Your Basketball Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 12: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat stands on the court with his head down against the Dallas Mavericks in the second half of Game Six of the 2011 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 12, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Dan Grunfeld uses his first-hand experience to discuss the importance of the mental side of basketball. He also drops some pretty nifty anecdotes in the process.

I recently read a book about the psychedelic drug movement in America during the 1960s. Though it made me feel like I should be wearing Birkenstocks and not showering regularly, it turned out to be an awesome read. Aside from just being a damn interesting book, The Harvard Psychedelic Experiment was also relatable to my job as a professional basketball player, and mind you, I've never done any type of drug in my entire life, nor do I even drink alcohol. In my world, the only time acid is dropped is when I spill fresh OJ on the floor, and the only mushrooms I ever consume are of the Portobello variety. Okay, I'm guilty: shitake, too.

The real reason I was drawn to this book from the start is because it explores the workings and possibilities of the human mind, an important topic for any athlete, and one that I am very interested in. While this book discusses the mind through the lens of psychedelic drugs -- something I definitely don't get down with and am definitely not advocating -- the idea behind it is nonetheless fascinating: that the human brain has no boundaries, only possibilities (theme song for the previous concept: "I Believe I Can Fly," R. Kelly). I do not believe in using drugs (have I mentioned that?), but I do believe that, as an athlete, it's valuable to learn about the brain in an attempt to discover how its full potential can be (legally) unleashed. Everyone knows how important the mental side of sports is, but I think Yankee legend Yogi Berra described it better than anybody, albeit without a great sense of mathematical accuracy: "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical." 

Let's give Ol' Yogi a pass on the math, because from my experiences playing basketball at every level, his sentiment is at least 90 percent true, and not just 50 percent of the time. Like baseball, the mental component of the game of basketball is undeniable, not only during competition, but also before and after. Hoops is such a complex game filled with disappointments, triumphs, injuries, adversity, confidence, despondence, friends, enemies, frenemies, screaming maniacs in the stands cursing and throwing pennies at you (I play overseas), and so many other fluid factors that it's impossible to name them all and a challenge to tame them all. (I really should have been a rapper.)

No matter what kind of tumult arises -- and believe me, tumult always arises -- players are expected to perform at their highest level. For this, physical preparation can only take you so far. Mental preparation is also essential. Though players usually discover a process that works for them over time and through experience, I think it's important to put a concerted effort into cultivating the mental side of the game. As basketball players, we have always been encouraged to run sprints, lift weights, get shots up, and do so many other things that will make us more successful on the court. To me, focusing on the mind -- and exercising it like any other body part -- is also an important aspect of growing as a player, and I think the dividends gained from it can be quite substantial.

Players experience and react to the mental challenges of the game in a whole slew of different ways (for those of you who've never seen a 7-footer curse out a coach, I thoroughly recommend it). Some guys might be more sensitive than others, some guys might have shorter tempers than others, and some guys might just be able to deal with all the stuff that is thrown at them naturally and without issues. For me, it has taken work to hone in on an effective mental approach, because even with great advice from family and mentors, I haven't always found it easy to deal with some of the typical basketball BS that I've encountered, especially when I was younger.

Back then, my instinct was to try to analyze and understand the difficult circumstances -- disapproving coaches, injuries, loss of confidence -- that all players inevitably face. During these times, I was more likely to replay poor decisions and churn over coaches' comments like an Amish dude in a butter mill. Even while playing, my wheels would sometimes be spinning, examining a situation, remembering a past mistake, or envisioning God-only-knows-what-kind of future problem. This could not have been more counter-productive to my success as a player. As my dad says, it was "paralysis by analysis." Most of the time, I felt great and played well, but when these situations caused me to start overanalyzing, the natural and effortless joy of the game was unceremoniously sucked out and my performance definitely suffered. Tough times made me vulnerable to the rumblings of my own mind, and I didn't like it. 

For me, it wasn't until a few years into my pro career that I found a method that really helped stabilize my game. At the time, I was having trouble concentrating on the floor, and my mom suggested a few books about the practice of mindfulness that she thought might strike a chord with me. I was skeptical, but I was also kind of desperate, because I was really feeling like crap. I needed to get my groove back, and I even thought about calling Stella, but instead, I just listened to my mom and read the books. 

