Jack Martin and David Cox
The Big Idea
It is rare in conventional social psychological research on sport to consider public testimony as a source of truths. And yet, this is exactly what this study does. These authors pursue what they call a “portrait of possibility.” The subject—the only subject—is the early life of one heck of a basketball player: the Canadian Steve Nash (b. 1974) who played 18 years in the NBA (National Basketball Association), nearly half of those years an NBA All-Star and two-time Most Valuable Player.
The two primary themes of this case study are creativity and work ethic in sport. To get there these authors go through the first 22 years of Steve Nash’s sporting life. The technique employed is called Life Positioning Analysis. It is a newer approach in the psychological research literature. The focus is not preoccupied with the inner attributes of athletes. It is instead an illustration by way of a case study of an athlete to discover the impact of contextualized social and interpersonal life experiences on their creative development. As social biography, interactions with parents, siblings, teammates, coaches, and support staff are the bases of such studies.
- In 2014 Kobe Bryant said that Steve Nash “is not fast, but fast enough. He’s not quick, but quick enough. He’s not big, but he’s big enough.” And yet, Steve Nash became a great basketball player because he brought to his “enoughs” other unique qualities to the basketball court.
- These unique qualities were creativity on the court and an accompanying work ethic.
- According to Nash’s father and brother, Nash’s friends and teammates, and Nash’s coaches, Steve Nash’s pre-NBA years were described as being self-expressed, self-determined, driven by goal setting, resilient, and passionate.
- Nash’s “unique qualities” did not materialize solely from his inner attributes, but were situated in interpersonal, social, and cultural interactions and contexts.
- Public testimonies on Steve Nash’s basketball early days verify that Nash’s biography is an illustrative case study of a portrait of possibilities within individual athletic lives.
Why Steve Nash?
In this case study, the sources of Steve Nash’s unique on-court creativity are the question. From this mini-biography on Nash, the authors believe it is possible to expand the possibilities for developing sport expertise in other athletes especially for “enhancing requisite skills, commitment, and character.”
When the sports world speaks of what enabled Nash to play basketball so well for so long, two qualities are remembered: 1) his commitment to disciplined and extended practice—his work ethic, and 2) his ability to create on-court imaginative possibilities for himself, and by such creating, to inspire others to elevate their play. These two intertwined qualities of his play were largely produced by way of strands of influence from significant others in his up-bringing—both of which these researchers believe are on-going possibilities for others to realize.
For this study, the second author, David Cox—who as a sports psychologist had worked directly with Nash for many years—compiled publications and clippings of Steve’s life and athletic accomplishments. The researchers also used video and audio recordings and transcriptions of interviews with Nash (the primary source was an extended interview with Nash by first author Jack Martin in 2015). Nash was also given early drafts of this study to not only check the accuracy of his own development, but for opportunity to elaborate on life events and to emphasize the impact of significant others on his creativity and work ethic.
In what follows, three categories of significant interactions are summarized. These relationships were the developmental core of Steve Nash’s so-called basketball wit and basketball IQ over his first 22 years: 1) family interactions; 2) friend and teammate interactions; and 3) coach interactions.
The two primary members of Nash’s sporting up bringing in Victoria, Canada were his father, John, and his younger brother, Martin. Basketball was not the sport of choice in Steve Nash’s early years—in fact he didn’t find basketball until grade seven. But a gym rat he was, nonetheless: soccer, lacrosse, hockey, baseball. Of these, it was soccer that mostly captured his attention and was an early source of his athletic skills such as footwork and balance. His father was a semiprofessional soccer player in South Africa. One anecdote finds Steve as an 11-year-old in his backyard juggling a soccer ball 162 times, keeping the ball in the air by feet, head, and knees. Early on, Steve had the gift of practicing on his own well beyond what his coach prescribed.
Steve credits his father for understanding that a sport performance could (and should) be a creative performance. John reinforced his son’s instinct for valuing seeing possibilities, for seeing situations before they happened. Cultivating this power in his son gave rise to Steve’s uncanny sport skills. He moved with wit. In Steve’s own words:
Whereas a lot of kids might have had a dad that would
say something like, “Man, you are really fast.” Or, “You kick
that ball really hard.” Or, “Great goal.” My dad didn’t
really value those things as much as what you perceived or
w0x hat you created, or how you expressed yourself.
