Dominate In Practice, But Freeze Up During Games? Read This

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Most of us are quite comfortable playing in practice, with friends or practicing on our own. It’s the games — under the lights, referees on the court, fans in the stands — that give us trouble.

Well, what is it that causes this, and how can we fix it?

For players having this problem, the source is nerves. Nerves are the messengers between our brains and bodies.  Nerves are the things that tell our brain that our hand is touching the hot stove, thus triggering our brains to send the message quickly back to move our hand from there. Some drugs decrease nerve activity, causing us to feel nothing (ie, “numb”).  The more nerve activity in our bodies, the more aware we are of our surroundings, and the more minutiae we pay attention to or focus on.

Basketball is a game of general & fine motor skills, coordination and reaction — not thinking. Thinking in basketball, or any type of performing art, is generally useless and unproductive.

Why is that? Because performing artists (dancers, drummers, football players, shooting guards) practice a lot more than they perform. In Montenegro we practiced 15 hours for every two hour game. Malcolm Gladwell made the 10,000 hour rule a measuring stick for greatness. Your team practices a lot compared to the time spent playing games, right? I’m sure you do.

What does practice have to do with it, you ask?

What all that practice means is this: You (and your body) already know what to do — you’ve spent hours practicing it. By the time the game comes along, the physical aspect of your performance is what it is gonna be. The pre-game layup line is not the time to add new skills.

What can be affected 15 minutes before tip-off, however, is your mental state. What you want to be is confident and focused. The moves, shots and dribbling are ready to go. They won’t get better now, but they can get worse.

When an Why Nerves Take Over

In practices with your team (or by yourself or playing with your friends or at the local pickup game

you’re known at), you are in familiar settings. You know most of the people and they know you. You know the facility. You’ve done well there before. You feel confident to do anything, try any move, trash talk a little bit, and just be relaxed in general. You’re at home. Even a bad game doesn’t seem so bad; you reputation there is stronger than one bad game. You’ll be star again next game, and everyone knows and expects it.

Have you ever been alone in an unfamiliar area, feeling very alert or a little nervous (or what we call “on-point”) for whatever reason? Wherever you are right now, imagine you were alone at night in the worst area of your city or town. You wouldn’t necessarily have to feel scared for your awareness and nerves to jump to attention, would you? You hear everything. You see anything that moves. In short, you are hyper-sensitive to everything around you because your basic human instincts know when an unfamiliar situation is occurring. It’s baked into our human DNA.

In basketball it’s the same way. For a nervous player that underperforms in games, as game time approaches and you think and contemplate more and more about the moment, your nerves start doing their job. Picking up on every surrounding. Noticing every face, word, and movement.


How your feet move for layups. Your hands when you dribble. How you’re doing that crossover. The turnover you just committed. The way the ball hits your hands and bounces out of bounds. Nerves have taken over your body and your mind, now you’ve crashed & burned under the lights. Again.

Instead, what we all need at game time is to turn off everything except the focus nerves. The fans don’t matter. Neither do the refs. The skills? They’ve been here, ready. You did all the practice hours. Don’t worry about the skills. They’re always ready. You don’t even need to tell then when or where the game is — wherever you go, the skills just seem to show up. Let your skills be.

Let’s look at a contemporary example of a player we all know: LeBron James. In games 4 and 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals (vs. Dallas) I remember seeing shots of LBJ on the Heat bench biting his nails. Nail biting is a hyper-sensitive action. In a setting like the NBA Finals, a super-focused player (I can’t help but to think of MJ) wouldn’t even notice if the numbers fell off his jersey. As great as LeBron is, his nerves were taking over, and it ended up costing him and his team.

Now fast forward to Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals on Boston (or game 4 vs. Chicago in 2010). The Celtics held a 3-2 lead and were looking to close the series at home. Flash to LBJ before and during that game. LeBron had a blank, cold look on his face. He wasn’t thinking about anything. He didn’t notice the refs. He couldn’t hear the Celtic fans. His teammates probably took one look at his expression and left him alone. The nerves were completely silenced. There was no nail-biting this night. And we all know what happened that game.

LeBron didn’t need to worry about how he’d get open vs. Paul Pierce. He didn’t need to think about if he could grab a rebound or make the correct pass or what his shooting form looked like. None of it mattered because he, the best player on the floor, was focused. And when skill meets focus, incredible things take place.

