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Spotlight: Phil Jackson - Mindfulness in Basketball

Nadia K

In early 2018, the NBA had a problem: DeMar DeRozan tweeted late at night “This depression get the best of me.” DeMar DeRozan, star of the Toronto Raptors, franchise leader in regular season games played, wins, total minutes, field goals, and free throws – a titan of sports performance – was losing sleep not over how to be better at basketball, but over stress.


He quickly attempted to backtrack, but when other NBA players started to open up about their mental health struggles, DeRozan admitted that he suffers from depression:

“It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day,” he told the Toronto Star a few weeks later, in February 2018. “Sometimes… it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

DeRozan’s admission, along with the support of other star players like the Cavaliers Kevin Love and Houston Rockets assistant coach John Lucas, led to the NBA instituting a major mental health initiative for the upcoming 2019/20 season.

This serves as a huge step in the right direction for professional athletes getting support and recognition around mental health. That being said, a focus on mental health and performance in the NBA is not completely new… The Chicago Bulls were doing it in 1993!

Phil Jackson: Mindfulness and Sports Performance

Even if you’re not a basketball fan, chances are good you’ve heard of Micheal Jordan. Arguably the greatest basketball player that ever lived, and certainly the most famous, Jordan changed the landscape of American sports celebrities forever. 16 years after his retirement, the image of Jordan leaping to the basket; legs outspread in an inverted “V”; his tongue screwed into the corner of his mouth; is the most iconic image in basketball.

It is indisputable that Micheal Jordan is pretty good at basketball, but behind every great player is a great coach.

Phil Jackson was head coach of the Chicago Bulls from 1989 to 1998. In that time, the Bulls won 6 NBA championships. When he left the Bulls to coach the LA Lakers, from 1999 to 2004 and again from 2005 to 2011, the Lakers won 5 NBA championships. Add to these 11 coaching championships the 2 he won as a power forward for the Knicks in the Seventies, and Phil Jackson currently has the most combined championships in the game.

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Phil Jackson’s Secret To Success

While undeniably a tactical genius on the court, Phil Jackson’s secret weapon is… mindfulness. In 1993, after winning 3 consecutive championships with the Chicago Bulls, 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.

Speaking to the New York Times in 2016, Mumford attempted to quantify the often hard to fully define advantages of practicing mindfulness:

“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.”

How mindfulness can be used to manage stress & improve performance

Being a professional basketball player, on the court, with the ball in your hands, the eyes of millions on you must be extremely stressful. At the heart of it, though, pro athletes are just doing their job, and we’ve all experienced job stress to various degrees.

The “…ability to step back and observe your experience…” as Mumford put it, is just as valuable in the office as it is on the basketball court. In our piece on burnout, we discussed how mindfulness can help us understand how our body responds to stress. Cognitive Behavioural Therapists use interoception, the body’s internal sense, to induce the effects of a panic attack in a safe environment, so sufferers will know how to handle one in real life.

If mindfulness can teach Micheal Jordan how to focus as he literally flies through the air in front of 50,000 screaming people, camera flashbulbs popping off in his face, with the entire fortune of the Nike shoe company riding on his success, imagine what it can do for you!

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Tips to Practice Mindfulness

1. Practice Guided Meditation:

  • Sports: Emily Fletcher has a guided visualization for Sports in the Performance section of the Muse app. Fletcher has ten years of Broadway performance experience and is no stranger to high-profile, demanding physical performance. Fletcher talks you through the correlation between body posture and mental state. She’ll help you focus your energy with rhythmic breathing and positive visualization.
  • Pre-Game Practice: Cara Bradley presents a 10-minute Pre-Game Practice to prepare yourself for a big game, presentation, or other high-performance situation. Pre-Game Practice aims to leave you awake, alert, and fiercely focused.
  • Mental Stability for Athletes: A more involved meditation by Cara Bradley is Mental Stability for Athletes. Bradley helps you get familiar with the feeling of being present and at ease in the moment. Bradley teaches you how to use you breath to stabilize yourself in stressful situations–the essence of mindfulness.

2. Practice body awareness & good posture:

  • Phil Jackson taught his players that their state of mind is just as important as their physical state. In an interview with Oprah, he said he taught the Bulls “…how to hold their hands, where their shoulders had to be, the whole process of being in an upright situation so you’re not slouched … and they bought into it.” Learning how to carry yourself properly allows for the free travel of the breath. Easy breathing leads to an easy mind.

3. Practice self-care:

  • Love. The NBA’s new mental health initiative is an attempt to standardize what Jackson has been preaching since the nineties: care for your team and yourself. As part of the reframing of macho masculinity, caring for yourself and the people around you is no longer seen as weak or unnecessary. “Love is the force that ignites the spirit and binds teams together.”

Phil Jackson, The Zen Master of the NBA, has written 3 books about his mindfulness-first approach to coaching and success. His associate, George Mumford, has also written a book on mindfulness in sports.

Looking for a great place to start your own mindfulness practice? Muse has hours of guided meditations focused on success, performance, mindfulness, love, and everything in between.

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