Nash’s dad valued creative play as self-expression for both his son’s benefit as well as the team’s benefit. Steve’s first basketball coach in the seventh grade was astonished that Steve’s biggest thrill was setting up his teammates for a score. John embraced a “playing fields of Eton” approach to life and sport. He explained it this way: “Sport is not just about sports. It is about getting along with people. Learning to win together, learning to lose together, and dealing with disappointment together.”
Many of Steve’s own patented moves were learned in hours of competition against his brother, Martin, whether in soccer or basketball. Martin, who was just shy of two years younger than Steve, was a more natural athlete. But the constant competition between the brothers honed both of their sport skills on both offense and defense of whichever sport was in season. They each learned to anticipate what the other might do on the pitch or the court, and armed with that knowledge, would then do the unanticipated.
By high school Steve was challenged by the letter and spirit of playing basketball—having by then announced to his mother he was going to be a star in the NBA. Beyond the typical basketball season in school, Steve spent his summers “on the job”—practicing basketball often eight hours a day and often alone: one day 500 jump shots before leaving the court; the next day 200 free throws; and when stymied by self-improvement, he turned to studying video of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and his own hero, Isiah Thomas.
His teammates at Santa Clara University quickly learned what set Steve Nash apart from a conventional college basketball player. Yes, there was his remarkable work ethic, and of course there was his on-court creativity and success. But as one teammate recalled, Steve improved everybody’s game in the process of improving himself. He gave everybody self-confidence and enthusiasm for the game. His play-making creativity helped everyone become more creative players. When an entire team is poised for the unexpected, collective excellence becomes the expectation.
Between Steve Nash’s seventh grade basketball and his days in Santa Clara, two coaches became “particular others.” The first was his high school coach Ian Hyde-Lay. The second was the Canadian national basketball program coach, Ken Shields.
Ian Hyde-Lay was the basketball coach at Saint Michaels University School in Victoria, Canada. On weekends, coach Hyde-Lay opened the gym early for one-on-one practices with Steve. In time Steve learned basketball fundamentals so well he simultaneously became a teacher as well. He learned to use self-observation and self-correction to continuously deepen his knowledge of what is fundamental to his own play, but team fundamentals as well. Coach Ian-Hyde challenged Steve to master footwork and shooting mechanics. They took turns as ball handler and defender. Nash was learning skills not necessarily needed in high school but were must-learn skills needed in the NCAA and eventually in the NBA. One example was the pull-up jumper at the foul line—not needed in high school given Nash’s ability to go to the hoop at will, but needed eventually as he was guarded by taller players (Nash was 6’1” coming out of high school).
Ken Shields was at the time a successful coach at the University of Victoria, and the head coach of Canada’s National Basketball program. Shields invited the 17-year-old Nash to the national team workouts. With the help of Shields, Steve learned to play more efficiently in order to minimize his unnecessary flashiness. The result was to enhance his quickness and anticipation. Shields also helped Nash deal with challenges to his self-confidence when out played by older, stronger, and more experienced players.
What was of considerable help in these early years was Nash’s decision to adopt with pride an attitude of being “the underdog”: a skinny kid coming out of Canada of all places, not highly recruited by NCAA teams, short for a basketball player, and of all things believing he could play in the NBA.
What accounted for Nash’s eventual success as a professional basketball player for 18 years in the NBA was his early preparation on so many fronts: work ethic, athletic creativity, finding sport as self- expression, goal setting, self-determination, resilience, and out-and-out passion.
These attributes did not emerge ready-made in Steve Nash’s development. The sources of this development were the life experiences of the youngster and later adolescent coming by way of the relationships and interactions of family, friends and teammates, and coaches.
As a biographical case study of Steve Nash this research paper offers an illustration of the relevance of social, contextual, and interactional bases for the development of athletic creativity. As portraits of possibility, such studies can deepen understandings of interpersonal, sociocultural, and personal characteristics that can be integrated into actions, practices, and ways of living—especially in sports.
Photo by Tommy Bourdeau on Unsplash