So. Here’s what you need to do before your next game or performance or tryout:

1. Find the one thing — a song, a phrase, a picture in your mind — to focus on that captures the way you want to remember your upcoming performance. Focus on it, over and over. Hold it in your mind. Don’t just think it — feel it.
2. Think about nothing else. You practiced already. Your body already knows what to do. Ask no questions of yourself. You’re ready.
3. Ignore everything around you not pertaining to the job you’re doing. Your friends, family and fans will understand and forgive you after the game. You have a job to do right now.
4. Share with me how great you performed and what you focused on to get into that state. And get ready — the tool from this game may not be what you need for the next game. Always be prepared.


  1. I watch KD highlights every game, I try to model my game like him and I finally became good but the problem is is that I average like 20 pts a game in practice but then I lost my shot and Im confused I know its there meaning the skill because I used to have like my highest scoring game I dropped 8 threes with 47 points but know I can’t shoot a three to save my life, its an airball every time, please help.

  2. Neither do I; you’re the one out there playing! What is your question

  3. I have have same problem. During practice and open gym I’m one of the best. But when game day comes around, I’m not as good! Eventually the coach takes me out after the 1st quarter and I go in for short amounts of time. I know I can do it, but for some reason I can’t during the game! Please help coach id appreciate it !

  4. I don’t know if you will reply on such an old post but I’m going to give it a shot anyways. I’m a sophomore girl and last year as a freshman I played JV but this year I am full time varsity. Yet, I have been in my own head and put the most pressure on myself since 5th grade. My defensive game is strong and that is my favorite aspect of the game I can get deflections and steals and blocks. But when it comes to offense the pressure gets to me. Last year, I was averaging about 10 PTS a game because only about 10 people show up to the JV girls game. This year I’m only averaging about 3 because the crowd is much bigger and I let my nerves get to me. Especially on my free throws. Last year I was 86% free throw shooter and this year I’m about 48% because I get so caught up in the pressure that I choke on the foul line. Also, I shot so well last year and years before then because I had a ritual down with muscle memory but I shot using the thumb of my guide hand to push it so this year I have been trying to stop using my thumb which I’ve done but I’m still trying to adjust to my new shot. If I make even one turnover I get so down on myself that I almost take myself out of the game because I feel like I’ve let everyone down. Any suggestions would be great!

  5. Hi, I’m a 15 year old freshman and I’m on a team with seniors for AAU. It’s good practice to play with older girls because I get the experience. But lately, I haven’t been playing much because he has seniors equally as good and he would rather play someone with “more experience on this team” than a new recruit. That is fine with me, but tournaments are long and we play sometimes 3 times a day. If I’m getting about 2 minutes a GAME now, I don’t think playing on this team would be worth it because I’m not getting experience. I joined to get playing time but now I’m not getting any time at all. I used to play about 25 minutes until all the older kids complained, and now I’m a nonexistent player. I understand that there is no I in team, and I’m not implying that I deserve anything. I am just frustrated I spend all my weekend at tournaments where I don’t even play. Let the record stand I’m in 3 AP classes as a freshman, and it’s very hard to balance the both of them and maintain an A in each class and play basketball. My question really is, should I stick to this team? Should I join another team? I like practice but I’m not given a chance to show off my stuff in the game. The coaches know I can shoot as they have told me multiple times “you have the best shot on this team” but I have asked why I’m not playing and their excuse is I’m a freshman. Any help is appreciated. Oh and I’m a girl so I play girls basketball AAU with the 12th grade club section.

    • If you don’t like the team situation, which you’ve stated, then find another one. Playing time is your goal and you’re not achieving it. So go somewhere will you will achieve that goal.

  6. So, I’m a decent player. Id consider myself good even, my aau coach said I could play college ball if I worked hard (which I do) but in game situations I freeze ! I’ve only had one game this season where I dominated and it happened to be the best team we played so far, at practice im always in rythym. We have a potential D1 player and sometimes I dominate him. But when it gets to the game everything changes. I’m not the same person and it pisses my coaches off. I’ve tried so many times to not think but it’s easier said than done. Do you have any advice on how to loosen up ?

