Athletic Intelligence

by David Friedman

Dr. Oliver Eslinger is MIT’s associate head basketball coach, a position that keeps him involved in every aspect of the program from coaching to working with alumni to managing the other assistant coaches.

Dr. Eslinger’s playing experience at Clark University and his PhD in counseling-sports psychology provide him a unique perspective on the mental and physical preparation involved in playing and coaching college basketball. I recently spoke with Dr. Eslinger about the challenges—and advantages—of trying to recruit players to come to MIT, the style of play that MIT employs and the importance of “flow” in athletic success.

SLAM: On the surface it would seem to be challenging to build a competitive basketball program at a school that is primarily known for academic excellence. How do you deal with that challenge from a recruiting standpoint?

Dr. Oliver Eslinger: MIT is a very special place, obviously, and it is extremely difficult to get in…The schools in the NEWMAC (New England Women’s and Men’s Conference, consisting of 10 teams), the conference that we play in—we don’t compete against them for recruits. We’re competing mainly against the Ivy League, the Patriot League and some of the great Division III schools.

We’re also not limited to Boston, Massachusetts. We recruit worldwide, so that helps us. Other schools in our league or even other Division III schools around the country might be limited to their region. You only need 12 guys on a basketball team and we have the whole world to recruit from. That makes it easy and it also makes it difficult, because we still don’t know who is going to get in.

SLAM: You brought up an interesting point: MIT is a nationally and internationally known program, so even though the academic standard provides a limitation because certain students simply are not going to be admitted and thus cannot play for you, for a school that is a Division III school you can recruit across a wider geographic range because more people are going to consider coming to MIT than another Division III school that might only be able to recruit on a much smaller regional basis.

OE: When people say that it must be tough (to recruit) I say that it is actually nice because we might not have a good recruiting budget but with technology now you can watch highlight videos and game videos of players on the internet, we have DVDs and we have so many connections now all over the country and all over the world. MIT is its own brand anyway, so people know MIT.

SLAM: What style of play do you use and, in particular, what defensive principles do you emphasize?

OE: Our philosophy stresses defense. Our guys know that we have to emphasize defense. We play mostly man to man and we use lots of ball pressure. We use typical principles in terms of utilizing checkpoints, not allowing the ball to go down the middle and not allowing the ball to reverse, of course. We really make an effort to get a stop every single time by drawing a charge, forcing a turnover or not allowing a second shot.

Our guys know that there is not much room for error. The players we get are not coming in with every single tool that maybe a Williams or an Amherst player has, so we know have to make use of the time that we have in practice and also really maximize the talent that we might have. We say that we are the smartest team in the country—we’re supposed to be the smartest team in the country—and we’re supposed to play hard and we’re supposed to play together.

SLAM: Which traits are most important for a player to excel on defense?

OE: I’ve always felt that defense starts with the mentality of how badly do you want it and telling yourself that you can get stops and believing in your teammates that if the ball gets by you then you are going to get help. It really takes a lot of drive and a lot of heart and a lot of focus but if you are a student of the game then of course you can pick up tendencies of your opponent and of the offensive players, such as if a kid can’t go to his left then we are really going to make an effort to force him to his left.

We do a lot of work with that kind of scouting as far as individual tendencies go and our guys can usually remember a lot so we try to prepare them as best we can. The way our defense is structured we spend a lot of time emphasizing it and our defensive principles, so we better be good at it or else we are in trouble. As an individual player, I think you just really have to want to play defense. It hurts to stay in your stance, so you have to be conditioned mentally and physically to be able to do that. It really is a mind game to believe that you want to do it and you can do it.

SLAM: What kind of offense do you utilize? Do you play at a fast tempo or are you more deliberate in terms of working the ball around?

OE: We want to either score early or score late in the shot clock: if we can get a break and get a layup or a dunk off of that or a quick shot that is a good shot then we’ll take it.. If not, we like to set up. We are a hard team to scout because we have so many plays and we run so many offensive sets. I know some of the other coaches in our league hate preparing for us because of that. When we get in the half court we want to work the clock, set great screens, move the ball and either get to the foul line or get a good look at the basket.

