Nerlens Noel is an expert at turtle racing.
He's not really, but for the purpose of this exercise, Noel's word on turtle racing goes.
The freshman center is front and center going through an "expert speaker" lesson with Steve Shenbaum. His Kentucky basketball teammates watch as Noel speaks, with confidence and clarity, on turtle racing. He knows nothing about the topic - a subject picked for him by his teammates - but that doesn't matter.
Shenbaum's teaching: speak with confidence about your subject, and your words will be valued.
"He was fantastic," Shenbaum said. "He had names for his turtles. He owned every word he said. … Nerlens surprised himself."
Self-confidence is one of the goals Shenbaum - the founder of game on, a company that works with sports teams and businesses to improve communication, leadership and character development - tried to impart to the Kentucky basketball team in a 90-minute session on Saturday.
He's worked with a variety of professional and collegiate athletes over the years, including the Kentucky football and men's and women's soccer teams earlier this fall.
During those sessions, UK administrators watched and evaluated. A few weeks ago, they contacted Shenbaum to arrange a return visit to Lexington, this time to work with the basketball team in a session recorded by ESPN's "All-Access: Kentucky" camera crew.
"What struck me was that I got a chance to work with a team that's just getting to know each other. That was the most fascinating thing to me," Shenbaum said. "Here's a national championship team with no (key) returners, a large percentage of young players who were superstar players in high school who are just getting to know each other, and they've got cameras following them. I saw that as a really, really neat opportunity from the beginning."
He paced the Wildcats through five exercises, each meant to build camaraderie and trust. That goal is particularly important for Kentucky, which has seven returning players and five new ones.
"I could tell they were just starting to get to know each other, but that's completely understandable," Shenbaum said. "They weren't coming in as an unbelievably unified unit, but they were respectful to one another. They get it."
Before he could get them to trust each other, he had to get them to trust him. The Wildcats had been through a morning practice already; they were scheduled for another that evening. They lead busy lives.
"I think these young men are a little bit cynical when a coach says to them, 'Hey, we're going to have a speaker come in, on a Saturday,'" Shenbaum said.
To counteract that skepticism, Shenbaum led off the meeting with good news: no PowerPoints, and no lectures. He noticed an immediate uptick in the room's mood.
Then he engaged the players, breaking the ice with a "warm-up" game with Julius Mays. He picked the graduate senior because he was the oldest. Then he moved on to Noel in the "expert speaker" game. By the end, players such as Archie Goodwin had moved from "kind of serious" to "smiling and laughing," Shenbaum said, a transformation that Shenbaum called his favorite moment of the entire session.
And the energy may have carried over.
Shenbaum couldn't stay to watch the subsequent practice, but he heard feedback. That same day, he ended up in an airport with two ESPN cameramen who had been filming the "All-Access: Kentucky" series. They told him they "could sense a different energy after the session in practice," Shenbaum said.
That message was reinforced hours later, when Shenbaum saw John Calipari's tweet that said the session "even impacted our practice later in the day."
"That meant a lot to me," Shenbaum said. "He didn't have to write that. It's not like I left the session saying coach, make sure you tweet out something positive."
Calipari obviously saw something in Shenbaum's teachings. Shenbaum said he focused on two goals for the still-bonding Cats: getting them to find out "what makes each other light up, and having each other's backs." He wants them to laugh with each other, not at each other.
Again: camaraderie and trust. This team must be a family for at least a year.
"When you laugh with each other, your guard comes down," Shenbaum said. "When your guard comes down, you can get to know each other. When you get to know each other, you can light each other up, in a positive way."
Shenbaum's difference in on-court results may not be tangible, but that's not the entire mission. He's as much into developing people as he is athletes, an attitude reflected by UK.
"I love that Coach Calipari and the administrators are so open to athlete development off the field," Shenbaum said. "A lot of schools say they are, but not a lot of schools do it."
And, if he does help the defending national champions, he's OK with that, too.
"What I love is that, here's a team that just won the championship," Shenbaum said, "and they're still trying to figure out ways to improve."
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