The puppet hiding behind the curtains, pulling the strings on what team wins in the NBA, is not the oft despised refs. It’s fatigue. With an 82-game season littered with back to back games and late night flights, players are not “giving their all” during each night out.
As fatigue rears its ugly head, players react slower, plant their foot on the ground a fraction of a second longer, and misjudge the touch on their shot by just a smidgen. Fatigue takes what you’re capable of doing, and dials down your powers just a touch. It might not seem like much, but those fractions of a second of slower reactions or less muscular power on your leap towards the basket, are the difference between winning and losing. The difference between being 12 for 14 from the field or 4 for 15, of having your lower legs soften the landing from your rebound attempt or from your muscles caving under pressure and risking serious injury.
And this kind of fatigue isn’t something that you “tough” your way through, or thwart with some grueling crossfit-style training. Like a marathon runner who has gone out too fast, the wall of fatigue will strike, regardless of how prepared you think you are. There’s a reason that teams see a distinct advantage in wins based on their travel schedule.
How do these guys survive?
They have a secret. Despite hearing their coaches yelling at them about being gritty and leaving it all out on the floor, despite the players themselves talking about effort in their post-game chat, the players don’t actually play to their full capacity. But, it’s not entirely their fault. Their bodies and brains won’t let them. You see, the brain is a powerful thing. If we look at how fatigue actually works, our body limits us from pushing to our max in order to protect itself. So a sprinter can never fully utilize every fast twitch fiber in his legs to propel him forward. If he did, he might run faster, but he might actually rip his leg apart.
This isn’t just theoretical. Researchers have shown that the muscles always have more. Take a person and put them through a grueling exercise, perhaps an all out 30-second bike, and the athlete will report that their quads are toast. Run an electrode to the muscle, shock it, and the muscle still functions, producing a contraction showing that the muscle itself can still fire and has more to give.
When it comes to how the brain and body handle fatigue, it’s almost as if we have an algorithm in our brain taking in all of the sensory information telling us how tired we are and comparing it to how much energy we have left to give. Think of it as our car comparing the gas left in the tank with our current rate of miles per gallon of gas used to understand how far we can drive before we run out of fuel. But there’s another piece to the puzzle, how much risk is involved, what’s the reward and level of importance.
Our brain weighs that complicated gas mileage algorithm with how important the task is. Should we pull over when the projected miles left is five, or should we push on beyond when the tank reaches zero? Because we never truly reach zero in our bodies energy reserves (that would mean catastrophic failure, so we’re prevented from getting there), we use the level of importance and the risk versus reward to determine how close to zero we can get. Is our life on the line? Is our child’s life in jeopardy? Then, we might be able to perform superhuman events and lift a car off of his body. Is it a regular season game or is it game 7 of the finals? We might get a little extra juice in the latter case. According to the latest science of fatigue, your brain essentially tries to protect you from harming yourself, and it uses the perceived risks versus the potential rewards to fix where that governor is.
How does this relate to fatigue of playing basketball? When a NBA player enters the game after having played 48 minutes the day before and having slept only a few measly hours on a plane, he feels the sensation of effort and pain to a much higher degree. Perhaps his legs ache or feel stiff. All of these signals are taken into account by his brain, and almost serve as an informant, saying “Hmm, the left calf is a bit iffy today, lets make sure it operates at 60% power instead of full power.” If we are putting more effort into the game then we normally do by the 2nd quarter, the brain recognizes it and makes an adjustment, and we’ll have less energy to give during the final minutes of the game. Like a runner pacing himself through a race, the basketball player, unknowingly, divides his effort out to make sure he doesn’t reach exhaustion before the game ends. If he miscalculates, dolling out excessive amounts of energy early, his performance will suffer once his brain commands that he has had enough.
Can we override fatigue?
In researching for my new book Peak Performance, I came across one way we can ever so slightly violate fatigue’s grasp. If the task at hand has a purpose that is beyond oneself, the body will let the reigns loose and allow athletes to run faster, lift more, or jump a tad higher. You don’t see this effect when an athlete is fueled by selfish reasons, but by something greater. There’s a reason you don’t see great athletes thanking themselves or their genes or their talent after making the winning basket or catching the crucial touchdown. Instead they thank god, their family, or their teammates.
When our reason for competing is of a high importance, when the reward is greater than the risk, our brains let the reigns loose. We can access a tad more strength, speed, and power. And if the situation absolutely calls for it–our child is trapped under a car– we can access what researchers call “hysterical strength.” The subtle difference of importance, meaning, and purpose might be enough to override the fatigue of playing for 48 straight minutes just enough to influence the game.
The stakes, risks, and importance are what makes playoff basketball so much better than the regular season. With each game that passes, the importance, and rewards, go up. Instead of seeing players constrained to 75%, we might actually get close to the old coaches adage of “leaving everything you had on the floor.” In the last quarter of the game, when fatigue is overtaking the bodies of these elite athletes, what may separate the winners from the losers is not their physical conditioning, but their why.
Fatigue Always Wins
SImply believe and you can overide fatigue? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Belief, or increased emotion CAN help combat fatigue, but if that was all that was required, then why do players who have waited their whole life to compete in the championships or Olympics falter at the end of the game or run out of gas in the closing stages of a race? Surely, their motivation is at its highest.
The simple answer is, the brain always wins. Increased motivation and belief are like a turbo boost for your car. It can help you accelerate, get past your previous limits, but it’s shrot lived and takes a heavy toll. A runner might get a shot of adrenaline going into the final lap as he is in position to achieve his lifelong goal of garnering an Olympic medal. For a moment, the pain subsides, the focus intensifies and you can push through whatever it is you are experiencing. 15-seconds later, though, it all comes rushing back.
If we step back into the world of the NBA, the playoffs can be seen in the same light. It’s tempting to start the playoffs, then use our turboboost to make up for the fact that we played an 82-game season and are starting from a point of fatigue. However, if we become increasingly reliant on getting emotionally up for the game to carry us through, we’ll soon burn through all of our reserves and end up like an exhausted James Harden (and so many other players) in last years playoffs.
In many ways, the NBA playoffs are like running the Boston or NYC marathon without a taper. You start off in a fatigued state, your legs not quite feeling the best. As you make your way through the marathon course, you are trying to exert just enough effort to stay in the race. If you expend too much energy, you’ll bonk in the later miles. If you take it too easy, you won’t be in the race when the real racing begins. To stay in the lead pack, every once in a while you might need to dig deep, call upon your emotional reserves to get through a rough patch. But if you utilize that too early or too often, by the time the real racing begins in the last few miles, you’ll have nothing in the tank.
The NBA team that wins will likely be those who came into the playoffs fresher, who expends just enough energy to win each series, without wasting their emotional reserves until the time is absolutely right.