The Working Habits of Kobe Bryant

Kobe is simply one of the greatest athletes of all time. With five championships, over 33,000 points (25 ppg), two olympic gold medals, an Emmy and an Oscar; his legacy speaks for itself. This begs the question: how did he do that?

Truth is, I always take interest in people (or teams, organizations, etc) who stick to a process and achieve incredible results. This is precisely why I am a fan of Kobe: his belief in the process. Or like Kobe himself put it:

“What separates great players from all-time great players is their ability to self-assess, diagnose weaknesses, and turn those flaws into strengths.” — KB

So recently I picked up his autobiography “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play” and here I am sharing what I learned from it and how I am applying some of that learning to refine my process and become better at what I do: solve engineering problems.

  • More hours is more done:

Kobe trained more than anybody else. While many argue that “you should work smarter, not harder”, the math in Kobe’s head was simple: the more hours he worked, the better he was going to get. This manifested in training sessions that started as early as 4 am so he could have one more training session than everybody else (three per day instead of two).

  • It takes a lot of people:

While what we see on the court is Kobe, the book sheds light on the many people who worked tirelessly in the background. This included his family, physical therapists, team mates, mentors, coaches, etc. For instance, I was surprised to learn about a specific person who made sure tape was applied properly in every game and every training session. On this aspect, KB talks about the importance of communicating to everyone in your environment what you are trying to achieve and their role in it: family, friends, colleagues, managers, mentors, etc.

  • Ask questions:

Kobe asked a lot of questions to a lot of people. He was constantly in the lookout for something new to learn from great athletes, coaches, etc. These conversations often lead to several mentor-mentee relationships with some of the greatest athletes who played the game; the likes of Michael Jordan and Kareem.

  • Repetition makes perfect:

Kobe developed a habit to see something in video or just visualize it and do it over and over again until he mastered it. One prime example is how he learned to shoot without using the index finger that he broke early in his career.

  • Studying video:

Just in case you are wondering “is this really relevant to what I do?”, I recently overheard George Hotz talk about how recording programming sessions and watching them can be used to become a better programmer (see: https://youtu.be/V7NkS6j-XWg?t=219).

In a completely different arena, the billionaire investor Ray Dalio, in his book Principles, talks about the same idea of replays by logging what their firm does and re-examining the performance of their actions. He also talks about studying history to spot trends and identify them when they occur. At Google, similar exercises called “post-mortems” are very common at the end of important projects to reassess how the project went and put together measures for improvement.

KB studied a lot of tape to self-assess, pick up new techniques and study his opponents. Those sessions weren’t passive but actual study sessions with a lot of attention to detail and rewinding. I personally picked a lot of gems by watching videos of good programmers like here and here.

  • Gear:

Kobe cared a lot about gear. Instead of looks, shoes needed to be about weight, weight distribution, material, cut, traction, durability, etc. He thought the widely-used high-tops weaken the ankles and sap mobility. This finding lead to a partnership with Nike on low-top shoes which he used much of his career.

“My sneakers didn’t just have to be comfortable, they had to help me perform better.” — KB

  • Resilience:

Kobe was always ready to adjust his technique based on the situation at hand. The book is full of photos of real play situations and how he used different shooting and defense techniques that are tailored to his opponents. He also talks about how he approached games differently based on how he felt: tired and not able to jump very high? not able to run a lot? big physical opponents? Put simply, he devised a plan for every situation.

“After I injured my right index finger in the 2009–2010 season, I knew my usual method would no longer work. Up until then, I’d always shot off of my first two fingers. After I hurt it, I had to start focusing on using my middle finger. The middle become my point of release, and I had to sort let my index finger drift” — KB

  • Recovery:

Sleep and meditation were just as important before and after training sessions and games. This allowed him to train and work with intensity. Personally, I take this point very seriously by tracking my sleep performance daily (see figure below), meditating, taking long walks daily, etc. It was nice to see an additional data point on how recovery fit in KB’s day to day.

Figure: Hours of sleep vs sleep needed data for a full week.
  • Reading:

This particular one came off as very surprising. Apparently, KB read a lot. One particular one is the referees handbook and how he learned to get away with minor violations simply because he had a better understanding of how the referees position themselves in the court.

  • Setting the tone:

Not surprisingly, KB understood the importance of the team and his leadership role in it. So to give that extra dose of motivation, KB talks about dunking:

“When you dunk the ball, it lets the opposition know your mentality. It lets them know you’re there to humiliate them. It also sets an emotional tone with your teammates. It lets them know you’re going to climb mountains this game and inspires them to want to climb with you “— KB

To sum up, I believe Kobe’s process can be applied in a myriad of disciplines including building products, solving technical problems, etc. And to leverage these learnings, one can think of the projects as games, themselves as players in a team, and their colleagues as a team (fun fact, this is not a new idea like discussed here and here).

That said, becoming an excellent problem solver depends on your “ability to self-assess, diagnose weaknesses, and turn those flaws into strengths”. Following the footsteps of the great KB, this ability can be developed by sticking to a process that involves: a lot of practice, a support system, asking questions, a lot of replays and self-assessment, great gear and tooling, resilience, plenty of rest, continuous learning and being a team player.

Energy & Computing @ Shell & GWU (Opinions my own)