Filet-O-Fish, the Alley Drill, and Affect Labeling

Let’s talk about last week

I had had this day circled on my calendar for quite some time and could not wait for it to arrive.


Well, at 10 am last Friday the first foursome will teed off in the 3rd Annual Alley Drill Open which will brought members of the Palatine Basketball program in from all parts of the country.

It was a day full of old stories… some sure to be fabricated… such as McKenna’s record for charges in one game is now up to 27 (started at 5 charges many years ago).

There were guys who haven’t seen each other in a month, a couple of years maybe, and there were some old teammates who have not seen each other in decades.

We all share a special bond. It is a fraternity… actually, it is more like a family.

If you played high school basketball for my Dad for four years you were pushed mentally, physically, and emotionally.

You were put into situations that took you way outside of your comfort zone and it either exposed or revealed what type of teammate you were.

If you bought in then that meant you were taught lessons that would prepare you for the next level in athletics and most importantly… life.

And… it was not easy at all. As a matter of fact, it could be flat-out brutal. But you knew he and his staff cared about you and you knew that your teammates had your back.

Coach was unbelievably good at getting you to do things you did not feel like doing and to accomplish things you never thought you possibly could.

Why is the name Alley Drill Open?

I am so glad you asked…let me help you make sense of the name.

For 32 years my Dad was the Head Basketball Coach at Palatine H.S where the stories of the harrowing Alley Drill experiences became legendary.

It was a simple drill in concept… 1-on-1, full-court, defend your man sideline to lane line, and then certain expectations were put on you. Expectations may be a mild word. Maybe, non-negotiable demands that if repeated over and over (which they usually were) could cause you to vomit… or at least make your legs and lungs burn a bit!

Since everyone who has been through that program from 1976-2009 could relate to the Alley Drill, we thought it was the perfect name.

My Turn

It was a typical Wednesday in January in 1988 during my senior season. I went to lunch at McDonald’s with a couple of the guys and for some reason, I ordered a Filet-O-Fish, large fry, and chocolate shake.

That decision would come back to haunt me four hours later.

We took our lunches to go and I drove back to school so we could watch some film as we had a huge game that Friday night.

We were playing well as a team, and I had put together a string of solid games dating back to before the Christmas tournament.

We were feeling good about ourselves and I was… .well… feeling it… I thought.

Practice started with zero signs of what was about to transpire. Upbeat tempo, solid enthusiasm as a team, productive drills, and everyone was clicking.

Then… it happened.

“Get a partner and one ball… alley drill,” Coach said. (Yes, I am now calling my Dad, Coach, which you will understand why soon!)

“Except, Molitor,” he continued…” you have Marzec, you start on defense, and you go first.”

Well, this was not good.

Dan Marzec was a great athlete who went on to play baseball at Notre Dame. And, he was as quick as anyone we would play all year.

Coach was not done…”Molitor, you need to turn Marzec three times before half court and if the ball is loose he better not beat you to it.”

The first time he put the ball on the floor I beat him to the lane line and got a hand on the ball….then I flew across the floor for the loose ball.


This time I stopped him three times before half-court and figured I was done so started to run to the opposite baseline.

Then, as if many of my teammates later would say they predicted, Coach yelled, “Where are you going Molitor?”

He added, “Go again… this time you guard Nelson.”

If Marzec was quick, Nelson was quicker and would take great delight in beating me down the floor to be sure I stayed in the drill and he could escape playing defense.

I immediately knew where this was going as I had grown up in that gym watching his practices and had witnessed this before.

My guess was that I was going to have to guard every player on the team and turn every one of them three times before half-court and at some point, I would see and taste the fish sandwich, fries, and shake again.

And that is exactly what happened.

How did I not lose my mind? Why did I not get ticked that I was meeting all his demands and yet he still kept me in the drill? How did I keep from overreacting and what kept me from feeling sorry for myself? What kept me so dialed in mentally when physically I may not have had much left in the tank (literally!)?

Simple, but not easy. Over the years I had watched the players who I thought were tough mentally and how they responded to situations like this.

They seemed to be “even” emotionally. In other words… they did not get too high or too low.

They just kept working and realized they had zero control over when the circumstances would change.

It was as if they were very aware of what was happening, they felt awful physically, yet were ready to do what it took to come out of that situation successfully.

They had come to figure out, like most of us who played for Coach, that there was a purpose to everything he did… every challenge he presented, every difficult circumstance he created, and every rep he made you redo.

When you were done he would ask you questions:

  • What were you thinking?
  • What did you believe about what was happening?
  • How did you feel (emotionally, because everyone knew how you felt physically)?
  • How did things turn out?
  • What could you have done differently and what will you do next time?

These questions raised your level of awareness of what was going on in your head and how, by controlling that, you could influence the outcome.

You may never be in that exact situation again, but you are sure to face a time in your life when you have people counting on you and you are physically and mentally exhausted.

Having the ability to recognize what is happening and how you feel will serve as a catalyst for building your resilience and mental toughness.

Nowadays that would be called affect labeling. The research on affect labeling is less than a decade old but the concept goes back thousands of years.

In a recent article on, Brad Stulberg talks about affect labeling and does a great job of breaking it down.

“When something unexpected happens—for example, an accident, a pandemic, a competitor acting unpredictably, and so on—people generally go down one of two roads: they either impulsively react or more thoughtfully respond; the former is automatic (and therefore not very free) whereas the later is conscious and intentional. In the past, I’ve written about a heuristic for responding that I call the 4 P’s: pause; process; plan; proceed. If you meet challenges by following this progression, you tend to make good choices, or at least not horrible ones.

Anyone can pause for a split second. Yet when emotions are running high, it is common to become overwhelmed by them, getting sucked back into the situation and reactivity after only a split second. It is true that more space is good, but creating more space is also hard. One way to do so is by labeling what you are feeling.

In a series of studies out of UCLA, researchers put participants in distressing and unplanned situations, like giving impromptu speeches in front of strangers. Half of the participants were instructed to feel and label their emotions: for instance, I feel tightness in my chest, I feel angst in my throat, or I feel heat in my palms. The other half of the participants were not instructed to do anything special. The participants who felt and labeled their emotions, what the researchers call “affect labeling,” had significantly less physiological arousal and less activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear. The affect labelers also reported subjectively feeling more at ease during their speeches. What’s fascinating, and important to point out, is that people who deeply felt their feelings but did not label them actually had more angst. So this is a one-two punch: you’ve got to feel what is going, and then you’ve got to label it—the latter being every bit as important as the former.

In other words, it is the act of labeling that creates the space between stimulus and response.

If you simply feel what is going on, you are likely to get overly involved in those feelings, perhaps even fusing with them. Deeply feeling anxiety or despair or nervousness is no fun. But knowing or observing yourself experiencing any of those emotions is less bad. You can think of it like this: when you label you watch the action movie instead of being in it or consumed by it. As a result, you have more space and freedom to choose what to do next. What is happening on the screen may be intense, and it may be causing all kinds of emotions, but you are still separate from it.”

Create the Space Between Stimulus and Response

  1. Identify a time when something unexpected happened and write that down in as much detail as possible.
  2. Write down your initial emotions
  3. Then, write down whether you:
    • Reacted impulsively and got overwhelmed by your emotions, or
    • Consciously and intentionally responded after a pause
  4. Now write down what you could have done differently and what you will do the next time something unexpected happens

Have a great week!



This was originally published as a weekly newsletter from Ed Molitor, with The Molitor Group. If you’d like to receive the weekly newsletter, follow this link to subscribe.


Growing Through (Not Just Going Through) Crisis

Why vulnerability can be a powerful leadership asset