Why I won’t shut up about basketball at work

How the lessons I learned playing basketball shape the colleague I am today

Lia Milito
Aug 25, 2019 · 9 min read

It’s a running joke at my office that at least once a week I’ll start a sentence with “when I played basketball…” or “I once had a coach who would tell us…” My colleagues have learned to accept it, and there is in fact now a book of sports metaphors kicking around because of an argument I once instigated about whether a “full court press” was an appropriate analogy for something that happened in a meeting.

A photo of women on a basketball court, huddled around their couch during a timeout.
A photo of women on a basketball court, huddled around their couch during a timeout.
A timeout when I played at Saint Mary’s University. I’m number 12, with the white headband on.

So with all that in mind, here are some things my coaches have taught me, and how they continue to echo in my actions today.

Not “I know” (they saw evidence that you don’t). Not “but I couldn’t do that because…” (they saw evidence that you could). Just say “okay” or “got it”. Even better, “thank you”.

The beautiful thing about this piece of advice is that it gives you a script to shortcut the fight or flight response that feedback can often trigger. It doesn’t matter how I feel about the feedback I’m receiving. I just know that the correct response is to say “okay”.

I know what you’re thinking. Sometimes you get bad feedback. It’s true! Note that this isn’t about incorporating feedback you receive. It’s just about navigating that delicate moment during which you actually receive it. What you decide to do with it is a whole other thing.

People often say that basketball is a game of inches. Millimeters. Instinct and reaction. It’s so fast that you have to drill things into your muscles. Everything has to be instinct. You often have to act faster than you can think. And the best way to do that is to practice discipline.

Nothing exemplifies this approach to discipline more than shell drill. Shell drill is when you strip down your defence and repeatedly run through highly controlled scenarios. Shell drill isn’t fun. It isn’t sexy. It’s exhausting and frankly kind of boring. It’s repetitive and mindless. But the point is to make the motions mindless. Because when you actually need them, your mind will be very occupied by lots of other things.

Build muscle memory for the fundamentals of whatever you do. It’s not fun. But it’s worth it. When things feel like they’re going to hell in a handbasket, you’ll have an automatic foundation to rely on, leaving your brain to tackle the much more complex problems.

It’s common to end basketball practices with a really tough endurance drill. They build grit and stamina. Usually, a coach will have the entire team line up on the endline, and have every player shoot one free throw. Each time a player misses, the whole team runs a sprint.

A group of women in a huddle on the basketball court, with their hands touching above their heads
A group of women in a huddle on the basketball court, with their hands touching above their heads

I had one coach who occasionally pulled out a particularly potent version of this drill. The deal was that if a player made ten free throws in a row (a pretty unlikely but not impossible target), the whole team was exempt from any more running. If they missed at any point, the team ran, and then someone would have to try for nine, and so on. The shooting order wasn’t assigned; players just volunteered themselves.

As a player, you have a choice to make. You can sit back and let your teammates shoot, knowing that someone else was bound to make six or seven or eight in a row. Just run when required and then go home.

Alternatively, you can hang back and wait for the target number to get lower. Eventually, it would get low enough that you’ve got a good chance at being the person to reach it and get the glory for bailing your team out.

Or, you can go first. Try for ten. If you do it, you’ve done something remarkable. If you haven’t, you’ve made the task a little easier for the next person.

I want to work with people who put themselves out there, even if they don’t know 100% that they’ll be successful.

Most people think of body language as reflecting someone’s state of mind. But I learned that body language can also create a state of mind. And what’s more, it can create a state of mind in you, and in others around you.

Stand up when your teammate exits the game. Never turn down your teammate’s hand. Make eye contact with your coach during a time out. Clap during warm up drills. Sprint off the floor for a timeout.

A group of high school basketball players posing for an informal team photo
A group of high school basketball players posing for an informal team photo
My high school team after our final home game during my senior year

These are all nonverbal cues I was explicitly taught to demonstrate, and it was so easy to see the impact it had. Those cues send a powerful message: “I’ve got your back. We’re in this together. You can count on me.” Those messages impact team cohesion enormously. When a team hits a setback, they can be the difference between spiralling out, and pulling together and pulling through.

Even now outside of basketball, I still try to remind myself that my body language is a choice, and everyone around me is affected by it. Make eye contact. Lean in. Nod. People notice, and it matters.

Even if you’re the best player on the team, you don’t do any good staying on the floor when you’re winded. All you’re going to do is give up an easy basket. By trying to be a hero, you let everyone down. Come out of the game, catch your breath, and then you’ll be in a position to contribute again. I’ve never seen a coach get mad at a player for saying they need a rest. It’s the right thing to do in a game. There’s no shame in asking for and taking breaks. In fact, sometimes it’s what your team needs you to do.