It turned out this new way of thinking was exactly what I needed. After reading these books, I finally realized that focusing on the past and obsessing about the future were wastes of my physical and mental energy. I learned that the real trick is to pay attention only to the present moment, to the here and now, without judging or evaluating it. I discovered how much more productive it is to accept the circumstances you face and work with them instead of fighting against them. And I tried out techniques like meditation, breathing exercises and visualization to help me learn how to quiet my mind.

I am aware that this sounds like a very let's-sing-kumbaya-and-strum-banjos-around-a-campfire-while-we-make-s'mores-and-hug-it-out way to approach basketball, but it's been pretty helpful for me. Right away -- and I mean almost instantly -- I could see an improvement in my game. My skills and abilities hadn't changed, of course, but I was definitely able to access them with more ease and enjoyment. After weeks of being sluggish and unenthusiastic, I became energized and focused. No lie. It happened that quickly, and I've kept up a better sense of awareness ever since  I've also been a happier person off the court, which I guess is kind of important, too. Needless to say, there are still challenges that come with the game of basketball, but analyzing less and putting in some mental exercise along with the physical have given me more stability as a person and player. 

I take this approach because it's something I'm comfortable with, but it also happens to be supported by a good friend I like to call Science. In a great article on the youth basketball website iHoops.com, Tony Fryer talks about the mental importance involved in free throw shooting, backing up his points with stats from the magazine Scientific American Mind. Basically, he describes a major difference in the brain activity observed when more and less experienced players shoot free-throws. A player just learning to shoot free throws shows more activity in the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain which "controls higher-order, conscious thought," while experienced, capable shooters show more action in the cerebellum, which "orchestrates the lightning-fast motor activation needed to perform complex actions." So, as you get better and more comfortable with the routine action of shooting a free throw, you use a totally different part of your brain, one that is activated naturally and without conscious effort. Accordingly, Fryer's advice to any experienced player shooting an important free throw is not to think about it, but to instead quiet your mind, step up to the line and let your cerebellum do the work for you. It's a pretty cool concept, one that fits well with another of my dad's classic quotes about the game: "if you're thinkin', you're stinkin'." Indeed.

I've gotten personal serenity and professional results from attempting the "turn off the mind" approach, but it's not the only one. Far, far from it. There are all sorts of interesting -- and even crazy -- techniques for harnessing the mental side of the game, and every player has to find his or her own method. Growing up, my dad used to tell me about the intense mental preparation of Bernard King, his legendary teammate at the University of Tennessee and later on the New York Knicks. During his day, "B" was one of the best and baddest in the business, and NBA buffs still talk about his diamond-cutting stare and insanely hardcore game face. What most people didn't see was that before each game, according to my pops, B would sit at his locker and stare at the floor with trancelike focus, his eyes narrowing until sweat sometimes dripped from his face. His concentration would become so singular that it would seem like he was in another world, his body and mind completely ready for the task at hand. This was how he prepared himself for battle, and my dad still says that he's never seen anyone bring such consistent effort on a day-to-day basis. Bernard paid attention to the mental part of the game, and aside from his immense basketball talent and physical gifts, it seemed to be a factor in his dominance. 

That was Bernard's mental approach, but like I said, there are many other techniques that players implore to get their minds right-before, during, and after the game. Michael Jordan used to gain extra motivation by convincing himself that his opponents had somehow insulted or disrespected him when they hadn't. Some guys focus by humming tunes on the court. Some guys relax by playing on their iPhones before the game. I heard that Chris Bosh likes to prepare by reading a book. I think all of these things are awesome, and they've obviously helped these players maintain a productive mindset on the floor. There are clearly many ways to make the mental side of the game a priority, and I would encourage all young and developing players to focus on this stuff because it's too important to ignore. When adversity arises, like it always does, every player has to be ready, in whatever way works best for him or her, and that takes some practice. For me, I like to try to quiet my mind and let my instincts take over. Or my cerebellum, if you will. Whatever the approach, there will always be mental challenges to overcome if you're a ballplayer. With all the physical work needed to get to a high level, I've found it's worth it to pay a little attention to the mental side, too.

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