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Belief Broken Down

Basketball is Psychology XXVII



Losing is one thing, but losing after you feel like you gave everything, all year long is mentally exhausting.

When you work for something for a year and still don’t get it, how do you find the strength to do it all again next year, knowing you still have more work to do?

How do you get better when you feel you’ve already given everything?

Pat Riley’s Plan A

During the 1984 NBA Finals, also known as the ‘84 showdown, the Lakers took the Celtics to 7 games before losing 111-102.

Lakers Head Coach Pat Riley knew the Lakers had to get better if they were going to win an NBA Championship next season. So Pat tells his team, “Look, we have to get 25% better if we are going to win it next year.” He went on to tell them about how they were going to increase their workouts, practice was going to get even harder, and they had to do 25% more of everything.

His players were thinking there’s no way, there isn’t 25% more in me.

Pat Riley notoriously made practices 5 times harder than games. These players are in the NBA, competing at the highest level. They are elite- the best of the best. There aren’t many weaknesses in their game. They’re getting paid millions of dollars to perform and they train year round. They’re surrounded by the best team of doctors, trainers, and coaches. They saw no room for such drastic improvement.

These players were emotionally overwhelmed by the amount of work it would take to get 25% better. It seemed impossible, so the players stopped responding, and Coach Pat Riley kept pushing harder. The harmony between Pat and the Lakers was gone.

The problem is, when we are overwhelmed by the objective, it doesn’t inspire us to work harder, psychologically, we shut down. Pat Riley thought if he set the bar super high at 25% they would try so much harder, but the opposite happened. His team worked a lot less hard. If it seems impossible, it can paralyze your motivation.

Did the Lakers really need to be 25% better? No. They lost in game 7 of the NBA finals, they weren’t that far off from a championship. Realistically Pat knew they only needed to be a little bit better. He figured if they were striving for 25%, they would at least get to 10%, and that would be all they needed.

It didn’t matter how much Pat Riley said 25% or how bad he wanted it, his players didn’t believe it.

Belief fuels action.

In this case, the players didn’t believe 25%, so they didn’t bother trying.

Pat Riley's Plan B

Pat Riley sought help from a performance coach who told him he had gone beyond his players’ threshold of belief. Once you go beyond their threshold of belief, it’s over because they check out and start saying they can’t do that so they won’t do that.

After consulting with the performance coach, Pat Riley went back to his team and apologized. He told them he knew they had given their all and it was unfair to ask for 25% more. He reinforced there was no way they could give that much more because they came so close and left it all out there. Infact, he told them, it’s unlikely anyone can improve, so they should just try to duplicate what they did last year.

When you say something like that to an athlete, their competitive instincts come out. They start to think they can get at least a little better. They no longer see it as an impossible task, now it’s a challenge.

When Pat Riley said that, the Lakers were offended. They thought Pat Riley was crazy for thinking they couldn’t improve at all. They thought the standards were too low, and they fell right into Pat Riley’s trap. Pat Riley agreed- having no standard for improvement was not a good idea, so they all agreed to improve just a little bit.

Each player agreed to improve 1% in 5 elements of their game.

1% better at rebounding

1% better at blocking shots

1% better at shooting

1% better at ball handling

1% better at passing

1% better at post-ups

1% better at finishes

1% faster

1% stronger

Everyone picked 5 areas. Infact, they thought 1% was too easy. The tables turned. Now they were telling Coach Pat Riley that they should be doing more than what he’s asking. He told them it was fine to improve by more than that, but all he was asking for is that 1% in 5 areas.

The Lakers went on to win 3 NBA Championships in 4 years.


The genius of this plan was they surpassed the original mission of getting 25% better.

11 players x 1% better x 5 areas = 55% better as a team

Since only 5 players play at a time:

5 players x 1% better x 5 areas = 25% better

The objective of getting better didn’t change. What changed was how it was presented and how it was perceived. Instead of an impossible demand, it was broken down into a believable challenge.


Action Step:

Break down the objective.

When you break it down to a 1% improvement, it would be more absurd if you didn’t reach it because it’s so small. It’s easy to believe you can get 1% better, so it’s a lot easier to take action. When the objective seems too big, don’t tell yourself, “I’ll never be able to improve that much.” Instead, break it down. Tell yourself the small ways you can improve, take it step by step, get 1% better; it adds up.

This does not mean you shouldn’t dream big. You should break down your big dreams into small steps. This will you keep believing in your dreams, and help you stay motivated and focused along the way.


Written by Julie Fournier


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