What IS “feel for the game”, anyways?
A concept I’ve been hammering on lately is “feel for the game”. Most people have knowledge that this exists – clearly there’s something that makes Paul Pierce, James Harden, Chris Paul and Andre Miller natural basketball players and Jordan Hill, Jerryd Bayless, Tyrus Thomas, Yi Jianlian not natural players, for reasons that goes beyond pure skill. Some people just call it basketball intelligence. For the most part, you can kind of just see it when a player has a great feel for the game or not.
But what is it? Pragmatically, can we nail down exactly what is happening here? What is the cause of “feel for the game”?
First of all, I’d point out that what is called “feel for the game” in sports, for many other fields is the only thing that matters in regards to talent. Take the example of an incredibly talented painter, writer, singer, actor, comedian – Most accept there is no direct “cause” of this talent. It’s just they have a particular feel and natural affinity for their craft that others don’t. For whatever reason, their genetics and environment conditioning lined up perfectly for them to be one of the best in the world at what they do. What many talented people say of crafts like this is that it comes easy to them. That’s what makes their work beautiful, the fact that it came naturally out of them and without effort and we can tell. These natural talents are just accepted for what they are. The painter or writer or comedian just has a natural feel for his craft that others don’t, period. This is one reason why “feel for the game” in sports should not be a shocking concept. There is a precedent in every other area of talent that sets up the possibility for basketball players being naturally gifted at the sport “just because they are”.
But if searching for a pragmatic reason, I believe the concept of “spatial intelligence” is key to understand the talents these players have. I believe there are two types of this spatial/visual vision superiority – There’s the players who can see across and all of the court, these are the players who see the cross court passes and outlet passes to fastbreak players whenever they need to. However, spatial awareness arguably occurs at a small level as well. Consider the shooter who can recognizes when his defender playing either too off him or close to him, thus instinctually recognizing whether he has an opportunity to shoot or drive. Or the player who when driving to the rim, knows how to spatially contort his body to finish or draw contact for a foul. This is spatial intelligence at a MICRO level, seeing not the big plays across the court, but the small creases and cracks in the defense to use the game of inches to their advantage. One of the best players I’ve seen at utilizing this small spatial intelligence is Julius Erving. Watching old tapes of Erving it jumps out how amazing opportunistic he is as a scorer, driving into the paint because he recognizes the defense is falling asleep for half a second. In one of the greatest games of all time, Game 5 of the 1980 Finals when both Erving and Kareem dueled to 36 and 40 points respectively, Kareem is dominating with amazing skill and size, but Erving is just as terrifying just by repeatedly finding holes in the defense and getting to the rim. He even described this ability in on his best quotes flashed during that game, saying: “When handling the ball, I always would look for daylight, wherever there was daylight.” Between small spatial awareness and the external “court vision” kind, there seems to be a decent pragmatic basis for feel for the game.
Among modern players, Lebron James, Chris Paul and Steve Nash are examples of players with the ‘external’ type of vision that helps them see passes across or up the court, find shooters on a drive and kick play, etc. One of my favorite things I’ve read about Lebron is when Brian Windhorst (in an article I unfortunately can’t seem to find) claimed Lebron was so supernaturally aware of everyone on the court that he could keep tabs on different courtside fans throughout a game if he wanted to, in addition to all the players. As for the micro type of spatial intelligence, Kevin Durant is a great example of a player that while not a side to side or full court playmaker like a Lebron, has a devastating sense of angles and spacing in his face-up scoring game.
Now in regards to feel for the game, can other sports tell us about it? One of the great examples of feel for the game is Roger Federer in tennis. Federer is a player who always made the game look easier and more natural for him than anyone else and importantly, like he had more time on the court than anyone else. Despite the immense speed of the balls, Federer had no problem seeing it. Of the major sports, spatial intelligence and feel for the game appears in every one. In the NFL, the quarterback position is one where vision and spatial awareness is key. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are masters of the field spatially. Peyton in particular has a Federer or Chris Paul like ease in the same he steps back in the pocket and calmly finds his receivers. The quarterbacks with great spatial ability also tend to avoid sacks due to their pocket awareness and Manning, Brady and Drew Brees are masters of that. Vision is also important for running backs and receivers, of course. In baseball, spatial intelligence comes into play with the batter’s eye. Post Moneyball, walk rate became one of the best indicators of hitting talent. This is because the players who draw walks have superior spatial vision reading the pitch, which also helps them get hits. However it’s in hockey where spatial intelligence is arguably the most key for talent. Every hockey player on the team has the mentality of a quarterback or point guard, surveying his 4 teammates on the ice and 5 opponents and looking to thread a pass through the traffic, to create offense without turning it over. Recognizing space and angles is integral to production, especially considering the incredible speed of the game and proximity of players next to each other and how there’s almost no margin of error in regards to accidentally passing it to an opponent, as breakaways or 2 on 1s against caused by a turnover can break an entire game for a team. I would say the more “reading the game” is related to the sport, the more spatial intelligence matters and hockey is arguably the sport where “reading the game” matters the most. The greatest player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, did it mostly by being one of sports’ all time spatial geniuses, infamously seeing plays before they happened like a master chess player. The NHL is also the major sport where vision and feel for the game or “hockey sense” is talked about the most and where players are most drafted for it. Recently, the 2009 and 2011 #1 picks, John Tavares and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, were picked primarily because of their superior spatial intelligence and hockey sense, as neither are physically dominant – Tavares lacking great speed and Nugent-Hopkins being undersized. Of course soccer is another sport where spatial intelligence is key, because of his reliance on passing like hockey. Lionel Messi is a particularly spatially superior player.
At the end of the day, mental talent is likely underrated in sports. It’s easy to say a player is athletic or strong or a certain height, but it’s not as easy to say that their ability to see angles and read the game is just as impossible to each. But I believe this reading the game ability, spatial intelligence and feel for the game is integral to basketball players and talent – and is often underrated.