Mental training has gained considerable traction in basketball over the past several years. A decent number of NBA organizations now employ sport psychology consultants/mental coaches or team psychologists. However, despite the positive trend, many players—as well as coaches and executives—at all levels of the game continue to hold inaccurate beliefs about what mental training is, how it works and who can benefit from it.
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In most cases, players are under the assumption that mental work is only for struggling players—those who brick free throws in crunch time, struggle to play through performance slumps or can't handle off-court pressures and distractions. Let's be clear: Mental training can absolutely be a difference-maker and, arguably, is a necessity for players who fall into those categories. After all, mental struggles and setbacks are inevitable, even for the Steph Currys of the world. However, mental performance is about so much more than that!
Those who really get it know that mental training can be a difference maker for anyone, including the most dominant players in the world, by raising their hypothetical performance ceiling. Seriously, which player wouldn't benefit from a little extra focus, improved communication skills or stress management tools?
For optimal results and lasting benefits, mental training requires a long-term systematic approach, much like on-court skills training. However, with the clock ticking down toward the 2016 NBA Draft, players currently working out for NBA teams should be following these simple mental game recommendations to make the most of their opportunities and leave a positive impression. Even if their name isn't called, these players may still be able to secure a Summer League roster spot with a team through a strong mental approach.
- Outline a mental game plan on a note card that you can keep in your pocket and review before workouts and interviews. Stick with simple reminders that will allow you to be your best on and off the court. Review your game plan afterwards to evaluate how well you executed it.
- Amid all the distractions, choose wisely what you focus your attention on. Attentional capacity is limited! Shift your eyes to the things that matter—e.g., the rim or the defense instead of people in the stands, executives and coaches on the sideline or banners on the wall—during workouts to maintain optimal focus.
- Manage your controllables (effort, communication, energy, etc.) and check yourself multiple times throughout a workout.
- Write focus cues on your hands or shoes as visual reminders of the most important factors on which to concentrate (e.g., write "courage" or a less-obvious capital-C if you have a tendency to get too passive when going up against tough new competition).
- Make eye contact, speak loudly and be transparent when interviewing with teams. Organizations are not looking for perfect players and people. They do, however, look for honesty and self-awareness in determining your character and fit.
A few years ago I assisted the Milwaukee Bucks organization during the NBA Pre-Draft process and interviewed several NBA Draft hopefuls for GM John Hammond and his staff. While players are typically trained by their agents to provide specific answers and, thus, tend to blend in with the rest—after all, their on-court performance, potential and history combined with a team's needs ultimately determine their draft status—some players clearly stand out either negatively or positively through their interpersonal skills, non-verbal behavior and actions during the Pre-Draft process.
That summer at the Cousins Center in Milwaukee, one player in particular caught my attention in the way he talked about the mental game. He told me how he had been working with a mental coach back home in Europe for a number of years—not because he was struggling—hell, the guy had positioned himself to make an NBA roster despite rather limited athletic ability—but because he saw his mental coach as in integral part of the peak performance team he had surrounded himself with to maximize his abilities.
At Courtex Performance LLC, we compare mental training to physical training to help potential clients understand how they can benefit. On the physical side, players typically go to the athletic training room when they are struggling with physical ailments and injuries (or at least when they're trying to avoid injury). Conversely, when players are looking to build on their current physical performance standard, they hit the weight room to work on their strength and conditioning (S&C).
In the mental realm, I like to think of myself as an athletic trainer and S&C coach. As you can see in our Mental Game Spectrum infographic (below), our services are for everyone—from players who are struggling mightily (-5) to those who are killing it and thriving mentally (+5), and anyone in between. Remember that even at the height of his career, Kobe Bryant was still cold-calling and watching opponents to "steal" from them and add a few pounds of "mental muscle."
Through feedback from others and self-assessment, players who have entered this year's NBA Draft should determine where they stand on the mental game scale. Those who are in the "red" in one or more mental categories (e.g., they struggle to control their nerves in Pre-Draft workouts) definitely need to look at simple ways to get themselves at least back into the yellow (0) and perform at their typical performance standard. Others who are confident in their current mental game and performing well in workouts should keep developing their mental skill set and employ additional mental game tools to impress teams (e.g. by elevating their communication and leadership skills).
After all, even a one percent increase in mental ability could mean a difference between being a first-round pick or a second-round pick, landing with an established organization or an unstable organization, becoming a multimillionaire with true career prospects or a "journeyman" trying to get by. At the end of the day, the most productive players are the most prepared players!
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