“A good guitar player plays tight, a great guitarist plays loose” – Paul Green 

Sports and Music

Sports and music are linked by popular culture. Athletes idolize musicians and vice versa, but what is often missed are the deep potentials for how music can help athletes perform better.

Ben Simmons is a perfect example of a smooth, controlled, and unshakeable player when in the flow of the game. But when Ben is forced to stop, stand, and shoot, his rhythm disappears and everything seems forced and mechanical. Many will point to his mechanics but I would posit that mechanics is exactly the wrong way to think about it. Rhythm and flow is what he needs.

The Power of Rhythm

Mark Kelso on the power of rhythm via Drumeo.com

And Simmons is not alone in these struggles. Let’s look at both Simmons and Fultz who have varying levels of issues but I think can benefit from the same non-basketball approach.

Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons sees the floor on both ends of the floor with an intellect and command that is rare beyond description. His vision, touch, and timing on passes are truly among the very, very best in the world. You simply cannot orchestrate an NBA offense and make the highlight assists that he does without a well developed sense of motion and timing. This makes his lack of comfort and rhythm when shooting all the more confusing.

When you watch Ben Simmons shoot jump shots and free throws, the mechanics don’t look terrible in a freeze frame. He doesn’t have a janky cross face windup like Lonzo Ball or the extreme awkwardness of Joakim Noah. What is striking, however, is his record-scratching lack of rhythm when he rises up or shoots from the line. Sure, his elbow flare is obvious, but it’s only a part of the overall issue.

When he pulls up for a jumper, he lingers in the air and releases in a jerk motion just after the top of his leap. This is like playing the right note, but a quarter measure late. It is technically correct, but does not flow correctly.

At the free throw line everything starts with Simmons below the hips. Ben gets little to no knee bend or bounce in his pre-release motion. This leaves everything to his shoulder, elbow, and wrist to generate the shot, resulting in a shot that lacks touch and consistency. He should be bending more and building some rhythm below the waist on his way up to rise into his release.

Markelle Fultz

Markelle Fultz is probably still experiencing some shoulder pain or at least the memory of pain. Dr. Raj Brar really has some interesting insight into the effects and after effects of injury specifically as it relates to Markelle. Read the story at The Injury Insight. Here is a video explaining Dr. Brar’s premise and theory.

That, to me, seems fairly obvious. What is just as obvious, however, is that despite a very aesthetically pleasing shooting stroke in college, Fultz’ form and timing is all over the place right now. He has a very obvious delay in his release at the free throw line that is as inconsistent as his jumper. Markelle Fultz plays a rhythm game that has lost the beat.

The “Hesi” is the most common word associated with Markelle since his first summer league game as a pro. He has never been a downhill, explosive first step player but more of a rocker, slow/fast sort of crafty guard. I believe that many of his troubles have stemmed from adapting to the speed and anticipation of NBA level defenders.

From up close what we saw was undeniable, albeit incremental progress when it comes to the fluidity and quickness of his pull up jumpers for the preseason. For many of us who were hoping for a switch to flip and Markelle to turn immediately back into the player we all saw at the University of Washington, his relatively slow progress has become a source of concern. But what we should keep in mind is that progress IS progress. What we hadn’t seen was major setbacks in terms of hitches, and his propensity to get blocked was improving until the past week or so.

Musical parallels

If you have ever tried to learn piano or guitar, you have probably struggled initially with focusing on learning the placement and movements associated with learning a particular chord structure. You then learn the sequence of chords strung together for a particular tune. What typically comes last is the internal clock that allows you to smoothly flow from one chord to another within the time signature and tempo to make the melody into consistent and pleasing music. – J Blevins via TheSixersense 12/17

I’ve reached out to Dr. Brar who has joined The Burner over the summer to discuss this concept and according to Raj,

“an apt comparison for Fultz or Ben is like a pianist who knows the music but has trouble with hitting the keys appropriately…and then starts to focus on the actual movement of his or her fingers which completely disrupts the fluidity of the movement.”

The internal clock, or metronome, is absolutely vital to music. Some solo musicians, singer songwriter types can get by with quirky time signatures. Some Divas, such as Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera, can improvise and vamp vocally with little regard for the timing of the music. For most musicians, however, learning to play together is far more difficult and important than learning to play the notes.