  7. Hey Dre, I hope this helps me, I’m going to apply it to my next games. I am a kid who works on his game and plays basketball for 6 hours atleast everyday during the summer, n 4 hours during the school year depending on HW. Yesterday when I was practicing at a local gym I went 37 for my first 38 free throws, then in total 45-51. I hit 32 straight, no one in the gym. All my friends know I can shoot. We played today in a HS game and I went 1-7 from the ft, 1-6 from 3, 7-18 on the game. I traveled on a couple easy lay ups. I also worked out so hard the day before my legs weren’t under me. I go to a small school and we don’t have subs so I play the whole game as PG and we press full court. We aren’t making the playoffs so I don’t take it light days before the game. I am looking to make a push this offseason. Only thing is I keep playing nervous, my shot is flat and my chest tightens up, balls go in n out n my confidence shrinks. I am afriad also, at my school which is District B, I won’t get recognized. We play OK to poor competition, n as nervous as I play I average 15 ppg and 5 ast. 3.5 stls as a sophmore. I am afriad scouts will take this in consideration when I send out tape. N also I don’t think scouts will come to my games. Plus if i never stop playing nervous, I won’t be able to maximize my potential. I jus don’t know what to do, I’m the only one who takes basketball seriously at my school. Thanks for the tips tho!

    • You will be judged based on what people see ( game performance) and not what you say (4-6 hours/day). The amount of time youre practicing is a waste; use the programs at and get much more done in 1-2 hours/day. A layup is the most basic skill in the game. If you are really practcing that much you would be making layups -- the most basic skill in the game -- in your sleep. Dont blame your school for your lack of recognition — your lack of performance is 100% responsible for that. You lack confidence in games because you lack skills -- which means that 4-6 hours claim is either BS or you have no idea what youre doing, one or the other.

      • No, it was jus nervousness… Ik exactly what I’m doing now. Over this summer, I practiced hard but didn’t grasp the idea of how to practice. After many failures, n many bought dvds, n watching groups like 10000 hours, I’ve started to develop a system that I’ve seen huge improvement on. N yes I do practice 4-6 hours. Idc if you don’t believe me or not lol. The custodians at my gym, my training partners would disagree with you. I gained 11 inches on my vert., improved my shot, raised my shot release, developed enough handles to move to pg. I’ve only been playing basketball 2-3 years. I don’t mean wide open lay ups. I’m talking about contested lay ups, n I don’t mean traveling as in 3 steps, I mean moving my pivot foot before I dribble but after watching tape it was only a few. Im not sweating
        But my 3 pt is falling like it does. I play better competition at the local gym n I play WAY better. But it’s good that you doubt me, like everyone else ik. Don’t worry I’ll prove you wrong. Today in practice I used your methods of not thinking n I played great. It’s weird because this article that YOU wrote describes me perfectly but YOU don’t believe me. In the game i feel the stares, lil movements scare me. N my coach has seen me in practice n has confidence in my shot, I’m our technical free throw shooted, out of bounds play shooter, I play point guard n guard the pg full court press. I feel bad for writing this whole paragraph jus talking. After you reply, I’m going to delete both these paragraphs cause they’re all talk, n ima go show myself… its not about your approval not mine… again thanks for the tips, n thanks for not believing in me… its jus motivation

        • Ok, show me your playing video and I will admit if I am wrong. In my experience, a player with the skills you describe doesn’t tell me how they good they are, because it’s obvious in their performance. Custodians don’t gave scholarships or playing time — as a teen I spent hours at courts, but until my performance reflected it, it didn’t matter how long I was out there and no one was impressed by it. But if you can write that paragraph, you can paste a link, so let’s see it. Game or practice, whatever you have.

      • Got to vent a lil more cause it doesn’t happen always when someone you go to advice for bashes you. But I will delete this ALL when it’s read. I am over confident when I play in the local gym, the reason I’m not confident in the game is because I am afraid when it counts I won’t be able to perform. It’s kind of like Eminem in 8 mile, where he freezes up. But I think 15 5 n 3.5 are pretty good for a sophomore not content at all. Again I’m deleting all this talk once you see it, n you won’t see anything from me unless I blow. N I’m taking this ish very personal

        • This is not bashing — I don’t know you and have never seen you play. It’s not possible for me to have anything personal against you — I tell players what they need to hear (which upsets some of them) and not what they want to hear (the same bullshit they tell themselves that has them in the position that they’re seeking help for — sound familiar?) My response to you is based on my experience — which is why you came to me in the first place, right? The poor-me attitude is not empowering, but if it motivates you, I hope it helps. Leave your comments here, so in ten years you can remind me about it and I’ll admit I was wrong. Whenever you have the video to show me, I’ll be ready to watch.

