There’s nothing like practice and preparation

My time spent as an elite basketball player helped to ingrain habits that I practice to this day. I appreciate the satisfaction and joy that comes from regular preparation and work.

There’s nothing like practice and preparation by Nancy Knowlton

When I was in university, I practiced basketball every day. Even after home games I would be in the gym working on a couple of things. I developed a routine that worked for me in the middle of the day and that really helped my performance in games. On my way to or from class, I would drop by the gym and shoot 100 or 200 free throws. I used one of the main baskets, not one on the side of the court, so that it could be as gamelike as possible.

Practice makes perfect

There really is something to the expression practice makes perfect. I had a technically great shot with perfect back spin that I could make time after time. It was so perfect that when the ball swished neatly through the net, it bounced back to me – I literally didn’t have to leave the foul line on most shots. In fact, I got a little irritated with myself, almost considering it a miss, if the ball didn’t bounce back to me.

I thought of a foul shot as a gift – something that someone gave to me because they made a mistake, sometimes a deliberate mistake, and hit me during an attempted shot. My mindset was that I was going to make everyone who fouled me pay by making my shots at the free throw line. The 100 to 200 shots a day was my way of reinforcing all of the mechanics of the shot as well as game scenarios in my mind so that in the game it would be simply automatic.

Imagining play scenarios

I imagined a variety of scenarios along the lines of down by 1 with a second left on the clock, Knowlton at the line for two. Make 1 and we go into overtime. Make 2 and we win. I wanted the sense of pressure in the practice situation, because pressure can do very nasty things to a player’s confidence and composure in a game. A player has to be cool and calm making foul shot attempts – adrenalin is not your friend standing on the foul line. Getting to a calm state of mind quickly was something that I practiced over and over again.

Leading scorer

And it worked. One year when I was the leading scorer in Canada, I was also the most fouled player in the country. That meant I got the most free throw attempts, and boy, did I make my opponents pay. It was a virtual given that I would make my free throws. With that in the back of their minds, the girls who had to defend against me became a little more tentative and that helped me score more from the field. In the end I didn’t care how I scored as long as I scored.

Enjoying preparation

I always was a practicer, someone who saw the value in repetition and doing things over and over again until they were deeply ingrained. I liked the confidence that I got from that preparation, the confidence that I carried into games. I knew that I couldn’t have been better prepared, and I did the best that I could all the time.

I always thought that I was going to win, even as I lost. I felt that there were things to improve even as I won. Both of those thoughts took me back into the gym many nights after games, playing out the same scenarios over and over in my head as I made moves and took my shots. I made those shots that I had missed in the game. I never begrudged those hours in the gym even as my friends were out for a fun night. Practice was an end as important as the games and I loved it.

Some people remember the games and their moments of greatest triumph and defeat. Most of my games are hazy now, but what I remember the most is the practice, both when I was alone and with my teammates. And that has meant a lot to me in my work and life – it’s the day-to-day preparation and work that has meant the most, not the victories and defeats.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.