Paul Green of “School of Rock” Fame (Founder of the School of Rock) joined PFO on the latest The Burner Podcast to discuss his passion for the Sixers and these parallels between Basketball and Music.

I have played with musicians where you have a metronome and they have another, and it’s just hard to find “the pocket.” The Pocket is the music equivalent of “the zone” in sports. It is a time where your brain can relax from the mechanics and you just play. When you are not in the pocket, everything seems forced and everything seems hard. When you are in the zone, everything feels natural and easy.

But this is not something that just happens. The flow zone is a field that has been studied by sports psychology for decades. Here is a quick story about music and benefits to athletes.

Here is a deeper, more scientific dive into the effects of music on athletes. The results were so striking, in fact, that some events have banned music for athletes because of its performance enhancing effects.

Watch Kevin Durant pregame, for example. He is always wearing headphones while he goes through his routine. I promise you, Kevin Durant has an internal metronome.

Dame Lillard is a gifted rapper, as well as a tremendous shooter. In my view, these talents are not necessarily unrelated.

Simple radical proposition

So the parallels make sense, I hope, but how does this help Simmons and Fultz? Well I am proposing that these guys consider a couple of simple things.

  1. Learn to play an instrument. Really learn to play piano or drums or guitar. My recommendation is drums because it involves the lower body coordination, and it is generally easier to pick up. Especially for Ben where his lower body is so vital to his free throw.
  2. Find a simple song that they know by heart. The focus should be learning to find an internal metronome so that when you stand at the line alone, your thoughts have a place to go, a simple little tune and melody in a simple four four time that lets your body bounce.
  3. Practice mindfullness; relax and get lost in the music

This is not a magic bullet for all things sports related. If it were as simple as this, then all athletes would be in the zone all of the time. The downside of having a simple consistent rhythm in the normal flow of a game is that a defender can learn your timing and use it to defend you better.

The benefit, however, is that when it comes to open jump shots and free throws, this timing bounce can help a player fall back on a safe timing that can overcome the stress and loneliness that can be felt 15’ away from a 10 foot rim in front of 20,000 people.

“Everyone I’ve ever known who was really good at anything is equal measures talented and hardworking. .. Some seek the spotlight and two easy shots, others feel differently.” – Paul Green on The Burner

Markelle Fultz is probably experiencing some shoulder pain. That to be seems fairly obvious. What is just as obvious, however, is that despite a very aesthetically pleasing shooting stroke in college, Fultz timing is all over the place.

J Blevins SixerSense Article December 2017

Stories and leaks continue to swirl around Fultz’ health and desire to remain in Philadelphia versus finding a new place to play. We cannot say for sure how much of this is due to his “camp” and how much is the Sixers management losing patience in a 20yo player who has very visible struggles. As fascinating as this story may be on the surface, the only path to a longterm fix for Markelle is to look at this problem from a multidisciplinary approach. He spent all summer working with the shot doctor, Drew Hanlen, on specific mechanics, but to assume that a minor – or even major – change in shot mechanics would be the end-all, be-all is a gross oversimplification. Mechanics are important; so is rhythm.

“It’s got to be ok to miss.” – Paul Green 

Here is Coach Nick from Bballbreakdown.com talking about many modern shooting instruction details. Worth watching for the various nuances and techniques that help develop a rhythm. Very much worth watching.

Playing to a Metronome

This final video will show the very basics of the metronome concept for developing a sense of timing. It’s a crucial device, and as much as people would love to believe that these things come naturally and some people have timing and some don’t, these truly are skills learned through repetition over significant periods of time. Again, when it comes to basketball, you have many factors including a defender actively trying to disrupt that timing. This active disruption makes it even more important to have a north star of the internal metronome to fall back on, as mentioned above.

True proficiency requires the ability to operate within multiple time signatures so that as defenders begin to anticipate that timing, a player can quickly adapt and move to a different timing. When done well in music, this can be the difference from repetitive songs to truly dynamic composition. When done well in basketball, this can be devastatingly effective when used to set up your man and then break down a defender.

Thanks to Dr. Raj Brar, Nick Sciria, Mark Kelso, Keith Richards, and Paul Green for their contributions to this.