Mental Strength for the College Hoops Fan
"I need help.” Those were the first words I uttered to famed sports psychologist Dr. Stuart Singer. You might have seen his ESPN featured. It may have been slightly overshadowed by the one about that guy who played for the Bulls.
He has spoken at Jay Bilas' basketball camps, which is impressive if for no other reason than he was allowed to speak while in a room with Jay Bilas.
He is the personal mental strength coach for a number of Div1 men, and provides his services for the Maryland Women’s Basketball team. The players call their sessions with him "Group Stu". I envision him standing over a cauldron chanting, "Double, double, toil and trouble." Though I'm nearly positive that's not what happens.
He's also in charge of mental conditioning for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the NBA's Washington Wizards. It should probably be noted that he commenced well after the departure of Gilbert Arenas.
My meeting with Dr. Singer brought him a brand new challenge: the mental infirmities of a college hoops fan. I informed him I really just want what every fan wants - increased ability to help my team win. Specifically, I'm looking for the mental strength needed to make the ball go in the hoop - much like how some people use their minds to bend spoons. Stu said that's not mental strength, that's magic. Tomato, To-mahto.
He explained that his main goal is to increase his clients’ ability to focus, stay in the moment, and remain present. “And you can't worry about things you can't control." "But fans have control. Every time I've worn my lucky underwear my team has won." “Every time?" "Well, not counting the times I wore it and they lost."
"Dave, you’d be better off focusing on your own actions than on the actions of others.” I told him I understood. He seemed to disagree. That might have been because my next question was about voodoo.
He then deftly surmised that I could use some assistance with emotional control. After he asked how I react when my team wins, I told him that I may have been a tad emotional when St. Bonaventure won the A-10 Tournament a few years ago. You see, the buzzer sounded then “Bam!”, I started running around looking for someone to hug – a task that would have been much easier had I remembered that I have a family.
I instead high-stepped it through the neighborhood chanting, "The Bonnies are in the tournament!” Amazingly, no one else sharing my joy could be found in the snow-covered streets. Upon spotting an open garage door, I busted into a house, saw my neighbor’s wife lying on a couch, and obtained my well-deserved Jimmy V moment.
It's important to note that after about five minutes I managed to convince her that I did not perpetrate an assault. It only took another ten minutes to convince her husband.
Stu then asked how many more minutes it took for me to descend from Cloud 9.
About three weeks.
He teaches his clients that they have to let go of their "highs" pretty quickly. "The same concept applies after a loss. It's all about staying in the moment and remaining present." I must say that I did handle my emotions quite well when my beloved Bonnies missed a last second shot to go to the 2018 NCAAs. "And how did you react?" I don't recall the specifics, but my wife claims that that for an hour or two I was catatonic.
“Dave, don't you really want to feel better when your team loses?” No, what I really want is them to not lose.
I will admit there is a something with which I do very much need a little emotional control - my quest for a perfect bracket. You see, I come up with a rational, intelligent pick, but next thing I know I have Duke losing in the first round. I also have a penchant for picking St. Bonaventure to win it all – a particularly irrational pick in years when they don't even make the tournament.
He suggested that when I feel emotions taking over, I should focus on my breath. Stu then showed me how he breathes in, and then takes about ten seconds to exhale. I don't want to brag, but I was able to do that so much faster.
He said he has his clients actually do “mindset workouts” - seeing how long they can clear their minds and think about absolutely nothing. So I gave it a shot:
"Ok, I'm not thinking about anything. I'm just focusing on my breath - which sounds like a whistle. Geesh, does my nose always do that? Oh my God, what if it does and I'm just noticing it now? Maybe I have something in my nose. Nope, nothing in my nose. I wonder if dogs can hear this. Could this be why dogs hate me so much? Now, what was I supposed to be thinking about? Oh, yeah - nothing. Crap."
The good doctor wisely moved on to another piece of advice to assist with my bracket issues: avoiding outcome goals. “And give up on my dream to get a perfect bracket?! I can't . . .Wait a minute. I just figured out why I'm not getting a perfect bracket. It's not because I'm too emotional. It's because you've been telling the teams I pick not to worry about the outcome!”
At that moment Stu inexplicably decided to do one of his 10-second exhales again.
"Dave, teams win because they aren't worried about the outcome, but instead are focused on one play at a time. They also play for a reason even greater than success.” “Well for me, other than the success of a perfect bracket, I really want to be the guy.” “The guy?”
“You know, the guy everyone goes to for college hoops knowledge. I mean if someone were to ask me who the sixth man on Drexel is, my response would be, "How the hell should I know? Go ask Dick Weiss."
But as a writer for Basketball Times, I need to always be ready for people yelling, "Hey, that's Dave Barend from Basketball Times! I'd love an autograph Dave Barend from Basketball Times, but first can you wow me with some knowledge, Dave Barend from Basketball Times?"
"Does this happen often?" Well, I wouldn't say often. Or really ever.
I noted that I try to become "the guy" by watching as many games as possible. But by halftime of those Pac-12 games, I'm in mid snooze. "Dave, performance improvement occurs when you deal with the voice in your head that’s constantly saying, "stop." Well, at that time of night, the voice I'm dealing with is constantly saying, "Conference of Champions!"
I also try to read every college basketball article, and watch all the shows, but there are times when I just want to turn on an old episode of Touched By An Angel. "Really? Touched By An Angel?” "Oh yeah, Della Resse is . . . wait, what? No you must have misheard me. I said Die Hard.”
"But I do think I'm getting all of this about staying in the moment and avoiding outcome goals. So I'd just like to revisit an earlier issue: What can you do to help me make my teams win?”
I guess that question scared him, for he immediately covered his head with his hands.
I explained that during games, I flail my arms to make the other team miss. But I want to get to the next level, you know, like St. Joe's Hawk-level. In fact, I want that bird to start telling people, "Yeah, I may be good, but I'm no Dave Barend."
"Ok Dave, you need trigger words - a few traits that describe you at your best as a fan." "Awesome, I already have a trigger word - headache. Yeah, my wife came up with it. Oh wait, nope. Scratch that. Headache is her safe word."
In an attempt to clarify, he said, “I'd suggest you think about your elite self - what you look, sound and feel like when you are at your absolute best." Hmm. I'd say my elite self was 25 years old and brimming with my only attractive quality - potential.
A few days later it was time for a big game. And as hard as this may be to believe, I stayed in the moment with something akin to my elite self. But with about 2 seconds to go, I started getting emotional when I saw nobody guarding the player inbounding the ball on the baseline. I flailed my arms and yelled to the coach, “Who the hell doesn’t guard the inbounds guy?!” Next thing you know, there's a perfect pass all the way to the foul line. Whoosh. That damn Christian Laettner did it - again. Stu's right. I really need to work on remaining present.