            I don’t have video of a game on me but I can get one at our next game… Hes a video of me practicing by myself. I was practicing handle, footwork, having an active off hand, n being able to knock down the shot with contact. The other ball is a 4 pound medicine ball. Look I’m sorry, I’m actually glad you responded as you did, doing well in pick up means nothing, pick up isnt real basketball. I was jus really frustrated, I apologize, its hard putting in so much work n it not paying off, but Im sure with my new ways of practicing everything will go smoother, even after watching this article. Obviously I havent worked hard enough, its not like me to gloat about how “good I am”. Who am I, I havent done anything. All this is motivation for next offseason. Again I will delete all this “talk”, but thank you for telling me something I didnt wanna hear. You put me in check n reminded me of what I want to accomplish, idk want to be a great pick up player, but a great player. Thanks Coach!

            • n also please put your input on the drill, some improvements. Damn, I feel like such a bum for coming on here n jus telling you how good I am with no proof to back it up. Again coach thanks alot, I needed that to get back on track…

              • I wouldn’t analyze an IG vid — 15 seconds isn’t enough to judge anyone on. My website will be here forever — when you have film, let me know.

              • Thanks Coach, tape in 2 weeks or less, coming in. There was so many questions you answered n so much/confidence n motivation you gave me from being real with me…

              • Most likely if I get tape I will post it tomorrow for our last game. But 2 things, there’s no doubt in my mind I play nervous, my ft percentage decreases significantly, as well as my 3 point’ but #2 you’re right I’m not good enough yet. Even if I wasn’t nervous and playing to my max potential I’m not content with how good I am. I need to get better, my vert did increase 11 inches, from 17 to 28, n my ball handling did get alot better, I can hang with the best ballers at my gym, I’ve always been known to be a shooter, but clearly I don’t posses these skills consistently enough as I am not doing too hot with my expectations in our games. Many people have been saying I’ve been playing good, but with my expectations no n that’s what matters. I did go 37/38 from the ft line but I want that to be a consistent thing, not a celebration once in a while. The best thing I can do is listen to you and know my skills aren’t good enough n keep working, I thank you for that. I would like to keep in touch with this website and I WILL definitely get some tape up to catch your eye, whether this season or next. And good news for me, 2 kids are trying to recruit me at this bug HS near where I live. They saw me play at my gym great opportunity, but I have to get alot better to fulfill my dream of moving onto college. One huge improvement need to make is foot speed.

    • I’ll admit during my 4-6 hours a day with 8 hours some days, I didn’t practice to my best… I was confused… I did go from being horrible to a decent player, but from making mistakes practicing I’ve learned what works and what doesnt. This summer I’m going to put in my 4-6 WAY more efficiently and to my hardest, n I’m going to get a job and earn straight a’s so my parents as a prize and me myself can meet up with some trainers over mind during the summer to learn and evaluate and reevaluate every couple weeks…

  8. Hey Dre, thanks for the advice. I also dominate in practice and always shoot the ball well, but in the games I freeze and start air balling looks I usually knock down with ease. Any advice on how to stop this?
    Thanks man

  9. I’m really good when I’m at home or playing with close friends in familiar environments, but when I step out on to the court no matter how confident I feel I can’t score to save my life. I know it’s not about scoring, it’s about having fun and doing your best, but when I get the ball, the ability to blow by every defender and get the ball anywhere I want it to be just isn’t there. When I’m playing up the street at my local park I’m always one of the best players there, even with all of the older kids and adults that come and play. I dominate there, I dominate every one on one, and I know the skills are there, I just can’t seem to use them. I don’t know what to do, and since it isn’t basketball season for a while, I can’t use what I learned in this article. I need help.

    • Go find some games to play in!! What’s stopping you from doing that? You know what you need to do, now go do it.

