The Zen of Shooting Hoops
Think the Ball Into the Basket
By Marian Jones
I dribble effortlessly down the court. Breathe. Approaching the basket, I position my hands to shoot. Inhale. Gaze up at the center of the backboard, spring up and launch the ball. Exhale. Swoosh.
The idea: stay focused yet loose
Now I open my eyes, get up off the bench and pick up the ball.
I am practicing mental basketball, which sports psychologists say can really boost your physical game whether you're shooting hoops on your own, playing in a winter intermural league or the NCAA Final Four.
"We recommend things like visual imagery to be able to visualize the hoop and visualize your stroke, and how you're hoping to execute," says Dr. Stanley Teitelbaum, a New York sports psychologist who has counseled high-profile professional athletes.
This week, I tried a few tips suggested by Teitelbaum and other sports psychologists while shooting hoops at the Chelsea Piers Sports Club in New York.
Get in Your Head
Teresa Weatherspoon, the star WNBA point guard for the New York Liberty, has told reporters that before a game, she gets into what she calls her "game head." She shuts out concerns and distractions and focuses 100 percent on being a basketball player.
While this type of psychic preparation is nothing new in the world of sports, anyone who has seen Weatherspoon play can tell you that she takes this "game head" to a new level. In the last second of game 2 of last summer's WNBA finals, when the clock was running out and the Liberty had all but lost the championship series against Houston, Weatherspoon shot a three-pointer from half court to win the game.
Letting go of inner energy as you release the ball
So I warmed up my head before I got on the court.
"It's important to clear your mind away from other distracting thoughts and get very focused on what you are trying to do," Teitelbaum says.
I sat on the bench and tried to quiet the noise in my brain the bills to pay, the looming deadline for this column, unwritten thank-you notes and focus on the here and now. I imagined these distractions as people, who one by one walked off the court and out into the locker room.
To get focused on your game, sometimes it's not enough just to tell those distracting thoughts inside your head to get lost. "Any way you can find to calm yourself and reduce stress will carry over into the game," Teitelbaum says.
This is where practices like meditation and yoga can help. "One of the things they teach you in Zen is to learn something and forget it," says Patrick Mulvey, who plays intramural basketball and practices daily Zen meditation. "If you train how to shoot the basketball, and your mind can forget but your body remembers, you can have a great experience and enjoy it more when you are playing."
Superstars like Jordan play a very mental game
When you're mentally present, your body goes on auto pilot and you're not worried about making a shot. You can just feel like "a bird in air or a fish in water," Mulvey says.
Whenever I play basketball or tennis and I haven't been blessed with natural talent for either I try to keep a positive mental attitude. "I can do it. I can do it." Kind of like the Little Engine That Could.
But a better approach, sports psychologists say, is to really get specific.
"Research and my consulting experience has taught me that the most useful
mental routines involve a focus on specific functional cues, not just
affirmations," says Barbara Waite, a sports psychologist and consultant in Iowa. "In other words, it might be more helpful to say something like 'loose wrist ... extend' and to imagine your shot and the ball hitting nothing but the net than to simply say, 'I can do it.'"
Another tactic Waite mentions is to mentally reinforce success. In other words, spend time before the game and between games thinking about past moves and shots, and imagine yourself shooting flawlessly.
Michael Jordan would visualize himself taking the game's winning shot and embrace this success, according to Waite.
You can practice this approach on the free throw line. After dribbling for a minute, think of the ball extending from a flicked wrist in a perfect arc and falling into the hoop. Then, even after a shot that misses, you can return to the line and again visualize a successful shot, reinforcing the successful idea instead of the failure.
Can visualizing success really improve your aim?
This is the opposite of what I usually do when I miss repeatedly. In fact, it's a common mistake, Teitelbaum says, to repeat the motion of the failed shot. People tend to do this as a form of self-mockery a psychological defense to failure. But it's the worst thing you can do, he says. Instead, after making a shot, "you have to make the motion you think you needed to execute in order to play well."
For those of us who seem to suffer societally induced Attention Deficit Disorder, it's really easy to lose focus after a few minutes. My main distraction is the presence of other people along the edge of the court, whom I am sure are watching me screw up.
In these cases, if I'm just shooting hoops, I try to focus on the sound of the dribbling and the way it resonates through my body. I use the sound as a mantra to bring me back to the task at hand.
But this doesn't work in a game situation, where you can't exactly zone out in mid-court. Instead, it might be helpful to have some sort of quick routine to refocus your attention, Waite says, such as "Easy ... focus," or "Now! Go for it now!"
"It might involve touching a good luck charm or a part of the body used as an anchor
[a cue] for regaining focus and composure," she adds.
Of course, even Michael Jordan lost focus from time to time. But for those of us who are not natural athletes, practicing the Zen of basketball can give us at least one type of edge on the court.