If you saw Matt Van Pelt in person, you probably wouldn't guess he recently signed a one-year contract to play professional basketball in Australia. Matt stands at 5 feet 9 inches, weighs 170lbs, and rarely passes the "eye test" when it comes to folks judging his basketball-playing capabilities.
This, Matt claims, is what has fueled his fire to prove his doubters wrong.
After I found out Matt signed a deal to play professionally overseas, I contacted him for an interview to share his thoughts on basketball, training, and what it takes to succeed in life...
YES. I too played college basketball standing at a [generous] 5'9. Which is why I have so much respect for Matt. Having an opportunity to play four years of collegiate basketball is difficult. For guys like myself and Matt, it's even more challenging as being recruited is often times difficult for undersized players.
As I mentioned above, once I received word of Matt signing a deal to play pro ball overseas, I was inclined to reach out to have him share his story. I admire Matt's work ethic, and I have a feeling by the end of reading this interview, you will too.
I grew up in Rockford, Michigan (ten minutes north of Grand Rapids). My family has lived there my entire life. I attended Rockford High School, a class A school that routinely has a team in the top 25. Other than basketball, I grew up running track, playing football, soccer, baseball, cross country...you name it, I played it! I excelled at football at a young age, but I gave it up to focus on basketball once I got to high school. I knew I wanted to play in college, so I decided to focus on that goal. My sophomore year, I started on varsity at the point. My senior year, we went 22-3 before losing to Kalamazoo Central in the quarterfinals of the class A state tournament. I was blessed to have a successful high school career. Spring Arbor University recruited me to play hoops and is where I ended up spending the next four years post-high school. It was a great choice as I was able to start at the point for SAU all four years. Academic-wise, I started my college career as a physical education major, thinking I could be a gym teacher and basketball coach at a high school. I ended my college career with a degree in English writing with a communications minor. Upon graduation from Spring Arbor, I received an offer to play basketball overseas in Australia, which is where I am currently, getting ready for the upcoming season.
You recently did some work with basketball performance coach, Jason Otter; what was that experience like?
My freshman year of high school I went to aJason Otter camp. It was the best thing that could have happened because it showed me how hard I had to work due to my disadvantage being smaller than most players. It also showed me the necessary time I had to put into the game. I worked hard in middle school, but having that camp just as I started high school was perfect, as I used it to take my game to the next level. I completed four camps with Jason Otter my freshman and sophomore year of high school, but then had to stop due to how expensive they were. Fast forward to my sophomore year of college...I was training someone who also went to the Otter camps. Long story short, I ended up being hired by Otter as he remembered me from camp and liked my passion. From then on out (sophomore, junior, senior year), I worked with Otter in the summer. It was a crazy lifestyle. The definition of "grind." We would finish at 10pm some nights, have to drive a few hours to another city, and then be up at 5:30am the next morning to put in another 12 hour day of camp. Was it worth it? Of course. I learned so much from Otter. He’s one of the smartest individuals with the game of basketball. It was beneficial for me to simply be able to pick his brain. Overall, I would say working with Jason Otter really helped shape who I am today.
(below is a video of Matt and Jason Otter demonstrating a ball handling drill)
Play pro ball as long as I can! It will be a challenge for me to receive many offers initially because I don’t have the typical basketball body, but I will work my tail off to continue to play as long as possible. When I complete my career, I want to get into college coaching. My dream would be to coach a high-profile division one basketball team, but I could also see myself working as a basketball performance coach. Maybe a combination of the two? In addition to my passion for the game of basketball, I also have a desire to work as a sport's writer of some sort. Maybe that could be my retirement gig...
Describe your game day routine as well as your mindset every time you stepped on the basketball court.
All business. I was very meticulous before each game in hopes it would carry over to the court. Once I stepped on the court, my mindset was to be the hardest working player on the floor. I would also try to get my teammates in the right mindset early in the game by getting them involved offensively or calming them down if nerves were a factor.