  10. Just got back form a tournament, the two practices before, we scrimmaged and I dropped at least 20 each game. My first game after two weeks was today, I couldn’t catch the ball much less make shots. My coach is yelling to shoot the ball but I can’t, After he is all like you have to be the same player in practice at the games. in practice I am breaking people with multiple crossovers and moves, today, I just had one cross the whole game 0 points. I don’t know why I freeze like that. Help?please.

  11. I just tried out for my aau team with some of the best players in the state. At tryouts I dominated in the post, shooting, dribbling, you name it. But then I got an email saying I was cut. It frustrates me because my coach was happy with me and excited to see me at tryouts but I got my spot taken by some big name no shows. I plan on beating them in the state playoffs, but any idea why my coach would cut me?

  12. Okay, I’ve got a huge problem. I’ve taken all of the advice and it helped. But when I’m at my local y I’ve beaten starting varsity players, and in games I struggle to score 10 on the freshman team. I often carelessly bounce the ball off my foot, or I don’t fully extend on layups, or I pick up a help defender and practically give them the ball. Whenever I give more effort I mess up even more and when I give less my coach takes me out. I want to work in dunking to my game this summer but I can’t if I can’t get to the basket in games. I guess what I’m asking is is it better to play every game like a pickup game? Or will this hurt me when teams start playing differently?

    • You’ll just have to play and learn what works for you. There is no one way to play and situations are fluid -- you will make adjustments on the fly every game. Keep playing and gain experience which is what you need most.

  13. I probably should pay you tithes for all the mentoring that I get from your page. If I feel something is wrong with my game, I ususally come to your page and you have already addressed it. You don’t know me but I feel like we put in work together. #thanks #yoda lol

  14. Hey Dre,
    I got a problemI pay on 2 teams. Them both I have more games then practices. One team I have 2 games/week each about 1.5 hours, and we have one practice a week consisting of 1.5 hours. My other team has one practice for 2 hours(not all time productively) and at least one game a week for an hour.
    Sadly the practice with the 2nd team coincides with the games of the other team. Help?

      • For help I mean how can I practice ? I have snow on the ground for months, no outdoor court until may at the earliest, how can I work and improve my game if I am stuck inside the house (the roads are horrid, not fit for driving ). I do weights, and I’m the point guard, and I need to step up to the plate for my school team.

        • You’ll figure it out. You don’t need me to think for you. If you want to play/practice bball you will use your brain and find a way.

  15. I know that I am late to this thread. But after practicing nonstop for the past two years, I played my first official regulation game. I played the entire 40 minutes and everything. I wasn’t nervous, but I just couldn’t perform well. I went 0-1 from the field, missed my only free throw, and committed a lot of turnovers. All in all, a bad performance. Just want to say, that I am going to try to use some the tips and what not to perform well. Thanks Dre, and thanks for the 3,000 + videos/tips. Keep at it.

      • Just to follow up on my last post. I had another game tonight. I started. I ended up scoring my first points of the season in an three. I then was dishing it out and little. I managed to get in the an area of my mind were I was in control. I then just felt an instinct to pull up. I was at NBA range. Don’t know why I did it, but I did. Ended up getting bailed out with the lucky bank shot. Just want to say I did much better following your tips. Ended up with 6 pts. and around 5 assists. Also was an monster in the defensive side. No one scored on me, I was getting steals and even after few blocks. Just thought I would let you know. Thanks for taking your time and reading this.

  16. I’m not the most skilled player in my team, but I can do some stuff on the court. the problem is that I can’t play with people that don’t trust me. This is because I didn’t show good game as freshman, now i’m sophomore and I still struggling. They just don’t pass me the ball, or pass it too late because they are unsure in me and my ability to finish a play. But I CAN. I proved it to myself many times. My stats when I play with my best friend are way better. But when I play with college team I play just a good D, In offence my part is to set screens.

  17. Played my first game todady but was really nervous on the court i am 12 but i am playing with 14 and 15 year olds and they made me nervous. Do you have any special tactics you use to make yourself un-nervous

  18. Hey Dre ive been watching your vids on youtube for a very long time, and I love them! But I was going to say im 13 and my main skill is to knock down threes, in practice I have like made 15 in a row, but in the real game I just completly mess up and just totally brick it, I will defientley try this method next game, please it would help if you gave some tips. THANK YOU!

