What Pick Up Basketball Taught Me about a Job Interview

I’ve written before about my past struggles with the interview process. When I went on the job hunt for the first time in college, I was terrible. I didn’t understand how the process worked, and I was incredibly ineffective at telling a compelling story during the interview.

I used to think that job interviews were such a foreign concept. It seemed unnatural to me to sit in a room with a hiring manager and try to sell my worth to him or her.

But eventually I figured it out. And looking back at the transition I made from being a poor interviewer to becoming much better,  I’ve noticed something interesting. As I reflected on the process, I started to realize that it wasn’t really that foreign at all.

Sure the idea of being evaluated for a job was new. But I realized that I had actually been through countless similar evaluations, just in a different setting – the pick-up basketball court.

Let me explain.


In case you’re not familiar with pick-up basketball, I’ll give a quick overview of some of the rules.

At a given time, two teams of four or five players are on the court, and everyone else waits for the opportunity to play. The team that wins the ongoing game gets to stay on the court for the next game, at which time they are challenged by a new team organized by one individual who “has next.”

This individual is guaranteed to play in the next game, and he or she gets to pick the other players who will make up the team. Their goal is to assemble the best possible team so that they can stay on the court for as long as possible without being beaten.

So unless I already have a team assembled that I’m going to play with, I need to be selected by someone to join their team. To make that happen, I have to convince the individual who has next that adding me to his or her team will give them a better chance of winning than if they were to pick any other player that is available.

Hence, an interview of sorts takes place.

The judgment typically begins based on looks. I happen to be 6’4″ with a pretty athletic build, which works to my favor. But I’m also relatively skinny and don’t immediately seem to embody the basketball culture.

So it’s typically mixed results for me just based on looks. Sometimes a team just needs someone tall to rebound, so the eye test is enough for me to be picked up, but if not I have to try to show my worth in other ways.

There’s typically an opportunity to dribble and shoot intermittently while warming up, so that becomes the next assessment. Since I’m typically completely cold at this stage, it’s often a challenge, but I try to look fluid with the ball. I might hit a few layups, take some jumpers, or work on some dribbling moves.

But honestly, I know that I don’t show very well early in a day. It takes me a few minutes before I get a feel for my jumper, and I’m hardly good enough with the ball to impress anyone.

So ultimately, I often have to rely on the unique value I can bring to the team.

I happen to be pretty athletic, and given the typical size distribution on a pick-up basketball court, there’s almost always a need for a tall and athletic guy who can rebound. So if I haven’t been asked to play on someone’s team by this time yet, I like to show off my leaping ability. Depending on the crowd, sometimes a nonchalant touch of the rim or dunk will do it, but in some environments, I might have to raise the bar and hit a reverse slam or something a bit more tricky.

And that’s usually it. By that point, I’ve either done enough to convince the guy playing next that he needs me on his team, or I haven’t.

Honestly, it’s a strange dance that we play. But it’s remarkably similar to what happens in a job interview.

Just like on the basketball court, a hiring manager is looking for the right fit. She wants to pick someone who will give her and her team the best chance to win.

So the job interview typically starts with a physical assessment. The hiring manager looks the candidate over, and makes a general assessment of whether he or she appears to be fit for the job.

Is she neatly groomed? Does he seem dressed appropriately for the job?

The interview is rarely won or lost at this point, but appearances can certainly determine whether the discussion starts on the right foot.

Then the real assessment begins.

The are many ways to conduct an interview, but simply put, the goal is for the hiring manager to assess the candidate. Sometimes, it’s more like a conversation than a test. And other times, there’s a rigid layout defined with set scripts that the interviewers need to follow. It all depends on how the employer wants to conduct the interview.

But regardless how the situation plays out, the goal for the interviewee is the same. Just like I try to do on the basketball court, the interviewee has to put his to her best foot forward to show that they’re a good fit for the job.

I used to fall flat on my face in interviews. My communication skills were poor, and I really didn’t know how to play to my strengths. I routinely got caught off-guard by questions, and I tensed up during the discussion.

Until I finally started to approach the interview process like I approach my attempt to get picked up on a basketball team.

On the court, I’ve developed a routine that I know will showcase my strengths. I play to the needs of the person picking the team and I show what I can bring to the table.

So why should it be any different in a job interview?

Once I embraced the idea of controlling the interview and telling my story, my results changed almost overnight.

Rather than simply reacting to the situation and answering the questions that the interviewer asked, I started to craft my story. I put together a handful of anecdotes that I knew would resonate with the interviewer, and I learned how to artfully craft these stories into our conversations.

It was a simple adjustment, but it made all the difference. I made the interview into a showcase of my skills rather than just an assessment, and I focused on doing whatever I could to convince the hiring manager to pick me for their team.