Human Performance, Performance | Oct 19, 2020
Adi Vase of the Golden State Warriors explains how player profiles are evolving and ponders the implications for performance coaches.

“Basketball is a very player-driven sport, maybe more than any other league or elite sport in the world,” says Adi Vase. 

By Matthew Stone

The Golden State Warriors’ Performance Coach and Sport Science Manager is discussing how the modern athlete has changed and adapted not only this year but during his six years in the NBA, first in San Antonio, then with the Lakers in LA and now in Golden State.

“Players kind of get to choose and have a huge amount of influence on the direction teams go and the direction their careers go. I had no clue about this before I started in the sport, and it took me a while to adapt.”

Vase first spoke to the Leaders Performance Institute in August after the NBA announced its plans for the Orlando bubble. The decision ended the Warriors’ season and now, four months later, we caught up with him as he reflects upon the pandemic’s effect on basketball and delves into those noted adaptations.

We began by asking what he wished he had known on day one in San Antonio. “Understanding exactly where you fit into the organization was a big learning curve,” he continues. “In our jobs you read so much theoretical stuff but it’s just not practical in certain team environments to implement certain things, no matter how good a structure or method sounds in a book.

“Those are two of the biggest things that I definitely wish I knew when I first started, but that’s why they don’t let you look into the future!”

Nevertheless, Vase issues a state of play for the NBA and ponders what the future holds in store.

Adi, player power and implementing ideas – how do you think it’s evolved compared to when you started? 

AV: It’s changed a lot through a combination of athletes being educated more about the kind of influence they can have on their careers and how much freedom of choice exists in the NBA environment. In this day and age, people have a tendency to be risk-takers and bet on themselves. Athletes are more than happy to live with the outcomes of their own decisions. Age definitely makes you a bit more cautious than you’d normally be, and now the league is getting younger, and younger.

What do you think are some of the underlying reasons?  

AV: Well, decision makers and those responsible for building rosters and teams are getting a bit younger as well, so there is sometimes an appropriate impatience on the part of decision makers. If a player doesn’t pan out after a team and staff have invested six months in him, then maybe he isn’t ‘it’. Sprinkle that in with the fact that the game is faster, and the athletes are starting to specialize at a younger age and we start to see a ripple effect.

There is also more pressure at a young age, with teens thinking they must be an NBA player. Basketball is a sport where you can easily get away with having a high level of technical skill, but there are some extremely risky movement strategies involved in using those skills in a game. That injury risk rarely gets mitigated at all when you’re a youth athlete, especially in North America. As a consequence, when a player finally gets to the NBA their bodies are already beat up, so then it just becomes a question of how long they withstand the rigorous level of physicality and volume of NBA games.

You’ve worked within three of arguably the best three basketball environments – how have you seen millennial and Gen Z athletes differ to your more senior athletes? 

AV: When I first came to the NBA, going into the locker room at half time you’d see players talking and discussing their observations on the game and tactical decisions. Nowadays, you go into the locker room at half-time and a large majority of guys grab their phones. Younger athletes grow up with much less social interaction, so they almost feel forced to interact with a group when they’re in that setting.

I’ve been in the situation so many times when younger athletes are texting me in the same room – there is a complete lack of social interaction in today’s culture. They’re so glued to their phones. As a coach, it would therefore behoove us to be conscious of attention spans of the athletes. Maybe I’m a coach who envisions a certain way, but the athlete may only have an attention span of 30 minutes – so do I run my session for an hour because it needs to be an hour, or adapt to the needs of the athlete? Handling this balance is critical for maximum performance benefit for the athlete.

How do you think this period will change the away athletes approach performance and self-development? 

AV: Basketball is such a skill-dependent sport that players can get away with not caring as much about the physical aspect if their technical skills are on an elite certain level. As a byproduct of this, basketball training as a whole is very unstructured. I think there are always a few outliers, because individuals are inherently motivated by different things. However, for the most part, I have noticed that athletes are paying more attention to certain elements of their technical and physical movement skills that they may not have thought about before, because they have more time now.

A lot of the messaging around basketball is driven around injury prevention, so a lot of the guys really don’t understand the notion of improving your performance – you almost come into the NBA with a mindset of maintaining what you already have.

Do you think that interest and curiosity in self-development is here to stay? 

AV: Absolutely. You need a person to commit to a defined structure and see improvement, from there it just snowballs. Once they see the results they almost have an epiphany and understand what is possible. We can look at a LeBron and the longevity he’s had; players will look at that and think ‘I want that structure that has helped him perform at that level for so long’. Younger athletes do want to understand why and how it helps them.

I notice a shift within veterans too, because a lot of the older guys I’ve worked with in the past have been like ‘tell me what to do and I will do it.’ As opposed to younger guys who are asking ‘why am I doing this with a dumbbell?’ ‘Why do I feel like this after using this machine?’ They want to know a little bit more, and you must be able to explain and give a logical reason as to why they are doing something and how it will benefit them.

How have you evolved as a practitioner and coach, too?  

