Basketball mindfulness was a game changer for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, and it can be for your game as well. In 1993, after winning three consecutive championships with the Chicago Bulls, legendary head coach Phil Jackson brought in stress expert George Mumford to help the team deal with the pressures of success and the toll that stress can play on an athlete’s mental and physical health.
As George shared with the New York Times mindfulness provides: “This ability to step back and observe your experience in an uncritical way. You can actually understand how your mind works, how your body works, how the universe works, how basketball works.”
By establishing mindfulness, hoopers can better get in the zone while performing – a state of being “completely focused, while slightly not caring” as Olympic snowboarder Shaun White put it. So today, we’re sharing a few key insights from George’s book The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance” to help you push out of your comfort zone and into the zone.
Here are 15 tools and techniques to help you “learn to be” and elevate your game.
Awareness of breathing is one of the most fundamental techniques for moving into mindfulness. Imagine that the space between your inhale and exhale is that centered place in yourself in which you’re able to find space between stimulus and response, the calm eye in the center of the hurricane, that place where your Watcher watches and observes itself, rather than reacts. The more deeply you focus on your breathing, the most anchored you are to that space. You can be anywhere, with any kind of stress or chaos, and your breath will always be there like the tides, moving in and out connecting your mind to your body and vice versa.
Here’s why it works: When you’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones – which, when they build up, weaken your immune system, and ability to think and respond. As a counterbalance, there’s the parasympathetic nervous system that slows us down by lowering our blood pressure and heart rate, and it releases a neurochemical that supports the process of relaxation. One of the most powerful ways to activate our parasympathetic system is through our breathing. Because our breath holds sway over our minds.
The easiest way to focus on awareness of the breath is to sit comfortably on a cushion with your eyes closed and begin to focus on your in-breath and your out-breath. You can also try bringing your attention to your breath while walking through an internal body scan (feel the top of your head, the tips of your ears, and breath into those part of your body, and so on). A stress-reducing marine breathing technique you can try is:
Experience happiness in the present moment, rather than focusing on the future or obsessing over – and blaming – the past.
“You have to be in the moment. You can’t worry about what just happened, the basket you missed, the foul you made two minutes ago, because it’s over. You can’t worry about what’s gonna happen the next time down the floor. You have to be right there in the moment. It’s most important especially in the playoffs because that’s the time of year when you have to live for the moment. It doesn’t matter what’s gonna happen in Game 3 when you have to play Game 1. You have to be here right now to play basketball when it’s happening.” said the Chicago Bulls’ Bill Wennington.
For example, think about a juggler. Their focus is touch and go. They have to focus in order to be able to catch the next ball, keeping his mind on that spot. While the next ball is coming towards him, he can’t think about the last one. If he gets distracted by a noise, he’ll fail. The meditator, too, has to keep their attention in the present moment or they’ll become distracted from the meditation object.
Outcome expectation is focusing on what you expect an outcome to be: either positive or negative. If we believe things will work out, we go into a competition with a positive attitude and confidence. If we expect things to be difficult, our attitude takes cues and our actions follow suit, often creating the outcome we expect.
For example, if you think things will go well, you’ll approach a free throw with confidence and be more fluid in adjusting your throw to achieve your goal.
There’s another key principle that comes into play here: the ability to visualize, through concentration in the context of outcome expectation, what you want to experience. The brain doesn’t know the difference between what we think and what we experience. For example, imagine there’s a teacher standing in front of a blackboard, and they make their hand into a claw and draw it down the blackboard to make that terrible screeching sound. Are you reacting right now as if that really did happen? While there is no blackboard, there is our imagination – and that in and of itself is huge.
This process is called “kinesthetic imagery” which means experiencing things in our body through the mind and thereby “mentally rehearsing” something. For basketball, you can mentally rehearse any goal you have in mind. Using positive outcome expectation as the frame, you rewire your brain to reflect that activity as if you were really doing it. They key is, you must have concentration and focus in order to do that.
This process is more powerful than it might seem. When you get very still and focused on the present moment, and you recreate in your mind an experience that you want to recreate outside yourself, you’re doing two things: you’re mentally rehearsing those things, and you’re also learning these things in your body.
Implicit learning happens when we learn something without consciously or explicitly being aware of it. For example, think about when you learned how to ride a bike. If you thought about anything other than pushing that pedal and holding those handlebars, you’re going to fall right off. What’s wild is once you learn how to ride a bike you don’t forget it – even though you can’t really explain the process you went through to learn. Basically you learned how to do it through your adaptive unconscious.
The key for the mindful hooper is to pre-program the mind-body connection with a regular practice of coming back again and again to the breath so that the body does its thing without the mind getting in the way.
The number one reason elite performers succeed, skill and resources being equal, is their desire and the intention to succeed. Intention is what motivates players to do what they have to do, even if it means pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. Intention is purely mental. When you marry intention with positive mind-states through outcome expectation, visualization, and practice you’re able to achieve great things on and off the court. Often these things come incrementally. Taking small steps, consistently, in the right direction will eventually yield big results.
Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, has a few simple strategies for building better habits. He advises:
Deep listening is the practice of stopping and listening without judgement or advice, to know what your body is saying. This practice is all about bringing in the quality of investigation to see what is true and what’s going on. With deep listening, you have an opportunity to honestly evaluate yourself. “Am I deluded or is this really happening?” After you’ve listened, you may then want to ask someone else such as a coach or teammate in case you have blind spots. When we listen deeply we can observe a habit without being identified with it, and without pushing it away or pulling it in. We can ask, “What would happen if this is true?”
