The Mindful Student-Athlete

A 12-year choke artist to game-winning pro athlete on applying sports lessons to startups, business, life, and making the big shot

A true process orientation also means being aware that every outcome is preceded by a process… Students forget this all the time. — Ellen J. Langer

“Je veux que tu perdes.”

“Je ne comprends pas,” I say.

I look at the old, mad-looking French man as he wildly waves his cane at me. He is behind the security rope, but I get the gist. He wants to me lose. He wants me to play horrible.

I smile and shut my eyes again and focus.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the biggest game of my life today — do what you always do. Play. Breathe. Slow down. Smile. Laugh. Find space to relax and enjoy the journey. There is no future or past. You belong here.

I keep repeating those words to myself as I’ve always done. Mindfulness and meditation are a practice I do before all my basketball games and most of my practices. Even now, before my first French professional national championship game, I have to find peace in the center of chaos. I sneak open an eye as a young French teenager with a fohawk gives me the finger and screams, “Putain de merde!”

They are all trying to rattle me. Everyone is trying to get in my head. My team the Antibes Sharks are the fifth seed trying to upset the number two seed, but more importantly, this is my last chance to prove I can win the biggest game of my life.

This my last chance to win the chip, but the battle to win the biggest game of my life started long before this final game.

(More of the story below). I’ve been on both sides of the “choke fence.” I learned I usually choke when I’m not centered. Not balanced. Lost mentally. Distracted. Emotional. Scared. Fear is a crazy thing because if you don’t prepare to handle it head on, you’ll probably lose. Now, I’m not MJ, or LeBron, or Kobe, but I have played basketball at every level from high school, to D1, to vet’s camp with the Phoenix Suns, to playing 12 years in Europe.

I know how important the battle of the mind is.

So athletes (we are all athletes in my world), don’t psyche yourself out — psyche yourself in. Get in the zone by winning the battle of your mind before the real war starts. This happens before the thousands of parents, coaches, and students start cheering your next shot, your next speech, or your next move. This happens as I meditate, breath, and visualize before every practice. Before every game. Before every intentional act, or performance, I shut my eyes and call on the subconscious world beneath the surface to come to my aid.

If we use this mindfulness sports lesson in life, with prepping for tests, speeches, events, for finding a muse, for doing the work, we can never be stuck for long. Mindful athletes always rise up to the challenge with focus and a calm that most kids don’t understand how to get.

Mindful athletes can pivot, or change directions and work harder despite the pressure, failures, or big games.

Why does mindfulness matter to an athlete?

Did you know the average American changes careers seven times in their lifetime?

You know what it feels like to finish your high school, or college career and be looking down the gun barrel of getting a job and winning the game of adulthood?

It feels like shit to have no tools for handling hard emotions and feelings.

You have to grow a mindful approach, and intentionally focus your practice, your reps, and skill building, your learning, your effort, and wake up day after day, and try to succeed at winning the game of life.

The best players I ever played with always approached their day in this way. Create mental mini-challenges. First, meditate on winning the morning workout. Second, focus on eating right and getting raw nutrition. Third, take a nap and visualize your success. Fourth, breathe while you get shots up before practice starts. Put yourself in the high-pressure situations mentally. Fifth, find the best defender on the team to play one on one with before practice. Sixth, well, these are the mini-challenges you have to create for yourself. This is the mindful athlete, you get the point.

The best student-athletes find ways to embrace these mini-challenges every day in learning during class or creating new skills on the court. Don’t shrink. Rise to the challenge every class, every drill, and you’ll rise to the levels necessary to win.

This sports experience is the best teacher for what’s next in life — making progress and winning in business, school, and rising to the challenge of your goal demands while building your daily skills.

When things matter more, when the crowd fills ups the arena, you naturally put more pressure on yourself.

I’m here to tell you — pressure is an illusion to the mindful athlete. Detach from the results and labor in the daily process of meditation, breath work (watch LeBron above), visualization, and self-awareness.

Let go the result and focus on the process. Stick with the mini-challenges.

