Training Grounds, Part Four: An Interview with David Thorpe

Training Grounds, Part Four: An Interview with David Thorpe
Jun 27, 2006, 11:23 am
Training Grounds Introduction, and Part One (Keith Moss)

Training Grounds, Part Two (Joe Abunassar)

Training Grounds, Part Three (Idan Ravin)

Eric Weiss: Where did you get your start in the business of training athletes? Give us some background in how you got to where you are today.

David Thorpe: I started as a JV coach in St. Petersburg Florida in 1987, right out of college. Additionally, I coached ten weeks of basketball camps during the summer at places like Five-Star and the BC All Star camps. My goal was to coach 100 games each summer, so about 10 games per week if I could. The idea was to learn as many coaching tips between all the different stops along the way because I wanted to be a college coach by the time I was thirty-two. I wasn’t in a rush to get there, I really wanted to take my time and learn as much as I could and I figured I’d have well over a thousand games under my belt by going through this process.

But, by the time I was in my late twenties and started getting offers to coach on the college level, I decided that it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I didn’t like the idea of having to play the coaching career-building game, where you essentially had to recruit young players and then leave in a couple of years to take a better job and move up the ladder. I also didn’t see a lot of room for career growth at the high school level, so in 1992 I started what was known as the Basketball Academy in Clearwater Florida and I began to train players individually.

During that first year, I sent a number of kids off to Division 1 programs and I was training about seventy-five kids in all during that summer. The thing that was difficult as a high school coach was that I was so limited in the amount of time I could spend on skill development, and when my college kids came back that next year it was really the same thing. That’s when I started realizing the true need for this. With all the time restrictions that college coaches have, there really isn’t enough time for skill development.

One of the benefits from all the camps I had worked when I was just out of college were all the people I worked with. Then, they were just starting out like me. Now, they were prominent coaches or assistants in college or the pros. So by accident I built a pretty extensive network of friends working in the higher echelons of basketball. And because I trained a lot of high-level players, I got to know top college coaches who recruited my kids. One of them was RC Buford, who at the time was a coach at the University of Florida. RC had been one of my mentors, someone who I learned a lot from, he and Lon Kruger. So, when agents started hearing that I was good at training players they gave those two a call to find out more and I guess those two had good things to say about me and that made the agents comfortable.

But at the time, agents only wanted to send their players to me for five days. While this was certainly a lucrative opportunity financially, it reminded me too much of the problems I had seen with high school and college. My belief was that training had to be a year-round thing, not just from a skill development standpoint, but also to help a player deal with the enormous mental challenges and pressures of the NBA.

Eric Weiss: Let’s get into philosophy and methodology. You obviously have alluded to a belief structure and that carries over into how you implement your training techniques. Tell us more about this approach.

David Thorpe: Let me address philosophy a little bit. My belief is that confidence is a large percentage of the game at that level; and if you’re not getting the job done then your minutes will start to suffer and the NBA coaches will just find another guy. There’s no personal involvement from your coaches. A player who lacks confidence will not perform well, and consequently will fall from the rotation. So I try to fill in the gaps between my players and their coaches--whom I never second guess with my players. They are the coaches--they determine playing time-- so I work on helping my guys do what they are asked to do, at a high level of competence.

Jason Levien (Udonis Haslem’s agent) was someone I knew from coaching in the summer while he was still in college. When he graduated Law School and became an agent we had kept in contact and he and I agreed that the process should be year-round-- he played ball in college and knew the challenges most players face. Even though the process was a greater financial commitment, the return was greater than any other investment the player would ever make. So, it really started with Udonis [Haslem]. The Heat was pretty demanding of his time, but throughout the year I was able to help him to develop. The end result at the end of three years of working together full time has paid off. He asked me to shoot with him before Game 6 of the Pistons series, and again in Game 5 of the Finals. Watching him shoot it so well, with so much confidence in the clinching game vs. the Mavs, well, it was pretty emotional for me. We spoke a few hours after the game, and I know how much he appreciates our relationship. He went from going undrafted to starting and recording 17 and 10 in the championship clinching game--who besides he, his agent, and I ever believed that would happen?

I can only speak for myself, but I believe other coaches would agree with me. We’re all in the inspiration business. If your delivery isn’t good and you’re not motivating your students, then you’re just droning on and no one’s going to listen. So, one of the first things that I try and do is ask the players what they would like to accomplish. It’s irrelevant what I want. Maybe I can help shape what they want, but ultimately it’s up to them to determine where they want to go.

There is a great analogy for this that is in a book called “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. Let’s say you have a piece of paper. Imagine that you can fold that piece of paper 50 times, over and over again. Now, after you’ve folded that paper, how thick do you imagine that paper to be? Some people say it is as thick as a phone book, others say as tall as a refrigerator. Actually, it’s the distance from the earth to the sun. Fold it 51 times, and it is the difference from the earth to the sun AND BACK. You’re only limited by what you’re mind sets as its limitations, and humans tend to severely limit themselves.