This type of practice is done consciously and intentionally. The first step is to focus on one specific thing you want to improve in your game. The second step is to practice it with intention and concentration, mentally visualizing while you practice and thus experiencing the move in your body. Because the brain doesn’t know the difference between thoughts and experience, when you do this, you are sending messages to your body about the specific outcome you want to experience – and in a certain way, you are experiencing that outcome.
The four key elements of deliberate practice are: motivation, knowledge, immediate informative feedback of your performance, and repetition. It’s your mindset and internal perception of self that galvanizes your practice and determines how well you perform. Of course, we’ve all heard by now it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master anything. When learning we go over and over the same terrain, each time picking up more intelligence and information, even if we’re unaware of it.
We need to incrementally move out of comfort zones to keep getting better. It’s helpful to have a coach or somebody who know show to get you outside your comfort zone so you are always pushing the envelope and evolving. You’ve got to learn to take risks and stretch yourself, so you can attain new skills and more readily access flow even under the most trying circumstances. In short: get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Consistently push yourself just enough to achieve incremental change, but not so much that you overexert or injure yourself.
Change involves risk and getting comfortable with the unknown – which can be scary. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the heroine asks, “What are we going to do now?” and Indiana Jones replies, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as we go along.” Life is a lot like that. We don’t really know what will happen from one moment to the next. So keeping in mind that the unknown path is the path where we will grow and learn the most is helpful. The central question is how do we relate to discomfort, not how we avoid uncertainty and fear.
As one hooper example, Sami Whitcomb and Alysha Clark discuss how embracing discomfort led to their prior free agency decisions to leave the Seattle Storm in Sami’s podcast.
It starts with improving your concentration. When you quiet the mind and give it one thing to focus on, you quiet your body. When you quiet your body, you quiet your mind. When both are quiet, there is synergy that leads to great performance. Here’s how to give it a try: Practice concentrating on: 1. one thought in your mind; or 2. Things you are doing (ex. walking); or 3. Outcome you wish to achieve that day. Just one minute is plenty to start. If you can do that without your mind wandering, try two minutes, and then three.
“I’m constantly amazed at the number of athletes I work with who are exceptionally skilled and highly talented, but who don’t play that way because they don’t see themselves that way. They don’t have a clear sense of purpose or understand that how they see themselves creates their reality.” said NBA mental performance coach George Mumford. If you tell yourself that you’re not good compared to others, or if you attribute your good fortune to luck alone, your self-concept probably needs reexamining. In short, you’ll see it when you believe it.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts; your thoughts become your words; your words become your actions; your actions become your habits; your habits become your values; and your values become your destiny.”
In a high-stress athletic event, the ability to react to another player’s action without emotional triggers is often the difference between a wise decision and one that loses the game.
One day a man spoke to his grandson about a battle going on between two wolves. One wolf is evil. It represents anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false price, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thinks a while about the warring wolves and then asks his grandfather, “So which wold will win?” The grandfather replies, “The wolf that wins is the one that you feed.”
Humans seem almost hard-wired to feed the wrong emotional wolf without realizing it, and as a result those traits grow strong. All athletes have hindrances. Unless you practice mindfulness, you’ll be unaware of how dangerously your wolves are growing inside you.
For example, some athletes encounter the yips, which might stem from bottled up emotions and misplaced focus. If athletes focus is misplaced, such as on the results, on what people are thinking, it gets them away from the fluidity of the process of the game. As a result, it snowballs, and they start to judge themselves, tensing up.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Will Dyer once said. Comparing ourselves to others can be a good way, at first, to get motivated. But it’s not really challenging us to push ourselves according to our own standards, based on our own volition. As long as you’re comparing yourself to others, you’re not truly challenging your limits. It’s best to make your comfort zone the horizon. Tell yourself that no matter what happens, you will take everything as a challenge, not a curse. You’ll rise to the occasion and say, “Okay, the going is tough but this is going to be great!”
Transform frustration into the joy and satisfaction of discovering how things work by converting small daily tasks into teachable moments. Always ask with an open heart, “Well, what’s this?”
Or “Okay so this is happening instead of that, Wow, well I need to change course and find a new path out of this situation.”
This is all about getting in touch with your emotional blueprint. Get in touch with your hindrances. Practice abandoning these thoughts and belief systems. To do this, ask yourself at least one challenging question each day. And as you do so, don’t just answer with your mind. Listen to your body too, and it will answer you. Some examples include:
Practicing right effort is directing your energy and effort in alignment with wholesome thoughts and feelings (lovingkindness, compassion, generosity, joy, gratitude, and openness). Joy is in the doing of the task and the journey itself, however long or difficult. And right effort should be practiced in all aspects of your life – not just on the court. Every aspect of our lives is connected to every other aspect of our lives.
Can you bring into your life, both on and off the court, the love of the game, the love of being present, the love of being all that you can be, the love of being of service, the love of taking your humanity to another level?
Through the practice of mindfulness, learning to know and trust yourself well enough to tap into a greater energy around yourself, you become one with any situation. If you’re driving your car and it starts to skid, you’re supposed to go with the flow and drive in the direction of the skid, not against it.
Same thing in life. To gain control, widen your peripheral field of vision and have more information available to you about where to move your body versus narrowing your field of vision and limiting the scope of your performance as a result. For example, in basketball don’t get stuck on the defense in front of you – open your eyes to the entire court.
If you’d like to dive in deeper, definitely get the book. As a bonus, if you purchase from Amazon, they’ll send us a little tip to help support our pro women’s hoops reporting – and it doesn’t cost you any more than it always would.
Up next, check out basketball shooting drills and basketball guard drills to keep improving your game.