Aikido and Basketball by Paul Lahue

Anyone who plays basketball on a somewhat regular basis - whether it be professional ball, high school, or weekend pick-up - has experienced games when he or she was "in The Zone." Games in which whatever you did seemed to work out in the most perfect fashion. Picking off a perfectly anticipated pass, threading the needle to find that person with a wide open shot (that is made, of course), draining the 25-footer from the corner, or driving down the lane and going up in traffic with the most ridiculous circus move that kisses of the glass and somehow finds the bottom of the net. You can't help but love those games and wish that they could continue forever.

Unfortunately, there are also those games that we would like to forget as soon as they are over. The games filled with low arcing shots that clang off the rim, the sweet passes that get intercepted by those previously unseen defenders, and the defensive skills of a matador dodging an oncoming bull. Whatever you do seems to make things worse. They are games that, win or lose, you are just happy are over.

Each game has with it a certain feeling, or "Zone", that is attained while playing. Whether it's a positive or negative feeling is not for the events of the game to decide, but for you as the player to decide.

It is easy to keep things going right in a game where everything is already going right, because you have developed such a positive attitude towards the game itself. You feel strong, relaxed and fully aware of everything that is happening. You have acquired a natural and positive "ki" feeling.

It is difficult, however, to feel motivated to continue in a game in which your play basically sucks. Your attitude stinks, you left your game at home, and you are getting so tense that you want to scream. This is also a "ki" feeling, although not the one we are looking for. The differences between these two scenarios are obvious but how can we ensure that we are "in The Zone" more often than we aren't?

I am by no means an expert in either Aikido or basketball, and I don't claim to be. I've practiced Aikido for seven years and I've played basketball since I was four. I'm now 25. All I can say is that I'm still learning about both. Since I started practicing Aikido I have found ways to apply it to my life in many ways, one of them being my basketball game. I have found aspects of Aikido that have helped my defense, my passing, my shooting, my rebounding, and every other part of the game I can think of.

I can my remember coaches of mine saying, "Pauly, you've got to stick to him like glue." My attitude then was, "Okay, coach, whatever." And my attitude was reflected in my defense, because it stunk. But I now realize that what those coaches said is about as true as it gets. You must develop a connection between yourself and the player you're covering so that it truly feels like you are sticking to him like glue. This idea has led to big improvements in that part of my game.

With passing it is the same idea. When you toss a lazy pass to a teammate chances are that it is either going to get picked off or, if the pass gets to where it is intended, nothing beneficial is going to come of it because the defender will already be there. But when you "see" your target, connect with that person, and zip it in to the player's hands, good things happen. I say "see", but you don't necessarily have to be looking at your target. A sweet no-look dish is always nice, but you've still got to "connect" to maximize the ooooohhhs and aaaaahhhs from the crowd.

When shooting it is easy to determine if you have a good "ki" feeling or not. You receive immediate feedback by hearing either the crystal clear snap of a swish, or the deadening thud of the masonry work you've just performed. The idea of connection applies again, but there are other parts of Aikido that I've found can make my shooting almost flawless at times.

One way of "connecting" with the hoop is to actually imagine or picture the arc of the path you want the ball to follow. I usually focus on the front of the rim when shooting. If I feel that I am not quite hitting my shots the way I like, I will consciously picture an arc going from my hand to my target - the hoop. I do this from the time I begin my shot until the ball reaches the basket. If I look at the ball after I release it, I lose my focus, my connection, and my picture and (more often than not) I'll miss. If I make a point of having a picture, however, I can move about 25 to 30 feet away from the basket and hit my shots consistently. This isn't to say that I do this all the time, but when I'm working on my jumper or just looking to get that "feeling" in a game, I'll try this.

I use to play pick-up ball with some guys at my old Junior High School. One day one of the guys took it upon himself to instruct me in how to shoot a basketball. He preached, "It's all in the wrist, Pauly, it's all in the wrist," as he wore himself out chasing down his own misses. Well, it's not all in the wrists. As a matter of fact it's really not anywhere. I've found shooting to be a huge combination of parts working together to create that sweet jumper.

For me shooting has become one of the ki exercises that is practiced at the beginning of every single Aikido class. It is called Shomen Uchi Undo or, for those unfamiliar, raising and lowering the arms with a ki feeling. When practicing this exercise you must be stable or, as one of my instructors says, "dependable." The hips begin the movement and their movement forward propels your arms and helps them rise. After that, you let gravity lower your arms. Then you move your hips back. This is a very relaxed movement, yet when used in Aikido technique, it can be overwhelming and very powerful. Maruyama Sensei's idea "minimum effort for maximum effect" is always present.

I have learned this idea also applies to shooting a basketball. First, I am stable, "dependable" and squared up to the hoop. If unbalanced, the chances of the shot going in are already reduced unless compensated for in some other way. Then, my hips begin my movement and my arms rise up with the ball. Just before the peak of my jump, the ball is released. Gravity pulls my body and my arms down, my hips move back, then I hear "whooosh" and get ready to play defense. It sounds involved when reading it (even to me), but doing it is where the results are seen. It may work for you - or maybe you'll think I belong in the same place as the guy who says it's all in the wrist.

I'm always looking to improve myself, whether it be in Aikido, basketball or life. There is always room for improvement and it is up to each person to push him or herself to that next level. I'm not a professional basketball player and never will be, but I still look for ways to make myself better. That is part of the foundation of Aikido and it should be a part of everyone's life. Now I will look to apply these principles to another aspect of basketball, coaching. It will be yet another way to challenge myself and, hopefully, help others to be better.

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