SLAM: I believe in general that it takes a lot of intelligence to play sports well and to play sports at a high level but sometimes you will hear coaches in various sports say that a player is ‘overthinking’ when he should just be reacting and I think that Bill Russell once said that if a player is thinking about a particular situation it is too late because by the time he thinks the thought the situation will have already passed. When you are coaching players who are very intelligent academically and who also have the memory and ability to internalize whatever scouting information you give them, do you see a fine line between intelligence being an asset and situations in which players are overthinking instead of reacting instinctively?

OE: Oh yeah. I’ve noticed at MIT that our players like information and they want to be able to process it and understand the purpose for doing certain things. We often do get into discussions of why we are doing things certain ways and that helps but at the same time, like you said, you don’t want to have that sense of ‘paralysis by analysis’ when you begin to overthink and that really hurts your reaction time and your ability to sense what is going to happen.

I certainly believe in flow, in letting your athletic intelligence take over. There is actually a theory in psychology called ‘flow’ which relates to being in the ‘zone,’ when an athlete is not thinking about anything and just putting everything he or she has into the skills of the sport. The mind and body are so closely connected that it just happens.

SLAM: The writer of that book about ‘flow’—whose name I am not even going to attempt to pronounce—

OE: Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defines “flow” as “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost. – Ed.

SLAM: Yes. Exactly. What you just said. When Jimmy Johnson was coaching the Cowboys he was a big adherent of that idea and he actually brought that gentleman in to speak to his team. Jimmy Johnson really tried to convey that whole idea to his team and get his players into a ‘flow’ state of mind. I think that in general athletes are more intelligent than the general public thinks that they are—which is not necessarily the same thing as being well educated in a broad range of subjects—but they are intelligent in terms of being able to take in and process information. So there is a fine line between taking in the information and processing it but when you are actually in the game you have to react automatically and be in the ‘flow.’

OE: Absolutely. There is definitely a difference between being book smart and court smart. We try to recruit players who have that feel of the game and now we are starting to get them. They have that sense of the game and they want to be in the gym and they watch basketball. That fine line comes from observing the game and learning about the game and not just solely working on technique but being able to feel it as you go.

It’s interesting, because I wrote my doctoral dissertation on mental imagery in college basketball players and what really stuck out with those results was the fact that the best athletes—at least in the study—were also the best at kinesthetic imagery, which means being able to feel the action before it happens. Not necessarily thinking about everything that might happen but being able to feel it in one’s body, being able to feel how one’s body might move before one actually moves.

The brain is actually preparing one for movement when one does imagery or what people call visualization, although imagery incorporates all of the senses. I think that this is also one of the reasons that I was hired at MIT in 2002—my background in psychology appealed to the program and allows me to relate to the players in a different way. That is one of the most enjoyable experiences about it, the fact that we get to have these relationships and really get to know the guys inside and out.

SLAM: I believe that I read or heard about a study of athletes who were equally skilled or had an equal amount of training prior to the study. One group practiced free throw shooting and the other group visualized free throw shooting and had the image in their minds of the proper follow through and so forth. What they found, if I remember correctly, is that the group that visualized made similar or maybe even equal improvements compared to the group that actually did the physical practice. Are you aware of that study?

OE: I’ve read that study and others like it and I believe in that. A lot of times I use different imagery techniques with our players and with other athletes, too. More and more we are finding out through brain scanning and other research techniques that imagery is not only good for your confidence and visualization but it’s actually doing something.When you imagine yourself moving or you imagine yourself doing something the brain starts to activate the areas that are really activated when you are involved in that movement.

As human beings we are able to imagine and visualize because it helps us get along in daily life. If you can learn how to control and enhance that then that is an advantage that an athlete can have as well.

To read more of David Friedman’s basketball articles, just take a 20 Second Timeout. His general sports commentary can be found at BestEverSportsTalk.