  19. Shitting myself right now, iv got a game against the best division 1 team in Scotland. We have only played 3 games so far, lost all 3 🙁 and i only scored 15, 6, and 8 in they games. Pressure is all on me tonight since our star player is injured. Really hope these tips help man, ill come back and tell you how it went. But your really right about how you can feel EVERYTHING when your nerves are acting up pain in the freakin ass.

      • Hi again Dre, I picked the song “niggas in paris” and played it the whole day before the game, so much that i actually know every word to it lol. Anyway during the game i kept rapping it and the beat of the song was stuck in my head. It felt great, and i actually had a lot of fun during the game which i normally don’t. Anyway long story short we lost the game haha, but i managed to drop 25 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists and only 1 turnover, which is pretty amazing for me i think. Anyway its just to let you know that the tips in the article really work so thanks very much man. Good luck with your career also mate, been following you since 2009 and its great to see you getting on well./

  20. kyrie irving dribbling drill with plastic bag what do you thick about that drill?

  21. I’m glad I stumbled upon this. I worked really hard this off season on my post moves and have really refined my post game. I play extremely well in practice and when we have intra-squad scrimmage. I am a confident rebounder and a good defender. Our coach expects me to get 17 and 10 at least every game. And I know I am capable of this. But so far I had one bad game after another. I was hesitant with my shot selection, wasn’t aggressive and averaged 4 points over the past 3 games. That’s until I read this. We had our 4th game this afternoon. For the first time ever I just went into the game to have fun, enjoy myself and play basketball. I know what I can do on the court. I just had to trust myself and the hours I put in the gym. And you know what Dre? It paid off. Your advice helped me get 22 points and 9 rebounds which is my best performance so far. And it wasn’t the victory that put a smile on my face, it was the fact that I actually enjoyed myself for once out there. Thanks for the advice man. You’re the best.

    All the way from Dublin, Republic of Ireland

  22. Thanks dre. My hands didn’t get sweaty or anything. I tuned everything out and showed the coach that cut me this year I can play in aau. He was the other coach and I had 24 points and broke his sons ankles! Thanks man

  23. Thanks Man ive been reading this for 5 mintues and it helped because last night i had 29 points 7 assists and 5 rebound ur the man DRE ALL DAY

  24. Lol bro, That shit really work. I dropped 12 points last night and wasn’t nervous at all, I had some dumb passes that led to turnovers but overall i was cool, it was a lot of people in the crowd and i didn’t notice that until the beginning and end of the game, i believe i was really in the zone and i wasn’t even playing my game, if i play my game boy i’m dropping 20 or 30 a night you hear me! lol but it’s crazy cuz the stuff u be saying is so true. Good stuff… keep em coming!

  25. Dre,thanks for this. I didnt make tryouts this year my sophmore year and was crushed. But talked to one of the coaches this year to see if theres anything I can do and i have another chance next saturday, but I get extremely nervous and i think this is really going to help.
    Ill keep you posted on what happens, btw: do you think its too late to make it to the pros?

  26. Sup! When first I tried this out the result was a complete disaster. The only good thing I did was a made 3 pointer. Then after a week I tried doing it in an other way. I completely closed out everything from my mind. I didn’t even realised I didn’t have my headband on untill the game was over.I focused on nothing but keeping my and my teammates good mood and confidence through the whole game. It is safe to say that I had one of my best performance on that day.I managed to make a “Dr. J like” reverse layup. Maaan that was something!:D

    You’re the one to thank for this, Dre. Thanks bro!

  27. I did it in open gym.. I did pretty good from all the other open gyms I had.. I was more aggressive, stronger with the ball, and more comfortable.. I had like 3 on-ball steals, and like 8 or 9 points, and 3 or 4 assists although it wasn’t a real game.. I was just keeping count.. I wanna try it in a REAL game.. good advice tho

      • Awesome article! I’ve been struggling this season with my shot. Mostly because I’ve been doing a lot more form drills and now am focusing on my form in games. I use to have worse form (it wasn’t terrible, but my arm chicken winged a bit). However, with my worse form, I made more shots, because that was my natural shot that I practiced over and over. I’ve been working on relaxing my mind in practice and playing at game speed.

        This article couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ll let you know how my next game goes.


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