When I met Kevin Martin at Western Carolina, he had just arrived here to train following his freshman year of college. I asked him what he’d like to accomplish in his career, and he said that he would like a shot to play in the NBA. My response back to him after training him for two weeks was “I think you’ll be a first round pick.” After I said it, Kevin was like “you know what, ya…” It was almost like he was afraid to say it as a player coming from Western Carolina. That goes back to the inspiration business, my job is to help him to think bigger than what he may allow himself to do on his own. Today, if you asked Kevin what his goal is he’d say “I want to be the best shooting guard on the planet.” I’m not saying he will be the best shooting guard on the planet, but it is a good goal to shoot for. That goal will drive his workout regiment all year. He recently took a well needed vacation, where do you think he went? Aruba, Jamaica, Hawaii? No, he stayed on the beautiful beaches here in Clearwater, Florida, but spent 3 hours a day in our gym. If you want to be the best shooting guard in the planet, you have to put in the time.

The other half of inspiring them is of course to hold them accountable to themselves. First, I help them to come up in their own minds with what they want to accomplish and then they are accountable for what they’re doing each day to reach their dreams. Then my job is just to remind them from time to time about it. I’ll write up a blueprint for success, but it’s up to them to follow through on it. At the end of the day it’s their life, their time, and their money, but if they’re not following through on what we’ve agreed on, then I’ll make subtle reminders. Or not so subtle reminders if I think they’re being dogs.

Eric Weiss: Philosophically that really makes a lot of sense. But, switching to methodology, is it really an in depth collaboration going over in detail exactly how you want them to implement the goals they’ve set out for themselves?

David Thorpe: Certainly. Let’s use some examples. When Udonis first came into the league he wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on the Heat’s Summer League team. Now, with his new body and added quickness we really wanted to focus on rebounding. We knew Udonis wasn’t going to be playing above the rim at his height. He can get above the rim, but his game isn’t going to be predicated on that. So, we studied guys like Ben Wallace, undersized guys who rebound out of their area. We did drills to make him focus on chasing down rebounds out of area. Half the rebounds in the league are almost like loose balls, in that they have to be chased down after a deflection. We set a goal of being a top 5 rebounder in both summer leagues he played in (he also played for the Spurs). I went to his summer league games that year and charted all the rebounds he could have had if he decided to move or just simply by attacking the glass. He ended up finishing 2nd and 3rd in rebounding in both and believe me he wasn’t going over the top of everybody to get those boards, he was chasing balls down.

Did you watch game 6 the other night? With less than two minutes to go its 89-88 and Miami has the ball. Jason Williams takes a shot in the corner to put the HEAT up 3 and misses, Haslem gets a huge offensive rebound, throws a fake at Dampier and makes the basket. But, what no one realizes is that Haslem was 17 feet away at the top of the key, to the left side when Williams took the initial shot. He went to the glass. That simple act is what I spend a lot of time coaching. Going back to his Summer League, if you don’t go to the glass and someone else does, that person makes the team and you don’t.

So to do this I’ll give them an assignment. For Kevin, once he moved into the starting lineup this year, I felt he was standing around too much when a teammate shot the ball. I told him to watch all the shots that his teammates take on video and chart where the misses are going on the court. If it was Bibby, I’d have Kevin draw a “B1” with a circle around it for where he shot from and then draw a “B1” with a square around it to represent where the rebound was. By doing this for all the players, you get an idea of where to go when the ball goes up, and it gets him to think about going to the glass. Now, Kevin did a very poor job of this during the past year, but watch what happens when we have a whole summer to focus on this, I guarantee you’ll see a difference come next season. And I do this with my draftable players. Yes, we’ll do lots of skill training. But I work on getting them to do the little things, too. Be warriors. If you watched our open workout in Orlando earlier this month, you saw what many GM’s said was the best workout they had ever seen. I can teach anybody to shoot and handle it--but can you learn to do that while fighting as hard as you can? That’s where I want to go with them.

I’m also very big into mechanics. But, I’m not going to alter a shot too much if it’s working. People always comment about Kevin’s release point, but I say that if it’s working than he must have figured out something to overcome it, so instead we focus on little things like balance, consistency, holding his follow thru. In his 40 starts this year he shot 43% from 3. He can really shoot it. Shooting should be natural. Going back to philosophy again, I pattern my approach somewhat after the famous Golf Instructor Harvey Penick. I thought to myself that basketball is a game of mechanical movements like golf is. So, I break things down mechanically and we drill incessantly. The philosophy is called “Skill Overload”. Once I think you’ve got the mechanics down I’ll introduce some fatigue movements to see if you can maintain when you’re tired. I’ll also implement some other thing to try and distract you from what you are doing and see if you can maintain those mechanics repeatedly. Guillermo Diaz came here as a truly amazing shooter- I promise you I did not teach him that. What we did do is get him to shoot the ball great MORE OFTEN. His talent is extraordinary, but his mechanics were inconsistent. I think he will tell you now that he rarely, rarely, has bad shooting days now because he understands the mechanics behind the skill, and can repeat them consistently. I teach through encouragement. I call my gym the laboratory. We experiment. We may do something wrong three-thousand times, but we’ll do it until we get it right. If someone does something wrong 99% of the time, but 1% right, we’ll focus on that 1% until we get the end result that we want.

