How to Create Great Work Using Gut Feel: Perfect Your Footwork

Exploring intuition is a strange thing. You start going down deep, dark rabbit holes of your mind. It’s like … what even IS a human, man, yanno?

As a result, I’m getting better at indentifying the moment in a story when a person begins to trust their intuition. It always comes through with an unsatisfactory or mystical answer:

  • “I dunno how I did X. I just did.”
  • “I can just tell.”
  • “It just feels right.”
  • “You don’t think, you just act.”

This brings to mind the countless hours I spent on a basketball court in my younger-youth (I’m still young, dammit!). You practice the same move over and over again until you just … feel it. You practice a spin move through the lane again and again.

Here’s the punchline: You don’t practice your moves so you can perform your moves in a game. You practice them so that, in the moment, when the game throws something unexpected at you, you can just react. You just “feel it,” and suddenly spin, then double-pump in the air, then switch to your left hand to score. You’ve never practiced that. But you understand how to move. You’ve practiced each move. And then doing something that might actually be new to you looks like it came naturally.

There’s an NBA trainer by the name of Drew Hanlen who, beginning at age 25, began building quite a reputation around the league as a top-tier trainer. He’s worked with All-Stars like Dwight Howard to emerging game-changers like Joel Embiid; Rookies of the Year like Andrew Wiggins to dunk contest champions like Wiggins’ teammate, Zach LaVine.

Hanlen talks about this “feel” phenomenon with Kevin O’Connor, NBA columnist for The Ringer, in this article about perfecting your footwork.

Essentially, Hanlen says the first phase to becoming what looks like a natural out there is to understand how to do something. If you’re practicing a spin move, you have to understand the component parts of how to move. How should you plant your foot to lean into a spin move left versus right? Where do you place the ball? How do you adjust your arms? And so on.

Similarly, we all should stop following our lists and sprinting towards a non-existant finish line long enough to consider how we move. How do you write a great article? How does one generate ideas on-demand? How can you speak persuasively under pressure?

Once you understand how to move, Hanlen instructs players to practice that move. Over and over again, some of the best athletes in the world spin around a chair or a coach to score. Over and over and over and over. You start to make it muscle memory.

In our world, this means we need to build a body of work. We don’t have time to pontificate or ask yet another friend for her advice before launching. We have a body of work to build, another practice move to make. Again and again. Until it’s muscle memory.

You understand how to move. You’ve put that understanding to work in practice, repeatedly, over time. It’s muscle memory now. The last and hardest phase to master, says Hanlen, is that elusive notion of feel.

I don’t know how to explain it. I just reacted. 

“That’s the hardest step because it requires live reps [in an actual game]. It requires years of experience,” says O’Connor on The Ringer’s NBA Show podcast. “That can be the hardest thing to get down.”

But once you do, it goes from following the list in your head … to simply acting. You look like a natural.

“Whenever I do that move, I don’t even think about it. Sometimes it looks like a Eurostep to people, but to me it’s just a layup,” says Giannis Antetokounmpo, a rising star for the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s referencing a two-step, zig-zag move to lose a defender on your way to a layup or dunk.

He continues: “It’s simple. If the guy is in front of you, you go the other way. If he’s not in front of you, just go straight.”

That’s a very unsatisfactory answer for something this complex (and friggin’ awesome):

In our world today, it has never been easier to be average. But it’s never been harder to be exceptional. And those who do exceptional things seem to operate on feel, instinct, and talent. Dig a little deeper, however, and those who look like naturals have done something to make it seem that way, whether that something was directly or indirectly related to the task at hand.

They understand how to move.

They practice that move.

They apply that move in the game.

And steadily, over time, they just … feel it.


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