Prior to the game, I also had a routine. As my teammates can attest, I was extremely focused the entire day. It was difficult for me to pay attention in classes on game day as my mind would wander to the scouting report, who I would be guarding, etc. I'll admit, I did schedule everything on game days. I ate certain things at certain times. I needed a pregame nap. I watched film before every game. I had a time period to stretch in my apartment I had a time period to get hype to music and crank it in my apartment. I also had a time for no music (closer to game time). Having this routine really helped me get my mind right and focus before each and every game.
There aren't many guys under 6'0 that play collegiate basketball, let alone professional basketball. What is it about you that makes the statement of "being undersized" irrelevant?
When you think of great basketball players, you typically don’t think of little guys. I know this. I've experienced this. It's true though. Little guys can't do the things big guys can do, and this holds true for myself. For example, one of my weaknesses is that I’m not a great finisher. I sometimes struggle to score over big guys, which is why over the past two years I have added more floaters, hook shots, and "Rondo ball fakes" to my game. They have all made me a better finisher, but still I won’t be able to finish like the forwards in college hoops. BUT I can bring things to the table that size does not affect; hard work, leadership, coachable, intangibles, etc. When it comes to competing with guys that are bigger than me, I know I will make up ground in work ethic. Some guys may be more gifted than I am, but I will always work harder than they do. There is not height requirement to play the game, so you can do whatever you want if you recognize your limits. I believe a lot of players expect themselves to be able to do what other guys do. This is where people get in trouble. If you’re small, you must recognize it and adjust your game accordingly and find different methods for solving different solutions with what you’ve been given. Example: floater instead of dunk. When small guys do this, they are more prone to find success.
How do you define "success?"
This is a tough question. I would love to say something about work ethic here, but the reality is you can work extremely hard and still fail. I don’t have a good general answer (if there even is one), but for me personally I know what is successful. It’s when I see results. If I have an average or mediocre game, it was unsuccessful for me. I consider a double-double successful. But I also consider leading my team in other ways to be successful. I could have zero points and be successful in other areas such as being a good teammate, coach, or leader. So, I don’t really have a clear-cut answer. I think it depends on the situation. I think a person can sit back and have that “aha” moment and realize they just did something great. I think that’s success.
Favorite basketball teams, players, coaches?
My favorite teams are the Pistons (because I’m from Michigan), Lakers (because I love Kobe), and Michigan State (because it's in our family). In addition to Kobe, I love Steve Nash and Chris Paul. I think Paul is the best leader in the NBA. And I love to study Nash’s game. Coach Thibs from the Bulls –he’s not my favorite, but one I respect a lot. The way he has his guys play defense is what I like. They also play as a unit. Popovich is also right up there. My favorite, although I don’t think he’s the best, is Mark Jackson. I like his "chip on my shoulder" mentality.
What would your response be to someone that told you, "Matt, you're too small to play basketball."
I have a chip on my shoulder because of that line. I don’t pass the eye test, I know that. This is why every time I play with a different group of players who don’t know me, I have to re-prove myself. Every time someone tells me I'm too small, I remain quiet on the outside, but use those words as motivation on the inside to prove them wrong.
Point guards are considered leaders of their team. Talk about your role as a leader on your team.
I love being a leader. My coach would sometimes step out and let me run practice. He would let me run basketball workouts and lifting sessions if I wanted to. I struggled at first with the leadership role though. There were a couple games where our team was playing lousy and I didn’t say anything or do anything about it. My coach called me into his office the next day and asked me who I expected to do something about this the next time. He said “you are the guy, Matt. You need to take control and be the one to hold others accountable." That definitely woke me up and made me realize I had to step up and hold guys accountable. Typically, I was always the vocal one in practice and in games. My senior year, I stepped up and did a much better job of being consistently vocal . I didn’t just have to worry about myself, but about everyone. People who had issues with the coach or with playing time would always come to me. I had to work to communicate with guys to help them feel comfortable in a way that was best for our team. The hardest part for me when I was younger was getting over the notion of wanting to be liked by upperclassmen. I didn't realize it at the time, but I couldn’t worry about what people would think if I got in their face. Our coach stressed accountability and rightfully so. When I finally got permission to get in a teammates face to hold them accountable, it was something I had to adjust to. It was hard for me to yell at my best friends. That was the biggest adjustment. But I was the guy who did it and it was worth it. I was always the one talking before our coach came in the locker room at halftime. I had to be that vocal guy, that was my role.
