What Playing College Basketball Taught Me About Money Management

I recently read a fascinating article that explores why the No. 1 pick in last year’s NBA draft is struggling in the pros this season. The upshot is that the player, Markelle Fultz, altered his shooting form this past summer. The result was a complete disaster. He went from a great shooter to a terrible shooter in the blink of an eye. Nothing like it has ever happened in basketball history. It’s the equivalent of a young person winning the National Book Award and then forgetting how to spell. People are baffled.

I watched before and after videos of Fultz’s shooting form, and I have a theory: I think he tried to change his form so that it looked more like that of NBA All-Star Stephen Curry.

This is plausible, because something eerily similar happened to me in my own basketball career, albeit at a lower level.

I spent the summer before my first year of Division I basketball completely retooling my shooting form. I wanted my shot to look like that of one of my idols, J.J. Reddick. The process was frustrating, tedious, and entirely unnecessary.

I was a good shooter! I was the best on my team and one of the best in my region. And yet, for whatever reason, I was more worried about aesthetics than results.

Predictably, my shooting percentages the following year were not great. It wasn’t until my senior year that I changed my form back to the way it used to be. Finally, my shooting percentage shot back up.

In reading about Fultz and considering my own journey, it hit me that there are universal lessons in our stories that are relevant to investing and money management.

Stay the Course

When it comes to your shooting form, you’re not going to do yourself any favors by constantly changing course. It takes a long time to form the muscle memory necessary to launch shots from 22 feet away with skill and accuracy. The key is to find out early what works best for you and then stick with it.

William Bernstein, author of “The Four Pillars of Investing,” knows that the same idea applies when it comes to investing your money. As he puts it: “Investor success accrues not so much to the brilliant as to the disciplined.”

The disciplined investor knows that there is no sense in trying to time the market. For one thing, if you’re frequently making trades in your brokerage account, you will rack up high fees and commissions. Those cause a drag on your returns.

And, more importantly, trying to time the market with your trades is really, really hard. There is a reason there’s only one Warren Buffett. Even experts who devote their lives to it generally fail. The vast majority of people who become wealthy do so by keeping their expenses low and socking away money over time. Unless you have some institutional knowledge that the folks at massive, billion-dollar investment houses don’t, it’s best to pick a simple strategy and stay the course.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to achieve success. You just need to have the patience to stick with a good plan.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Was Fultz a once-in-a-generation shooter like Steph Curry? No. But he was clearly a good enough shooter to be considered the best basketball prospect in the entire world last year. Most experts agree that he would have been just fine if he had stuck with his flawed but productive shooting form.

Similarly, it’s been shown that there is more than one road to Rome when it comes to saving for retirement. Some people like to ride the stock market roller coaster by investing in a 100% stock portfolio. Others prefer to diversify across asset classes, invest “their age in bonds,” invest in international index funds, overweight technology funds, or use any number of other investing strategies.

Here’s the thing — they can all work out! As long as you’re not always questioning yourself and trying to switch to the “hot” investment of the moment, your money will grow over time.

Stock market researcher Mel Faber elegantly proved this in an article titled “Asset Allocation Strategies.” He compared the performance of nine different popular portfolios from 1970-2013 and found that “they all performed pretty similarly.”

His sage advice for those who are sweating about what to invest in? Pick anything, then “go enjoy your summer.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

The reason myself, Fultz, or any other player got good at shooting was because we were disciplined enough to put a lot of time into practicing. No matter how nontraditional your form, if you work hard enough, you can see results. There are countless examples of NBA players with ugly-looking form (looking at you, Reggie Miller) who were still dead-eye shooters.

With investing, the equivalent of practicing your jumpshot year after year is consistently adding money to your investment accounts, year after year. No amount of return on your investment can make up for not saving enough, just as having “perfect” shooting form doesn’t mean a thing unless you practice a lot.

Unless you do the work to create a gap between your spending and your saving, nothing else matters. Don’t get distracted by debates such as dollar cost averaging vs. lump-sum investing. As interesting as it can be to get into the minutiae, it’s important to keep your eye on the ball. Invest first, ask questions later.

Summing Up

Markelle Fultz, for whatever reason, was unable to stay the course. Maybe he panicked, or maybe he desperately wanted to imitate the best. We might never know.

I have empathy for him. I’m constantly tempted to tweak my life in a way that maximizes my perceived returns, be they in athletics, nutrition, or investing. Yet, I always find that implementing a slower but more sustainable strategy is what works best.

And once I find something adequate, I try to stick with it. As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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