully believe in the things we believe in (be these sports clichés, national ideals, philosophical positions or whatever we say in the midst of electoral campaigns, job interviews, corporate meetings, love-making . . .). Berra’s comment was a reaction to urgings, e.g., from a hitting coach, manager or other player, that he indeed think about how he was hitting, in order to improve, and I think it unlikely that Berra himself did not try to do some of his own thinking in the course of his hitting. When I coached Little League I tried to get my kids to remember to pull their hands back after they got in their stances because, in my experience, that one adjustment could make all the difference for a very young hitter. Similarly, we might think of any number of examples of coaches and other players urging athletes not to forget this or that. Don’t forget how how this team beat us last time. Don’t forget how this guy always likes to go left. Don’t forget (since you’ve been fumbling so much lately) to grip the ball with both hands. (We might think, too, of sports like tennis and golf in which the players seem to do an inordinate amount of thinking about how they are hitting.)

I would take all this one step further: memory is, of course, a key component of many learning processes. If we include here subconscious memory—e.g., how a dancers learn a routine, in their muscles—the assertion will seem incontrovertible, but I am thinking in particular of conscious memory. I am thinking, for example, of a basketball player who has been missing a lot of shots and who needs not to have short memory in this regard, but rather to use this memory to get his tuchis to the gym and do some more practicing. Or hire a coach to teach him what he needs to think about in order to get more balls in the basket. Similarly football teams routinely use their memories of their past season’s performance to motivate and guide them as they prepare for the next season.

This also brings us back to the American educational system, or to how we raise our children. We place great faith in encouragement (while other cultures place great faith in criticism, in setting the bar high, even impossibly high). We have a whole host of expressions, “Get ’em next time,” “Just do your best”, “Good try”. Basically, this is the way I have coached as well. I remember, however, how just this past year I was coaching a kids’ soccer team, and as usual I was trying to give all my kids (the most skilled to the least) more or less the same amount of playing time, compte tenu (while keeping in mind) our desire to win the championship. But one morning, frustrated with the level of effort, I began yanking kids out if I saw them not hustling. Very much not my style of coaching. But with some of the kids on that particular team it worked like a charm. I had one particular player who was a lovable but not well-adjusted boy, and I fully expected him to go home to his parents and complain about my having yanked him out and told him that he wasn’t playing hard enough. But no, bless his heart, he came back the next week and said, “Do it the way you did last week.” He was smart enough to realize how well this approach had worked, for the team and for him personally.

So this is what I feel about the virtues of having a short memory. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t—for individual players, teams, cultures, governments. Sometimes, for example, it helps to look back at our history of slavery and robber barons and election stealing and assassination and and witch-hunting and McCarthyism (in all their various forms) and imperialist marauding (to include by my namesake, General William Eaton) and to say something like: You know what, we better get our butts to the gym.



  1. I’m assuming you are referring to Carmelo Anthony when you talk about the Knicks player. Once you get to that level, I think you have to have a certain amount of confidence about you. This is true especially since at every step of the way, the players that ultimately make the NBA have been the best. They go from being the kid that became a man on the court first, to the best high schools, to the best colleges and then to the NBA. I think at this point, they believe that they can do anything. It’s probably why they keep shooting even if they missed the first 10 shots.

    I find that when I play pickup games, I have to have that mindset that the next shot is going in. No matter how I’m doing that day, I have to maintain the confidence that it will work the next time (provided that it’s a smart play). I think a short memory is your best friend on the court.

    • “Short memory” — yes — that’s another thing commentators and players talk about: the value of a short memory. That might have added a paragraph or two to the piece: a discussion of this idea that a short memory could be a good thing. One question, of course, would be whether such a memory indeed turns out to valuable (e.g., in leading to “better” or “happier” play). It seems not impossible that basketball players with long memories prove more successful, in the long and short runs. Best, Wm.

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