What qualities must a successful leader have?
Not worry what others think.
Be a man of his/her word.
Earned the respect of others.
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the dog that counts.”
“Always do what you are afraid to do.”
Talk about your thoughts on "training" when it comes to basketball.
I don’t believe in taking a day off, but at the same time I think it's necessary. I think it is okay to take a day off from physical activity, but you should at least use that day for extra stretching, watching film, or mentally trying to better. I would usually workout for 90 minutes (I’d try to get a different teammate with me each time, but often went by myself) before every practice during the season. Then I’d stay an extra 30 following practice. If my body was pretty beat up and a game was coming up, I would shorten that time and occasionally cancel it all together. I dedicated my off-seasons to getting better; I might be in the gym anywhere from 4 to 8 hours a day. However, I’d take breaks in between my workouts for rest and food. I would get one workout in, then go home for a few hours, then go back and get another in. I believe there is a common misconception that if you are working out for two hours a day, then you are getting better. I think you can workout everyday and just be maintaining. I really try to focus on being better or running faster than I did the day before. Growing up (when I didn't have to go to work or school) I would lift and run for two hours, do ball handling and passing for two hours, shooting for two hours, and playing for two hours. I'm a big believer in good things happen to people that work hard!
What was a typical offseason (on-court) workout like for you?
These would last about 90 minutes. I start with full court dribbling and dribbling while skipping to warm up. Then usually do about 30 minutes of stationary ball handling drills, then 30 minutes of working on various things like finishes, or moves off triple threat, or moves off the dribble, or ball screen reads. I would finish with 30 minutes of shooting.
What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew in high school?
I wish I would have known the importance of bringing guys in the gym with me. It’s great to work on your own game, but to be a good leader you have to make others around you better, and it starts with helping them develop a foundation for working hard.
Do you think lifting weights is important to be a good basketball player? To get to the next level?
I think this completely depends on the player. For me, I lifted almost every single day in high school as I valued my lifting workouts as much as my basketball workouts. Playing against older individuals at such a young age, I had to get stronger or else I just wouldn't be able to compete. I remember vividly my coach in high school telling me I had to get stronger if I wanted to play varsity as a Freshman. I listened, lifted hard, and was able to play varsity as a sophomore in high school. Being strong has definitely helped my game. Lifting does come with a few disadvantages if you don't approach it in the right way. Guys should lift to enhance their game on the court, not to enhance their looks or performance in the weight room. I also think guys don't focus enough on mobility work. My hips and shoulder mobility was pretty bad in my younger years, probably as result of the type of lifting. Again, using total body movements that prepare you for performance on the court is the way to go. Basketball players definitely need to lift, but they don't need to be bodybuilders.
Talk about your nutrition during season. Pregame meals? Postgame recovery?
I always try to be healthy, but to be honest, while I was in college, I couldn’t really afford to eat healthy. I didn’t really know how to cook anything either, so I definitely missed my mom’s cooking. When I had a meal plan on campus, I would always eat healthy. Typically the salad bar everyday with lots of veggies (no dressing), with some meat for protein (while avoiding all fried foods). When I had my own apartment, my version of being healthy changed a bit due to food preparation. My "healthy" was just simply not eating junk food. I wouldn’t touch candy or cake or donuts. Now that I am on my own out in Australia and can afford to eat healthy, I take advantage. I eat a lot of veggies and fruit, whole grain cereal, and some sort of meat for protein. I’ve been mocked by teammates for obsessing about eating healthy, but since I’m smaller, I have to make up for it in other ways. My former boss Jason Otter always told me I can’t be like everybody else. I have to be different. And this includes diet. I’m at a disadvantage with height, so I can be at an advantage health wise. I make it a point to be in better shape than my opponents. It also gives me a mental edge that I can run all day on the court and know I won’t become tired.
What is one piece of advice you would give to a high school basketball player that has aspirations to play @ the next level?
1. Don’t let anyone outwork you.
2. Know your weaknesses and limitations. Know what you can and can’t do and adjust your game to that.
3. Don't let anyone tell you your dreams are unrealistic. Use the doubters as motivation to be that much more successful.