AV: My methods have evolved because we always have to adapt according to our audience if we want them to see results from our methods. You read so much and have so many ideas on things you want to implement and how you want to integrate things, but then you may have an athlete who comes in and says ‘I’m not doing X exercise’. You can either bang your head against a wall and try and explain why that exercise is important, or you accept that and get creative to adapt your plan.

You don’t have time to waste in the NBA. The players and decision makers want to see results quickly. My job is to get a player better physically to put him in a position to improve on the court.  You’re forced to adapt because it’s so player–driven; you need them to believe in the methodology to see positive results from it.

Younger GMs, younger coaches, higher demand on younger players – is your relationship with the decision makers closer than when you came in the league? 

AV: In North America specifically, it’s become a more collaborative environment. People want to feel like they’re part of something. You aren’t that far removed from the leadership – head coaches, GMs, performance directors etc. Decision makers can only go off what they see. It’s perception vs reality. If an athlete is always posting videos of himself working out, a leader may think he’s putting in the hard work, but there could be a disconnect. Players know how to work the system and people have jobs dedicated to creating narratives around players.

On the flip side, the perception could be ‘this guy is working out so much, so why is he not getting better?’ That’s where the impatience can come from. But it’s purposeful work vs. work for the sake of working. They’re two very different things. In younger athletes, it’s a question of explaining to them that what they are doing is going to benefit them, not ‘do it because I’m telling you to do it’. Because if it’s the latter, you may not the required get focus and concentration.

How is that reflected in your feedback to younger athletes?  

AV: I’ve definitely changed the way I give feedback, and consciously thinking about it more. That ‘grind it out’ culture and approach doesn’t work well with all athletes. It matters what you say, as well as how you’re saying it. You need to put a positive spin on things. Due to the lack of social interactions of the younger generation, they sometimes aren’t ready for the honest feedback in a group setting. It’s similar to a kid who gets A grades his whole life, and then gets a F. How do they handle that? You have to be cognizant of these factors when giving feedback.

You can give too much feedback sometimes. If you give them too much, they may not benefit. Hone in on what is causing a technical issue and the change you want to see in the performance, rather than noise, comments and feedback that feed into our confirmation bias – just because I received a lot of feedback when I was playing, doesn’t mean I have to give a lot of feedback to athletes now too. Especially when it comes to keeping the athlete healthy.

How do you and the Warriors approach using and discussing performance data with your athletes in an empathetic way that earns the player’s trust?  

AV: There is a huge trust factor. At the end of the day you have to recognize the fact that data and messaging is affecting a player’s perception of their value and their contract in a team, and ultimately their livelihood. Obviously, there is a salary cap in the NBA, so if you keep showing a player negative data then you are drilling a subconscious message into their mind. Maybe show them the improvement data, rather than ranking data.

Confirmation bias is a huge part of what we do – if an athlete believes something about himself and has been told something about himself or his game, or his performance his whole life, then you show him something different, they’re going to be hesitant to accept that initially. That can cause its own share of psychological issues, so I feel that it’s best to magnify the things that are done well sometimes because you must be careful in the way you critique younger athletes.

In terms of data specifically, players love to have a model that looks and feels like them. So tell the athlete the type of player they envision themselves to be, or explain the type of technique that you want them to practice, and then find a player that does it. It helps them have a goal in mind, but the goal isn’t necessarily always a number. Many players can’t really connect with a numerical goal like that.

Alternatively, if you give them a player model and intersperse the data within that, they can then connect or be inspired by it. Showing them the numbers along that journey to get there, that’s kind of a way in which you can integrate some of the data and some of the metrics, but not taking the focus away from that model that they connect with. Instead of showing a number, show them a Stephen Curry and explain ‘this is where we are trying to get to’. As a player improves and starts getting better, you can then start introducing the numbers – ‘six months ago you were here, and now after all this work you are here’. It will help them see how they’re getting closer to the model. It’s not always the data that they connect with, you need to take players on a journey through tangible messaging that they understand.

Where do you find the balance between long-term and short-term performance strategies? 

AV: I think for me it really comes down to a conversation with the athlete. Finding out what is important to them and finding out what they want to get better at. What do they think is their timeline on getting better at something? Plus, balancing that with the team perspective and what the player needs to get better at for the team’s benefit, they are the two most important things to consider first. Once I’m able to have those, I’m able to bucket them together and realize whether it’s more of a long-term thing or a short-term thing.

In basketball, you really don’t have any time – you have to go bigger, faster, and stronger in 20 minutes. If I’m only getting a short amount of time, I need to ensure I’m hitting two things really well and focused, rather than hitting ten things without the requisite focus which will likely not result in a performance benefit.

Finally, if you could pinpoint just one thing that is different now with the modern athlete compared to that first day in the NBA when you stepped foot into the facility in San Antonio, what would it be? 

AV: Independent learning and player education. Players have to see it for themselves before they believe anything that you tell them. After they see it in action, either through results or seeing a veteran player doing it, then they’ll believe in it. Players want to understand the things that make them better and improve their performance. Independent learning and player education continues to improve each year.

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