‘Fear is the basis of human psychology’: how self-doubt haunts the NBA

Philadelphia 76ers basketball fans know one sentence above all else: Trust the process. It was used often when the team was struggling in the 2010s as the team appeared to tank for the sake of high draft picks and long-term team building. But two of the franchise’s ensuing No 1 selections – Ben Simmons and Markel Fultz, both of whom are no longer on the team, despite being dubbed saviors – seemed to lose sight of the maxim when it came to their own on-court games. Both players came into the NBA with sky-high potential. But they both came under unwelcome scrutiny: Fultz for a hitch in his shooting technique, and Simmons for a reluctance to shoot at all. The pair were inevitably accused of succumbing to the “the dreaded yips.”

Throughout the history of pro sports, there have been many high profile cases of players losing the ability to conduct the most basic of on-field tasks. In baseball, New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch somehow could not throw to first base. Similarly, catcher Mackey Sasser found himself unable to send the ball from home plate to the pitcher, double clutching his throws, as if he was thinking too much about the task. Pitcher Rick Ankiel, who lost his ability to pitch and later became an outfielder, said of his issues, “Throwing the baseball, it felt like my wrist wouldn’t work. I couldn’t feel the ball.”

In football, kicker Mike Vanderjagt wasn’t the same after missing a game-tying field goal in 2005. It’s also happens to golfers who miss easy putts and tennis players who start to double-fault regularly. But the ailment is rarer in basketball, though no less pronounced. Over the years, only a few hoopers have suffered from the condition. But some have done so quite publicly. Not long after missing four crucial free-throws in the 1995 NBA finals, the Orlando Magic’s Nick Anderson went from a career 70% free-throw shooter to a 57% one for years, even shooting 40% in 1996-97. And John Starks, who shot 2-18 and 0-11 from three-point range in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA finals, which his New York Knicks team lost, seemingly went through a meltdown on live television despite usually being a knock-down, big-game scorer.

So, what happens along the way? For players like Fultz and Simmons, who seemed to lose all confidence as jump shooters, so much so that they had to leave the 76ers for new teams and new starts – not to mention the Washington Wizards’ Jordan Poole, who was punched by then-teammate Draymond Green and has never been the same since – there must be an answer. With each player, the unraveling didn’t happen overnight. Fultz was a highly touted rookie. Simmons was an All-NBA player. And Poole was a big-time contributor to the Golden State Warriors 2022 championship team. But along the way, something happened.

To be clear – a loss of confidence or a case of the yips is not a joke, nor is it funny. To be a pro athlete, no matter the salary, is difficult. Your professional (and often personal) life is on public display. Any mistake can be magnified by the press and angry fans. Today, too, the stress put on players due to social media and gambling is at an all-time high. Which is why highlighting the issues that happen between the ears is just as important as doing so with those between the lines. Players like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have come out and talked about their struggles with mental health. Fultz has talked about quieting outside noises and acknowledging internal doubt and sadness (it should be noted that his struggles weren’t solely due to a loss of confidence: he says he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which contributed to problems with his shooting technique). Several books have been written about mental health issues in sports, too. It’s an important topic and one that’s not going away.

“Fear is the basis of all human psychology for so many different reasons,” says mental performance consultant Drew Petersen, who has worked with athletes in the WNBA, NBA, Olympics and college basketball. “We all have to accept whatever fear we have and breathe through it. That’s part of being competitive on a daily basis. Fear becomes such a big entity for [professional athletes] because of what it will do with [their] mental identification of self. Thinking about the result as opposed to being in process.”

Petersen focuses on two things when he works with pro athletes: being present and self-compassion. It can be easy for players, he says, to focus on the results of their work – the gold medal, the championship. But those things should be thought of almost as side effects, not the end goal. He also recommends meditation and for players to work to slow down, not speed up or be hyper-reactive. “If you create more awareness,” he says, “you also create more options.”

A former basketball scout, Petersen says he used to watch if a player was “quiet, still and at peace,” he explains. “Because when they’re not, they’re not performing at a very high level.” The moment a player thinks about what he or she is doing, they’re lost. As soon as a player forgets, say, to shoot in the way they’ve always known, ever since childhood, they’re done for. “That’s what happened with Ben Simmons and Nick Anderson, in my estimation,” he says. “They’re so focused on the results that they’re not feeling what they’ve done their entire life.”

When a player like Knoblauch, Vanderjagt, Fultz or Simmons makes a mistake, it becomes much easier for them to worry about doing so again. The thing that has given them their identity their whole lives – success at sports – starts to hang in the balance. Some, like Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter, are seemingly able to push that fear out of their minds, standing on past successes or an outsized sense of confidence. Others, Petersen says, aren’t so lucky. “Courage is not the absence of fear,” he notes. “Courage is accepting the fear and moving through it anyway.” Petersen cites Kobe Bryant talking about Steph Curry and his sense of calm.

Given the pressure, it makes sense to wonder why more athletes don’t suffer from the yips, or other mental hitches. “My suspicion,” Petersen offers, “is it happens a lot more than we’re aware of. [But] it has never been ‘OK’ in athletics to be weak.” While some fans can be supportive, it can also be easy to wilt under expectation and for players then not to trust the on-field process. So, they worry about the result rather than whether their approach is correct. But, as Petersen says, that’s a backwards strategy. The mind is fragile. That’s true for everyone, though some are able to navigate the fragility in more adept ways than others. But how?

Dr Scott Goldman, who has worked with NFL, NBA and NCAA teams for decades, talks about facing one’s fears. For instance, if someone is bitten by a dog, he says, it can seem natural to avoid dogs. But if that person continues to avoid dogs for the rest of their lives, when confronted with one later on, they may seize up, incapable of action. And in that moment of hesitation, failure can be imminent. Similarly, if someone misses a big shot, they may never want to take one again. The fear can even be visible, as in Fultz’s jump-shot, Poole’s miscues or Simmons’ inability to simply shoot (or even play). Bodies hiccup, caught between natural movements and the learned, feared outcomes.

Goldman says he tries to work with players on a number of levels. “But the first thing I do,” he says, “is I listen and try to really understand what’s going on for this person.” Fans see athletes and coaches as immune from stress and fear because they’re well paid and famous. But Goldman recounts a story. When he was working for the Detroit Lions, the team’s then-coach told him about a meme his six-year-old son found online. The coach was portrayed with guns surrounding his face, pointed directly at him. “Because he lost a couple football games?” Goldman says. “What are we doing here? We love our heroes in America. But we love to shoot them down.”

In a recent article on The Ringer, Fultz talked about his journey and finally finding some inner-peace. Though for half a decade his struggles were NBA news and fodder for criticism, he says he’s since put that behind him as much as possible. Instead, the Fultz says he trusts the process – this time, however, it’s his own process. “The results,” he says, “will come eventually, but the work is more important.”

The Guardian

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