AN NBA PLAYER is many things: an athlete, a performer, a brand, a star. He’s likely a millionaire and definitely in superior physical shape. He seems to have everything going for him. But he also suffers the same slings and arrows that send us mere mortals to the therapist’s couch: anxiety, depression, workplace tension. And just as these issues nibble away at our mental health when left unaddressed, they can harm players—on and off the court.
Recognising this, the league recommended in 2018 that all its teams employ a mental-health professional. That recommendation became a rule a year later, giving rise to the NBA’s groundbreaking Mind Health program, led by Dr Kensa Gunter, an Atlanta-based clinical and sports psychologist. “Players are human beings, and mental health is part of the human experience,” Gunter says.
The program, she explains, was born after NBA stars like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love publicly shared their emotional struggles, helping destigmatise vulnerability. The teams’ mental-health and performance professionals span the landscape of mental-health care and include psychologists, psychiatrists, and more. We asked these mind coaches how they help their players face tough but common situations. Their game plans can be yours, too.
When You’re No Longer the Young Prospect
The expert: Dr Ronald Kimmons, Vice President of Player Wellness, Utah Jazz
As in many professions, the situations and expectations change and evolve for NBA players throughout their careers. You’re going to see 19-year-olds with 19-year-old problems, all the way up to a guy that might be in his 30s and is getting ready to retire, often with a lot of anxiety. Understandably, their identity is wrapped up in their profession.
To help them with the transition to what’s next, we talk a lot about not retiring from something but retiring to something. We talk about what the future might hold for them outside of the league. The same thing applies in the league, too. Of course they have to perform on the court. How can they do that when, perhaps, they’re no longer at their physical peak?
First, it’s about finding the ways they can contribute to the team. Maybe they can move into the role of a mentor to younger players. That helps flip the script from a rookie coming to take your job to something more harmonious.
Even if they might not be putting up the numbers they did when they were younger, they’re still helping the team win. That’s a hard lesson, but thankfully, easier for a veteran to understand than a rookie.
When You’re Going Through a Rough Patch
The expert: Dr Chantelle Green, Director of Mind Health and Wellness, Portland Trail Blazers
If a player is feeling sad or disappointed because they lost the game, that’s okay. But it’s important to know your happy medium, what I call your baseline. You don’t want to stray too far from that, either sink too low or run too high. The first step in avoiding that is to evaluate what your baseline is by keeping track of when you feel like your best self—you have mental clarity, peace, and moments of joy. The second is having tools and strategies that help you get back to that baseline. Those can be everything from spending time with friends, family, and teammates to meditating, deep breathing, enjoying nature, listening to music, practicing your faith, playing video games, and connecting with a therapist. The more strategies, the better. If one doesn’t work, go down the list.
When you’re feeling below that baseline, it can be hard to stay motivated. Just like there’s a repertoire of coping mechanisms to return you to your baseline happiness, there’s a repertoire of things that return your motivation, too. You may think, I’m motivated by making the playoffs. Well, when that’s not an option, you need to rethink things. It might be more like: I’m motivated by making sure I keep my contract. I’m motivated to be able to provide for my family. I’m motivated by my kids. I’m motivated by being a good role model. Something on that list will be a motivator. It’s not always going to be wins and losses.
When Your Anxiety Is Paralysing
The expert: Dr Corey Yeager, Psychotherapist working with organisations including the Detroit Pistons, and author of How Am I Doing?: 40 Conversations to Have With Yourself
The overarching complaint that I hear from players and coaches is anxiety. Anxiety is best described as being worried or ruminating about what’s going to happen in the future. It’s not always negative—some anxiety can push you to work out more or study more—but I’m talking about the paralysing kind: anxiety about being cut from the team, or the next contract, or who is going to want more financial support from you amongst your family and friends. I try to help players see that anxiety takes place in a futuristic world. The moment about which you’re feeling anxious has yet to occur. You are spinning your wheels on something that isn’t real, burning your energy about something that may never happen.
So I tell them to stay in the current moment, not to engage in futuristic thinking. When you step to the line, go through the routine. Do your breathing. If you have a saying, say it. Centre yourself, then shoot the free throw like you’ve done a million times before. We know that we can control how we act and react in this moment. We won’t be as concerned or worried about what is coming. That’s liberation from anxiety.
When You See Yourself Differently Than Your Boss Does
The expert: Dr Joe Carella, Sport Psychology Consultant, Orlando Magic
Anyone who gets drafted feels like they’re going to be an all-star with a long career ahead of them. Perhaps you think of yourself as a primary scorer, the guy you give the ball to at the end of the game to make the bucket to win. The coach, however, sees you primarily as a defensive player. You can either fight or accept that.
I work with the players to accept their coach’s vision and to develop the skills to excel in that role. Having done so, they are significantly more likely to earn the opportunity to expand to a new role that is more closely aligned with their vision of themselves. If you don’t take advantage of the opportunity you’re given, you may regret it for a long time. Interestingly, this is much less of a problem with veteran players. When you’re a rookie who might not want to recognise or accept your limitations, it’s hard. Unfortunately, the guys who don’t develop greater self-awareness are more likely to resist change, and their NBA careers are shorter and don’t match their potential. But the players who find a way to be dependable while embracing the challenge of changing perceptions are the ones with long, fulfilling careers.