And then yes, get in the moment. Watch your homework float by like a leaf on a river. Your test. Your girlfriend. Your man. Your life tomorrow. Find the flow. Breathe. Smile. Let it float by and focus.

Enjoy this game, this moment.

In 2013, it was my last chance to win a National Title in France playing the sport I loved — basketball.

This is my last chance to make a personal dream come true. I turn to my side and lay my face on the Chalon Reim’s parquet floor. My heart is pounding. I can feel it beating through my chest. The anxiety usually starts like a jet engine. The roar crescendos inside me, inside the gray matter between my ears, culling all positive thought. This is the fight or flight response. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be controlled by the energy of 5,000 French fans dancing and singing some hip-hop song I’ve never heard.

I push in my headphones. I slow down my breath — I count to five seconds on the inhale, three on the hold, and five on the exhale. I know who I am. I don’t trash talk. I don’t play dirty. I don’t try to psyche out my opponents. I mostly try to not out-psyche myself. I’m a playmaker. I make others better. I hit big shots. I take big shots. I handle pressure. I do this because I’ve done it a million times in my mind.

Yet, I still feel the same way before big games, before every big practice. My gut is turning. I can’t eat. I want to throw up. I want to die. I think about losing. I want to die again.

It’s okay Huff. Just smile. Breathe. Slow down. Smile. Laugh. Find space to be. Play. There is no future or past. Only now. You belong here.

I feel electricity pulsing through me like a neon light.

Rarely do monks ever have to play in front of millions of people, or pitch company executives on their most meaningful ideas, or get certain test scores to get into their favorite colleges. Rarely do monks race through their days with the amount of stress and distractions Americans or student-athletes have in their lives.

How do we go from high stimuli to a low heart rate? How do we go from a place of 60,000 thoughts a minute to zen focus when the game is on the line?

Be practicing mindfulness a thousand times before that big moment arrives.

Dirk Nowitzki once told Jason Kidd, “I’m a great shooter because I breath through my eyes.”

I think Dirk means, breathe through your entire body, all the time. While you shoot. While you train. While you work. While you coach. While you live. While you prepare to train. While you stretch. While you do homework. Before you test. Before you practice. Before anything that matters.

Failure is always just an illusion and self mastery of despite that illusion is the key to defeating your inner demons and that choke artist that lives inside all of us.

Waves of fifty-feet rectangle flags of blue and gold ripple and spread across the stadium of Chalon Reims. I’m in the game. We are right there. We have a chance to win. We are tied with 30 seconds left. I’m calm. I’m at peace with this game. I know because I’m smiling on the inside.

Nothing bothers me.

Record crowds come to watch. First 3,000, than 5,000, then 8,000. This team, and their city is thirsty for blood, for our failures, for their championship. They have home court advantage and we need to steal one.

I slide up the court with their point guard attached to my hip. I’m running down the clock. I’ll start at ten seconds. I look towards my coach. He is motioning to go. Go. Go. Go.

I wait.

Then I wave my four man Tim Blue up. I know why I have the ball, and I know they will switch or not guard me. I have five points. A few assists. Not a special game for me. I have to face my fear and do this. I have to take fear head on and beat it, even if I fail.

And I’m okay with that, winning is a mindset.

I squeeze the sweat out of my eyes again. I have my back to the baseline. Tim is in slow motion. I take a deep breath as he slides into his screen and gets set. I wait. There is no place but now. I’m enjoying this place. I’m deeply connecting to this place.

They don’t switch. They don’t help. My defender gets hit by the pick. I have a shot. I don’t hesitate. I shoot the biggest shot of my professional life. The shot swishes through the net with a pop and I smile.

“TREVOR? TREVOR? Are you awake?”

My athletic trainer taps me on the shoulder and I open my eyes quietly. 8,000 fans are screaming and dancing and drinking champagne.

Another mini-challenge is over. My mindfulness practice ends and I feel ready to rise and play the game of my life.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments about mindfulness and being a pro athlete, please feel free to share or ask!

Thanks for the read!

Trevor Huffman

A former 13-year overseas pro point guard, head coach, startup founder, and aspiring typist on culture, sports, and self-improvement. >>

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