Eric Weiss: Going back to the draft. What frustrates you about the process, if anything?

David Thorpe: If there was one thing that does, it would be some of the people that are in a position to influence the draft that perhaps hadn’t earned their spots, so to speak. They may be friendly with a team or another decision maker and they may have risen to the level of a scout or an assistant GM and I wonder if they’ve even coached or played a game before, at any level. For example, I was watching Kevin Martin when he was in college with a guy who has a prominent position in the NBA, and he was evaluating Kevin. Kevin had 20 points at half, or something like that. The guy looks at me and says “he really knows where he wants to go with the ball.” I just felt like I was watching a different game.

In that game, the other team was doing everything possible to try and stop Kevin. Double-teaming him from different angles, coming early, coming late, denying, sometimes not denying…and what made Kevin so good is that he could counter everything they were doing and get to an open spot on the floor. But it was always a different spot. To me, if you “know where you want to go” that means the other team can figure out where you want to go, and when they do you’re done. We all know where we want to go, we all want to go get a dunk. Do you think Dwayne Wade knew where he wanted to go when they were throwing everything at him in the finals?

Eric Weiss: No, it’s contingencies. You have to have secondary and third options to succeed.

David Thorpe: That’s the game. That to me is where the talent is. You take away what they’re best at and now what do you do? That’s just one example. It’s like when people ask me about Alexander Johnson and say “can he get any better?” because he’s twenty-three. It drives me up the wall. Ask Kobe Bryant if he got any better after he was twenty-three. Did Shaq get any better after he turned twenty-three? Magic Johnson? Of course they did. So, why can’t J.J. Redick get better? Why can’t Sheldon Williams or AJ get better just because they’re twenty-two or twenty-three right now? It’s ridiculous. Name me another sport where no one gets better after they turn twenty-three, other than gymnastics. So when you say that to me, what you’re really saying is that you don’t understand the game that you’re involved in and I hear this all the time from NBA people.

Eric Weiss: I see this all the time, and these comments come from the highest levels at times. It’s like there’s some idea that once a player is at his peak physical development that he’s somehow incapable of improvement. But, it’s still a thinking man’s game. You must have the physical ability to execute, but it’s the application of that ability to the situations and strategy of the game that makes a player great and that comes through learning and repetition. There’s this perception that when you’re a senior or something that your done, but your moving to a new level with new situations.

David Thorpe: It’s crazy. Another thing I hear all the time is “he can’t get his shot in our league.” I don’t argue with people, I let them say what they want to say. But my comment is, “how many guys can?” How many teams have multiple guys that can make their own shot on their own and create baskets on their own? Isn’t that why we set screens? Isn’t that why we run actions to get you a good shot?

While I agree that everyone needs someone that we call a “playmaker”, someone that’s able to create a 5 on 4 or 4 on 3 situations by beating their guy-and can score it. But, don’t you need a guy next to him? Someone who he can pass the ball to after beating his man? Not everybody needs to be a playmaker.

Great example is everyone ripping J.J. Redick. He might not be able to create as much space off the dribble as other guys, but he’s able to make tough shots better than the guys that create more space for themselves in the NBA. You ever think J.J. Redick has had to hit a fade-away jumper from 17 feet before? He’s been doing it for four years. Imagine how effective he’s going to be when he doesn’t have to do that as much. Imagine him on a team where someone else makes the plays. You think you’re going to help off of J.J. Redick the way he shoots the ball? The better you are at shooting off of screens from distance the more open the offense is going to get, because it’s extremely hard to shoot off of screens from distance. J.J. Redick is knocking in 3’s from distance all the time.

Now, there’s no question that J.J. Redick can’t guard Dwayne Wade, I agree. But, how many players can? But I’ll tell you this, Dwayne Wade would rather not guard someone who can hit a 24 foot shot off a screen. You think Dwayne wants to go chasing J.J. around screens all night? But instead, we’re only going to focus on the fact that J.J. supposedly can’t get his own shot.

Eric Weiss: So these are the things you try and focus on and eliminate from your thinking when judging talent and a player’s ability to succeed? It’s refreshing to hear that there are basketball people out there that put more emphasis on finding what makes a player successful and less on what he may be lacking. Positive thinking and a plan for improvement through empowerment sounds like a good plan to me. Thanks for the time.

David Thorpe: Any time.

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