NBA Rookies Need This to Thrive—and So Do You

Environmental factors play a larger role in success than you may think.

Posted Nov 08, 2018

With the NBA season underway, we’re starting to get a sense of how the rookies are performing. What often gets missed in the analysis is the importance of where the player gets drafted to. Every team is a distinct organization, with a coach who has an approach to rookies that can help or hinder development. 

This factor makes me think of a key ingredient that helps all of us—including NBA rookies—develop and sustain happy, productive, successful lives: positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is, simply, a consequence of a behavior. More specifically, it occurs when “the introduction of any stimulus following a given behavior increases the frequency of that behavior in the future.”1 Does something that you do produce effects that make you more likely to do it again? If yes, then that behavior has positive reinforcement.

For rookies trying to get their footing in the NBA world—and trying to meet or exceed expectations—the pressure is enormous. There are three factors that will influence their ability to generate positive reinforcement, and continue to grow in ability and stature in the world’s most competitive basketball league. These three factors also apply to you in your professional and personal pursuits.

  1. First, what is actually going to be positively reinforcing? Is it getting thrown into the fire, playing big minutes from the start? Is it a nurturing coach, or a hard-driver? Is it a veteran player who can serve as a mentor? For different players, the answers may change. For you, it's worth considering two variables as you move towards increasing positive reinforcement: pleasure and satisfaction. If you want to become more active, will it be more pleasurable for you to go on daily walks or to join a volleyball team? If you want a greater sense of satisfaction, would you prefer to speak up more in meetings at work or to wash that pile of dishes? Clearly, these are personal choices, based on how you think you will feel as a consequence of doing the activity. 
  2. Next, is the preferred type of reinforcement available in the environment? A team with playoff aspirations is unlikely to give big minutes to a rookie with potential if those minutes would contribute to losses in the short term. Regarding veteran support, Philadelphia 76ers rookie Landry Shamet has expressed publicly his great satisfaction from receiving close mentorship from teammate and fellow shooter JJ Redick. In your case, it's worth examining the availability of certain interests, activities and supports. An important term to consider here is stability, meaning is the potential reinforcer available to you on a regular basis? Think of the difference between going to a weekly Spanish class versus a one-time trip to Madagascar. While the trip to Madagascar sounds pretty cool, it lacks the stability of a weekly class, where you would have a better opportunity to learn new skills and forge new relationships in a natural, ongoing way.
  3. Last, are the emotional and physical skills needed to obtain the reinforcement available? What if that rookie on a potential playoff team, like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the Los Angeles Clippers, couldn't adapt to coming off the bench and playing a more limited role than he played in college? What if Shamet didn’t want to learn from a teammate he viewed as competition for playing time? For you, this last part requires some self-examination along the way. Are there areas of skill development that will help you participate in a way that brings out more pleasure and/or satisfaction? Going back to the idea of speaking up in meetings, you'll be more successful in that endeavor if you can manage stress in the moment and you have a firm grasp of assertive communication. Needing to build a skill can be a part of the process, it just takes some mindful self-assessment, as well as a willingness to seek out and accept constructive feedback.  

Multiple factors go into providing a rookie with an environment in which positive reinforcement can be a regular, recurring process. To recap how it applies to our lives with an eye on the potential pitfalls, let's look at a simple example. If you’re depressed and a friend suggests joining a book club, maybe that isn’t your thing and won’t be helpful for you. Or maybe you like the idea of joining a book club, but you live in a small town where there aren’t any (let’s leave online book clubs out of it for argument’s sake, thanks). Or what if you live in a city, and you enjoy the idea of book clubs, and there is one available to you, but because of difficulty concentrating from feeling depressed, you are unable to stay focused and read the books, and after a couple months you drop out?

As you can see, developing sources of positive reinforcement requires some thought, experimentation, skill development and a bit of luck in finding the right environment. A good place to start would be to think about past sources of reinforcement that you may have given up due to being busy or feeling down. Perhaps it’s time to get back into that club, group or activity, and see if you can regain the benefits that come from naturally-recurring positive reinforcement. And if the skills necessary to be successful in that activity are too tough for you right now, then pick something that's a better fit in the short-term, with an eye on getting back to that more challenging activity in the future.


Kanter, J.W., Busch, A.M., & Rush, L.C. (2009) Behavioral Activation: Distinctive Features. New York, NY: Routledge