When you play professional basketball in Europe, know this: losing is everything.
The rain poured onto the roof of Stade Foche, the old, yellow-tinged gym of my team, the undefeated Antibes Sharks, and it wasn’t going to stop. Players walked in soaking wet. Most fans weren’t there until the middle of the second quarter. Even the opposing team was late. Rain in the south of France isn’t normal, not at this volume and frequency.
But as the drums started beating, underneath the thwack-thwack-thwack and the drowning buzz of halogen lights, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Not the players leaping into the air for the first tip, not the coach soaking through his white collar shirt, not the players listening to French rap in the locker room, but at closer glance, there was something.
Something was wrong. I tried to ignore it. The unease began, like a tumor spreading in my brain, as soon I saw my coach sitting alone, his leg shaking, in the locker room, his eyes fixated on the dry erase board in front of him.
He was nervous, but why? Did he know something we didn’t?
We had won fourteen straight games. Why be nervous?
Guillaume, our egg-shaped trainer that taped my ankles and joked about the same things we always joke about: women, sex, and booze. He was married, just a new father, and above all, a pervert. I always liked these honest, open-minded people, the way they joke and talk and make life easier to enjoy — but today, even his jokes seemed forced, my laughs restrained as the Velcro-like break of athletic tape as it ripped around my ankles.
I slipped on my spandex tights. I put on my battle gear, four neoprene braces around my hamstrings and my calves, two pairs of socks, and my Antibes Sharks warm-up suit over a dry-fit long sleeve Nike Kent State shooting shirt underneath. I always wore my Kent State gear underneath my pro gear.
Why — because Kent State University was where I made myself. It’s where I remembered the principles that taught me to face my fears and become what I wanted to be: a professional basketball player. But even my Kent State superstitions couldn’t quell the uneasiness growing inside me. I went to the bathroom three times before the game started.
My hands were shaking. My gut was rumbling. The feelings of fear were questions I didn’t have answers for, riding over my consciousness like breaking waves. I tried to stamp them out like with positive self-talk.
“Are you going to win — just get a ball in your hands.”
“Are you ready to win — just play the game. Just play as hard as you can.”
“Will you make your shots, will your passes reach their mark — be one with the Universe, be courage, things always work out just the way they are supposed too.”
These funky monkey thoughts usually harass me as I take the court to do what I love. Getting paid to play a game, shit, a child’s game, even with all its beauty, excitement, and adrenaline, I still had to deal with my performance barrier, call on the unseen part of life that beats anxiety and taps into our warrior mind.
The resistance is always highest at the point of being in your most vulnerable position.
“Put it behind you. Just play. Play the game.”
Today, I still listen to this advice in my life after sports and I believe it’s a life lesson every athlete, parent, CEO, and coach can apply to their lives.