Lectures for Basketball Coaches: Fatigue is Entirely a Mental Phenomenon

The last three summers I've coached at the best basketball camp in the East Bay. One big part of camp are the "defense" and "skills" lectures. I've wanted to do this for a while, but I'm not at camp, and I'm a way better writer than I am a motivator, so I'm posting my lectures here. This is Part I in a series of posts. Close your eyes. I want you to raise your hand if you think pain is a good thing, if it's good that the world has physical pain. Okay, you can open your eyes. Now I want you to describe what a world without pain would be like. Your mom is cooking dinner and tells you to bring a pan from the stove to the table. The pan is burning hot, but you can't feel pain, so you grab it and bring it to the table. When you look at your hand, it's red and covered in blisters. Or you are playing around with a friend and he starts twisting your arm. Usually if it hurts too bad you would say "Uncle," but you can't feel it hurt, and you keep fighting until he twists your arm out of its socket. I could go on - you step on a sharp object in bare feet, etc. If we didn't have pain, we might end up doing a bunch of silly things and have no idea that we were hurting ourselves. So pain is our body's way of telling us that we need to stop what we're doing because if we keep doing it, there could be long term effects. Okay, now think about fatigue. Raise your hand if you think getting tired is a good thing. Okay. Well, let's imagine that you never got tired. You're on the track team and running a marathon. Because you don't get tired, you feel great and practically sprint the whole thing. You're in first place by a mile, all the way until mile 20, when your muscles collapse from lack of energy and you fall in a heap on the track. Even though people compete and exercise all day, it's pretty rare that someone collapses because their muscles fail. Why? Because we get tired and stop long before we get to the point where our muscles fail. So fatigue is our body's way of saying, "you need to keep some energy in the tank," because it was hard to tell when you'd need those spare reserves. Imagine being the most tired you've ever been, two hours into a practice, running sprints, when suddenly a tiger bursts into the gym, and you need to run for your life. Your brain is trying to make sure you have enough energy left to outrun the tiger. Well as it turns out, our brain is actually extremely conservative. That means that your brain starts telling you that you're tired way before you actually get tired. Scientists have done studies of people on treadmills. They'll take measurements of people who are exhausted - unbelievably tired, and what they find is that their muscles are actually fine, that they could keep going in theory. Their muscles aren't holding them back, their brain is holding them back. So what does this mean? When you get tired, your body is still ready to go. You have way more potential energy sitting inside you, ready to be tapped if you can will yourself to do it. The biggest enemy is your brain. It's tough but you can train yourself to overcome your limitations, with practice. You have to push yourself every day a little further, and a little harder, than you did the day before. When you start hurting, tell yourself that you're not tired and go harder. It's not something everyone can do, which is why you have to practice every day and push yourself to your limits.

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3 thoughts on “Lectures for Basketball Coaches: Fatigue is Entirely a Mental Phenomenon

  1. HashName

    A thought provoking post indeed!!!
    Can you point the reader to a scientific study or something similar to fully substantiate your point

  2. Apex

    The muscles may be “fine” but that doesn’t mean they can perform at the same level as when they started.

    The muscles may be “fine” but that doesn’t mean the respiratory system is able to supply them with the oxygen they need to function at a reasonable level.

    The muscles may be “fine” but that doesn’t mean that the fuel system has enough readily accessible fuel available to function at a reasonable level.

    The muscles may be “fine” but that doesn’t mean the cardiovascular system is able to keep up and give the muscles all the oxygen it needs from the poorly functioning respiratory system or all the fuel it needs from the low stocks of readily available glucose.

    So even if the muscles are “fine”, whatever “fine” might mean, it seems like quite a stretch to imply that you can just mind over matter it. People can and do actually die from over-exertion, and it’s not because their muscles fail, technically their muscles are probably just “fine.”

  3. Papa J

    Yo Apex chill out. He is talking about making a speech to young kids about pushing themselves. I think by “fine” he means that going hard in the fourth quarter won’t kill you. And I dare you to find examples of people kids dying from pushing themselves too hard without other factors involved (eg. heat).


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