‘Fear is the foundation of human psychology’: how self-doubt affects the NBA

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<p><figcaption class=Ben Simmons has come under fire for his reluctance to take shots. Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

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 looked like a tank for high draft picks and long term team building. But two No. 1 picks seemed to miss out. Both players entered the NBA with sky-high potential. But both of them came under unwelcome scrutiny: Fultz for his shooting technique, and Simmons for his reluctance to shoot at all. Both were undoubtedly accused of surrendering to the “dreaded yips”.

Throughout the history of pro sports, there have been many high-profile cases where players have lost the ability to perform the most basic tasks on the field. In baseball, New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch could not throw to first base. Similarly, catcher Mackey Sasser failed to send the ball from home plate to the outfield, throwing twice, as if he was overthinking the task. Outfielder Rick Ankiel, who later became an outfielder, said of his problems, “Throwing the baseball, it felt like my wrist wouldn’t work. I couldn’t feel the ball.”

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In football, kicker Mike Vanderjagt was never the same after he missed a game field goal in 2005. It also happens to golfers who miss easy putts and tennis players who start the double fault regularly. But the disease is rare in basketball, although it is not so obvious. Over the years, only a few hoops have suffered from the condition. But some have done so publicly. Shortly after missing four crucial free throws in the 1995 NBA finals, the Orlando Magic’s Nick Anderson went from a career 70% free throw percentage to a career-high 57%, 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, where his team lost to the New York Knicks, seems to have gone through a disaster on live television despite being usually knock down. , a big game scorer.

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

To be clear – a loss of confidence or a case of the yips is not a scam, nor is it funny. To be a pro athlete, no matter the salary, it’s hard. 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 placed on players to social media and gaming is at an all time high. That’s why it’s so important to emphasize the issues that happen between the ears and to do so with those between the lines. Players like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan has come out and they talked about their struggles with mental health. Fultz has talked about quieting outside noises and acknowledging inner doubt and sadness (it should be noted that his struggle wasn’t just a loss of confidence: he says he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which contributed to problems with his shooting technique). Several books were written about mental health issues in sports, too. It is an important topic and one that is not going away.

“Fear is the foundation 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 large entity [professional athletes] because of what he will do with it [their] mental recognition of oneself. Thinking about the outcome rather than being in the process.”

Petersen focuses on two things when working with pro athletes: presence 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 as side effects, not the end goal. He also recommends reflection and for players to work on slowing down, not speeding up or being hyper-reactive. “If you create more awareness,” he says, “you also create more choices.”

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

When a player like Knoblauch, Vanderjagt, Fultz or Simmons makes a mistake, it becomes much easier for them to worry about making it again. What has given them their identity throughout their lives – their sporting success – begins to hang in the balance. Some, like Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter, seem to be able to push that fear out of their minds, standing on past success or feeling a deep sense of confidence. Others, says Petersen, are not so lucky. “Courage is not the absence of fear,” he notes. “Courage is accepting fear and moving through it anyway.” Petersen quotes Kobe Bryant talking about Steph Curry and his composure.

Given the pressure, it’s worth considering why bigger athletes do not suffer from the yips, or other mental bouts. “I suspect,” says Petersen, “that it happens a lot more than we know. [But] it was not ‘okay’ in athletics to be weak.” even though some fans can be supportive, it can be easy to expect and for players then not to trust the process on the field. Therefore, they worry about the outcome rather than whether their approach is correct. But, as Petersen says, that’s a backwards strategy. The mind is fragile. That is true for everyone, although some are able to channel vulnerability in more capable ways than others. But how?

Dr. Scott Goldman, who has worked with NFL, NBA and NCAA teams for many years, talks about facing one’s fears. For example, if a person has been bitten by a dog, he says, it seems natural to avoid dogs. But if that person continues to avoid dogs for the rest of their life, when they are confronted with dogs later, they may become unable to act. And in that moment of hesitation, failure can be imminent. Likewise, if someone misses a big shot, they may not want to take one again. The fear can even be seen, as in Fultz’s jump-shot, Poole’s miscues or Simmons’ inability to simply shoot (or even play). A body beat, caught between natural movements and the learned, fearful results.

Goldman says he tries to work with players on several levels. “But the first thing I do,” he says, “is listen and try to really understand what’s going on for this person.” Fans see athletes and coaches as free from stress and fear because they are well paid and famous. But Goldman tells a story. When he was working for the Detroit Lions, the team’s coach at the time told him about a meme his six-year-old son found online. The coach was shown with guns around his face, aimed directly at him. “Because he missed a few football games?” says Goldman. “What are we doing here? We love our heroes in America. But we love shooting them.”

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

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