WILDCAT WEDNESDAY – I remember going to see a sports shrink for my anxious habit of freaking out at the free throw line. I’d take the elevated train or maybe even drive downtown Chicago somewhere, and wait to be called into a nice office with a couch in it. I just remember thinking, “Am I supposed to sit on it? Lie down on it?”
I also remember that the doctor always brushed his teeth before seeing me. The appointments – maybe there were three of them – were always after lunch. I remember him going into the bathroom, and holding his toothbrush, then exiting and needing a second to put his supplies away. Then he called me in. He was a kind man with salt-and-pepper hair and caring brown eyes. He didn’t talk much. I cried for most of the sessions. I cried because I was looking around his office saying to myself, “With all the suffering in the world, and this is where I am? Here because I am missing a wide open shot that I can hit eyes closed in practice?”
Toughness is physical, and it is mental. I was a warrior physically my entire life. There was not a loose ball I would not get, a charge I would not take. I averaged 38 minutes a game and wanted all 40. Yet through it all, while we had strength trainers and medical support (no nutritionists on staff), we never had anyone talking about or teaching: What is mental training? What is mental toughness?
The thing about Type A players like me is that we are such warriors physically, yet we can so easily implode mentally because we were conditioned to believe 1) no pain no gain, 2) you must outwork everyone, and 3) you’re never good enough. I’d go to bed at night after Big Ten games and replay all the mistakes in my head. I would never replay all the great things I did or even correct the mistakes in my head. I never had any solution going to that free throw line – not even anything as simple as, “Just picture it going in before you shoot it.” Although I am sure the doctor gave me advice, I don’t remember any of it. My assistant coach told me to wear a purple wrist band. The other one said to count. I wasn’t sure what to count. My misses?
So here is what I say to kids cut like me, and to kids in general: train and treat your brain like you do your muscles, your knees, your body. Listen to it. Correct it. Go easy on it. Get it working for you. Don’t beat it up with negative thoughts. Walk around campus and imagine yourself making free throws. Imagine yourself connecting on passes that were previously turnovers. And don’t blame this on your coach. Granted our coach didn’t exactly drive the positive reinforcement theme home, yet he was also like most coaches. He said figure it out. It isn’t hard. Listen to your body when you eat, when it hurts – and adjust. Listen to your mind. What is it saying and seeing? What should it be saying and seeing? And I’m not talking about images of oneself playing for a Big Ten title or in the WNBA or NBA. I’m talking about focusing one day at a time on how to be truly excellent in your commitment to your craft. When the pool is all aggressive physically, when it’s all skilled, when it’s filled with thoroughbred athletes, the difference – even the most subtle ones – is in the mind, and anyone who plays at the highest level knows that mental edge is everything.
More coaches need to enlist support to get the athletes believing in simple acts they can do to train, treat and empower their minds. I’ve read books on this topic, and I give simple tips when I can.
I now know the reason why I had my free throw panic attacks. It was because I missed one versus Michigan State early in my career, and I could never forgive myself for it. Then I made a big one – or maybe one out of two and one was enough – versus Purdue, and Lynn Dunn, coach of Purdue, said in her press conference that I was lucky. I couldn’t get her negative words and disbelief out of my head. Nobody told me about how simple it is to practice positive images of yourself shooting free throws, or to count, or to think of a place or time that calmed my mind, body and soul. Nobody told me that Steve Kerr made a perfect, meaningless free throw in Houston once, and for some reason he loved the shot so much that he decided in his head to say, “Houston” every time he went up to the line because he felt so calm when his mind went back to that perfect shot, time and place. I believe he shot 92 percent from the line.
Instead of thinking about succeeding and being happy, I was thinking, “What is wrong with me?” Who goes to downtown to Chicago to talk about missing free throws, and remembers only that the doctor has exceptional dental hygiene?
Like food, like physical training, like anything, you have to decide to do it, practice it regularly, and figure out what works. Don’t pay anyone to tell you this simple advice. Run through the wall 100 times over like I did, but until you work on mental toughness and stop using your brain and mind against yourself, you won’t come close to reaching your potential as an athlete.
Maureen Holohan is a former All-Big Ten Player, writer, journalist and director of momotion.com.