I had an old coach and friend ask me the other day to come to his practice and speak to his team. I wanted to make sure to communicate the lessons I learned that helped me along when I was playing. I mulled over what exactly I felt was most important for a freshman in college to hear—what do I know now that I wish I would’ve known then?
It’s a lot of pressure. I felt like I could go on for hours about what I wish I would have known earlier But I tried to keep it to a few main points.
Then, I got to thinking...we probably have some readers who are aspiring hoopers (or know someone who is). Maybe they’re interested in learning some things that helped me have a career.
The first thing I would tell young athletes is that the only shortcut to becoming a better player is to learn from others.
There just aren’t many shortcuts to getting better, and it’s true in most facets of life. But training smarter instead of harder is the closest you’ll find.
Overall, the talent level of athletes across the globe gets better every year. This is not an accident. There is a lot to the game that has already been figured out by players and coaches before you. If you learn from them, you skip the steps of having to discover those same lessons through your own trials and tribulations. That time can be used to perfect strategies and skills instead of trying to figure them out on your own.
I used to record Rockets games back in the early ‘90s and tried to emulate Hakeem’s spin move without traveling. I would be bouncing imaginary basketballs in the living room and practicing not only the footwork on it, but how far to extend my dribble, how to gain leverage with my lead shoulder, and how to use my elbow to stick defenders without holding them. Between the videos and the guidance I received from people along the way, my spin move became the pillar of my post game well into my professional years. Had I tried to figure out a good baseline spin on my own, it would have taken twice the work with half the success.
Whether it comes from players, coaches, or access to watching high-level basketball, the resources to more efficient training are available if you look.
The second thing I would tell players is to engage in the mental part of the game.
There are so many parts to the mental game, I couldn't possibly cover them all. But sports psychology is playing an increasing role every year in the growth of athletes. Everyone is different, but every athlete has aspects about their mental game they can improve on.
For me, visualization was extremely important. I would lay in bed for an hour before I fell asleep and envision different scenarios on the basketball court. I would put myself in the hypothetical spot, and imagine what I would do, what my mindset would be, and I would watch myself make the right reads. When gametime came and I found myself in similar positions, it would be like I had already been there.
Shooting free throws in pressure situations was always an area I thrived in, because, although I only had to do it a few dozen times, I had envisioned thousands of free throws under those circumstances. And they all went in. Sometime my visions ended in back-flip dunks that never seemed to carry over to games, but for the most part, going through the process in my mind actually built experience.
Another part of the game was working on my mental toughness. One of my favorite quotes I have heard is, “Your body feels pain, it complains when it has to work, it wants to quit, and it constantly tells you that it wants to stop. Your mind has its eyes on the prize. Your mind knows it should keep going and that this will all payoff. You get to choose which one to listen to.”
I can’t quote who said it because I think it was something that derived from a conversation between me and teammate—although I’m not sure. Either way, it’s always stuck with me.
Putting yourself in that state of mind—focusing on the positive—makes such a big difference when you are trying to get the last few ounces out of your workouts. I have ran millions (slight exaggeration) of sprints in my life, and when my mind is thinking, “I hate this, I don't want to be here,” I get much less out of it than when I am thinking, “I need this, lets push it and get better.”
You get in better shape, but you also develop habits. When it’s showtime and you’re tired and trying to grind out the last few minutes, you wont quit or take a play off. No matter how tired you are. You’ve trained yourself not to. It seems so simple and obvious, but it takes mental condtioning to make it habitual.
I also started reading a lot more books to get ideas on how to develop my mental game. After reading “Sacred Hoops” by Phil Jackson, I started getting into meditation. I felt myself drift in and out of the moment at times while on the court. The meditation was a way to train my mind to focus on the task at hand. It helped me stay conscious of game plans, and more in tune with how the game was going.
After games, I used to have trouble recaping individual plays. At the end of my career there was hardly ever a play I didn’t vividly remember.
Simple focus breathing exercises three times a day for 10 minutes did wonders. I wasn’t on this level, but few are.
The last bit of advice I would give to a young athlete is to be a PROFESSIONAL in every aspect of the game.
You know how much sleep you need; be a professional, and get the right amount of sleep. You know how you’re supposed to eat and how much water you’re supposed to drink. Avoid the bad food and stay hydrated. You know this. If you don’t know, ask people, google it, and learn it. Be professional in how you take care of your body.
Get up extra shots and lifts, because you need to. Be a good teammate and have a good relationship with the coach, don’t be a fool to the refs, engage with the fans in a responsible manner. These are all aspects of being a professional.
Not only will it make you a better player, but here’s the most important part: You never know who’s watching. Opinions are very often formed in a moment. Don’t give anyone the chance to use your moment of weakness to determine that you’re not a true professional. People talk and reputations can make or break opportunities. Always be a professional.
You’d get many different pieces of advice if other athletes were polled. This is just what I found in my career to be the most important, personally. Hopefully someone heeds this advice and uses it catapult their career into something better than mine was. I know that as a 19-year-old, these were some things I needed to hear. I’m also aware that at 19, I may not have understood them the way I do now.