You can’t control everything, but you can always control those two things.

When faced with chaos, bad luck, or tough odds, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. remember that there are almost always things that you can control. Take care of those things.

Any coach will tell you that defense is more important than offence. Since everyone plays both offence and defense, you’d think that players would spend at least as much time working on their defense as they do on offence. This is very much not true. Compare the number of kids you see on any given playground taking jump shots with the number doing defensive drills and you’ll see what I mean.

The reason is obvious. Offence provides you with way more opportunities for glory. Offence is how you score points.

One of my coaches flipped this on its head with a practice drill called “game of stops” during practice. Unlike a typical half-court scrimmage, in game of stops, you could only score when your team was on defense. If you got a defensive rebound or turnover, your team got a point and you got to stay on defense. If you made a basket on offence, you got the privilege of playing defense.

Boy, does that change your mentality about defense. Everyone’s intensity is dialed up. It’s terrifying to play offence in game of stops. It suddenly feels like a brick wall is between you and the basket. Once you see what your team is capable of defensively, it can change how you play, even when the glory goes back to offence in a regular game.

Stay on the lookout for opportunities to reframe what you’re doing. How can you tinker with the rules of the systems in which you find yourselves to make it easier (or more fun) to do the right thing?

Two women boxing out during a basketball game
Two women boxing out during a basketball game

Seek out teams who are better than you and play them. Sometimes you’ll shock them and you’ll always get better. As the old saying goes, you if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Seek out opportunities to learn by finding new rooms.

Even with three officials on the court, things get missed. The player guarding you may foul you as you’re trying to get open, and get away with it. Some players become vigilantes, and retaliate on the next play, when inevitably they’re the one called for a foul.

In other words, refs sometimes miss the first foul, but they always catch the retaliation. Is it fair? No. Is it reality? Yes.

You can spend your time operating in the world that you think ought to exist. But if you do that, chances are you’ll run into frustration. You’ll keep banging your head against reality, getting a headache and little change in the process. Instead, you can choose to operate in the world as it actually is. If you spend your time exploring and learning about reality, you’re way more likely to be able to create the world you want.

Basketball is famously compared to jazz, with the best teams reading and reacting to the constantly evolving state of the court. So when my youth team started building out a repertoire of quick-hit plays, some parents were talking about whether this was undermining our ability to play improvisationally. At a post-game picnic, there was a spirited back-and-forth happening about this when one dad offered the mic-drop of a line that would forever unite the factions: “but from structure flows spontaneity!”

And it’s true. In unpredictable environments, the best outcomes often come from teams that can play with the relationship between structure and improvisation. This is one of the most delicate balancing acts I’ve ever had to learn, and it’s never over. I’m always weighing structure and improvisation. If there’s a conflict at a workplace, is it better to balance it with clear policy, or with deep conversation?

Fundamentally, I think the right answer is “a little bit of both”. A high degree of structure quickly diverges from the reality of lived experience. Too much spontaneity often yields frustrating, interminable, or inequitable results.

Increasingly, I’m recognizing that the purpose of structure is to serve as a ground truth above which life can be lived improvisationally, like Miles Davis improvised on trumpet above the structure of chords beneath him.

As a postscript: someone close to me made a comment on an early draft that my focus on discipline surprised him. I’m not, he pointed out, a very disciplined person by nature. And it’s true! If left to my own devices, I’d get locked out of my house all the time. I’m a bit of a ragamuffin at heart, and I love that about myself. And here’s the thing- this post isn’t about negating any of that beautiful chaos. It’s about recognizing its limitations, and learning how to operate at those limitations. It’s true that this represents only one slice of who I am, and it’s a learned slice. But it’s a slice I’m really glad to have learned. Because now, even though I lose my keys all the time, it’s okay, because I have a lockbox on my back door containing spare keys for those days where my habit of losing my keys would really be a pain.

With infinite and eternal thanks to the basketball coaches whom I continue to hear in my head long after they’ve stopped yelling at (to?) me from the sidelines, including Mark Leszczyk, Vin Varrechione, Lauren Brown, Scott Munro, Leslie Duncan, and my dad.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +789K followers.

Sign up for Top 10 Stories

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Lia Milito

Written by

Cheerful, curious, and tall. Managing Director at @code4ca.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

Lia Milito

Written by

Cheerful, curious, and tall. Managing Director at @code4ca.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store