Basketball is Psychology XXIII
Have you ever had one of those games where everything seems to be going wrong?
You can’t find a rhythm, your whole game is off-- your shot, your passes, your handles, and most importantly your mind. The more things go wrong, the louder the critic in your head seems to get, and things only get worse.
With every missed shot, the inner critic reminds you how much ‘you suck’. Now the problem isn’t your shot, it’s the debilitating frustration and stress coming from the little voice in your head telling you how bad you are at basketball, and you’re playing like you believe the critic.
This critic is loud and judgmental, and it’s keeping you from playing to the best of your abilities.
No one likes having a bad game. If this inner-critic is something you struggle with, chances are you have high standards for yourself. You know you are capable of playing at a high level, and you hold yourself accountable to that. There’s nothing wrong with high standards, but in order for them to serve you well, you can’t be the in-game critic.
So how can we quiet the inner-critic? We have to let go of judgements.
Observing ‘judgement’ in action is not hard to find, go watch almost any player getting shots up and you’ll see it in their face. After each miss, their face muscles tighten expressing frustration with the ‘bad’ shot. After each make, their face muscles relax expressing the satisfaction of a ‘good’ shot.
To understand judgment better, think back to the very final round of the 2019 NBA 3-point contest. There are 3 characters to pay attention to: Joe Harris, Steph Curry, and the referee (person keeping score).
Joe Harris had set the high score of 26 and it was Steph’s turn to see if he could beat it.
On the makes, Steph is happy and Joe is upset. On the misses Steph gets upset while Joe gets some relief. The ref just calls it like he sees it; make or miss. Both Steph and Joe have positive or negative emotions tied to every shot, the ref is neutral.
The more Steph misses the more upset he could get. That inner critic might even spill out into what he says to himself out loud if he misses enough, Joe will think it’s great, but the ref is still unaffected.
To quiet the inner critic, you need to have the perspective of the referee— not attaching emotions to the outcome.
Essentially, judgment is determining this event is good and I like it, or this event is bad and I don’t like it.
You hate shooting airballs, but you love it when your opponent does it, because judgments are personal, they’re our ego’s reaction to an event. What does this have to do with the inner critic?
The act of judgment is what ignites the critic.
Now, labeling a make as ‘good’ seems completely harmless, but, if you do this, inevitably you’ll label a miss as ‘bad’. It opens up the door for judgmental thoughts because of its opposite.
Normally, a judgmental thought process goes like this:
2.See whether it went in or not
3. Decide if the shot was good or bad (based on 2)
4. Give self instructions on how the shot was made/missed
5. Try to fix or repeat the shot
After evaluating enough shots or performances, your brain will start to generalize. Instead of it just being one bad shot, it becomes, “My shot is off today,” or ‘I’m a terrible shooter’. The problem isn’t the judgment of a ‘bad’ shot, the problem is the emotional reaction that it leads to. Judgments can escalate from a missed shot to a belief that you are a bad basketball player.
First the inner critic judges the event, then it groups them all together and makes a conclusion about yourself. This judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you allow the inner critic to conclude you are a bad basketball player, you’ll start playing like it’s true. You can’t play to your full-potential as long as the inner critic is doing all the talking. During your best performances, your mind was likely calm and quiet. This is why you have to learn to quiet that critic by letting go of judgements.
One of the problems with judgment is it can cause you to “try” harder, which results in tightness that interferes with the fluidity needed to move and play at your best. When you judge a shot as being bad and start to think of yourself as a choke artist, the frustration causes you to subconsciously tighten your face muscles. The same thing can happen when you try to figure out how you made such a good shot; you try to repeat it, so you grit your teeth, over-tighten, and end up missing.
Do you need those facial muscles to shoot? Absolutely not! Now you’re missing because you are using muscles you don’t need and your movements are stiff and awkward.
Being relaxed allows you to play with fluidity. The only way to be relaxed is to be accepting.
You’re probably thinking that’s impossible. If I can’t buy a bucket to save my life, I’m supposed to keep playing and act like everything is fine?
Quieting the inner critic does not mean you ignore errors, it means you see plays and shots as they are without attaching emotions to them. This way, you don’t have emotional reactions (anger, frustration, and discouragement), tightness, and the inner critic interfering with your performance.
You need a nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening. You should see missed shots as part of the process of becoming a great basketball player.
Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Lebron James have each made the NBA’s top 10 list for most misses. They didn’t let those misses convince them they were bad at basketball, rather they accepted it as part of the process.
When your mind is absorbed in judgment, you aren’t able to learn from feeling the shot. This is how the natural learning process works; through observing and feeling.
Instead of thinking about what is good or bad, you should work on becoming more aware. That might mean awareness of your hand placement on the ball, where you are releasing from, or any number of details.
Only when your mind is free of judgment can you fully experience awareness of the game.
You can still notice how far off a shot is, just don’t label it as bad. Quieting the inner critic doesn’t mean you avoid thinking about the results of your shots. Letting go of judgements simply means you don’t add or subtract from the facts.
This is how you quiet the inner critic, calm the mind, and play at your best with the advantage of awareness.
Written by Julie Fournier
CEO of Basketball is Psychology
Gallwey, W. T. (2015). The inner game of tennis: The classic guide to the mental side of peak performance. London: Pan Books.
NBA & ABA Career Leaders and Records for Field Goals Missed. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.basketball-reference.com/leaders/fgx_career.html