SLAM: One of the oddest things about watching Chinese basketball is how lazy the players seem to be. Once you start to understand it, it becomes obvious that that’s only because it’s a defense mechanism because they have to work so hard—six days a week, 50 weeks a year. The insanity of this is obvious to every foreign observer. Do you think it is becoming more apparent to people within the system?
Jim Yardley: You’ve made a crucial observation about the vicious cycle of how Chinese players are trained. They practice roughly 11 months a year, living as a team in a dormitory, often drilling and running two or three times a day. Players get worn down, also because most teams follow outdated weight lifting regimens and offer mediocre support from medical trainers.
So, yes, many players learn to loaf out of pure survival. They want to extend their careers, which means a certain amount of self-preservation is required. I do think many coaches are aware of this, but their response, usually, is just to push players harder in practice. Many Chinese coaches believe that players have to drill constantly, and practice daily, over months, to improve. It is pretty self-defeating actually.
The good news, though, is that many teams are starting to change, and these are the teams that are winning. The dominant team in the Chinese league—the Guangdong Southern Tigers—also happens to be the most enlightened, as far as training techniques.
For the full SLAM interview with Jim Yardley, the longtime New York Times’ Beijing bureau chief and author of Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, click here.