We’ve all seen the exotic programs that elite athletes are rumored to use. From hyperbaric chambers to smoothies, diet, and massage and physical training. What is often overlooked, however, are the simplest aspects of performance management. Those include rest and mental resilience training.
In 2019 you might assume that all athletes have an advanced program of diet and schedule that is disciplined and rigorously followed. The truth is that some of that is overblown, largely for marketing purposes. I spent a game sitting with former NBA player and current Brooklyn Nets scout Tiago Splitter. He sat down at halftime with a burger and fries from Shake Shack. Expressing surprise, I said, “Must be nice to be able to eat whatever you want now that you are retired.” He replied simply, “Meh, I always ate whatever. Guys will tell you they have these strict diets, but it’s all bull[crap].”
Routines May Vary
Now that’s not to say this is ubiquitous. Many players do take diet very carefully. I’m reminded of a time shortly after Markelle Fultz was drafted when Chick-fil-A sent dozens of chicken sandwiches to the training complex in Camden. “Eat some,” Fultz said to TJ McConnell. To which TJ replied, “I can’t afford it.” Fultz retorts, “It’s free!” McConnell then had to explain that his body cannot afford to be eating fast food.
There are other factors as well. Travel can limit the options for players even if they try to remain disciplined. Joel Embiid has hired a personal chef at home, but he is well known for making rookies go get him fast food, including milk shakes for plane rides, on road trips. Speaking of shakes, a G-League existence can be even harder. Talking to Shake Milton about if he has settled into a diet plan as a rookie, he replied, “Not quite. It’s kind of hard to work on the nutrition part in the G-League, but now that I’m up here (76ers), I’m starting to get better with it.”
On Sleep and Rest
And this sort of variation of habits exists when it comes to sleep and recovery as well. Certainly trips around the world to places like China can really mess up a player’s sleep schedule. But even in a normal NBA schedule, the travel can lead to some battles with jet lag that those of us sitting at home often don’t consider. I asked some of the Sixers over the season for their routines around sleep and got wildly varying responses. Here are just a few.
“On gamedays I will take a long nap after shoot-arounds,” said newly re-signed Mike Scott. This is a fairly common practice. TJ McConnell and Tobias Harris both have similar routines involving at least 8 hours of sleep and an afternoon nap on gamedays.
With his usual mischievous side-eye and smile, Joel Embiid casually said, “I don’t need sleep, but when I do, I sleep for like 10 hours straight.” This is typical of a young man in his early 20’s who thinks he is invulnerable. This is also a key area for him to develop discipline and rigor. Multiple studies have proven that poor sleep habits lead to increased weight and more frequent minor illnesses. This isn’t to say that sleep would solve all of Embiid’s problems, but it is absolutely an area that all people have to develop and mature in.
And it’s not just youth and immaturity that can undermine healthy sleep habits. As veterans age and start families, responsibilities of life can impact sleep as well. Amir Johnson said, “It’s hard with young kids. I have a 1 year old and a 5 year old, so getting them off to school [takes time], but my lady helps me out.” There is a very real conflict of interests between managing a routine that is inherently self-centered, and having a normal life and family outside of sports.
One of the challenges with getting 8 hours of sleep is the act of settling the mind and falling asleep. A restless mind can often inhibit sleep. Someone like Joel Embiid may not lack the maturity or discipline, but rather the skills to fall asleep when he wants. His mind could be racing and reviewing and previewing the days and games, which in turn keeps him lying awake in bed. Talking to players about how they get themselves to sleep quickly also yielded very different answers. Mike Scott, for example, gets to sleep with something comfortable on TV. He says, “I put on a movie I’ve seen a thousand times like Life with Eddie Murphy or Collateral.” Conversely, TJ McConnell needs total silence to get settled and in a restful state. “I can’t have anything on, no TV,” said McConnell.
Even while awake, it is vital to rest. Yes, some players have started getting planned rest days where they don’t suit up for a game. However, it goes beyond just days off. During a professional basketball game, the key players are exerting insane amounts of energy with very little moments of rest. So it is essential to optimize those rare moments throughout the game. Timeouts help. Getting a brief break on the bench helps. But there are also ways, such as breathing techniques, to help optimize even those short breaks like free throws and out-of-bounds breaks. This all goes into maximizing performance both physically and mentally.
The NBA has recognized the benefits of “mindfulness” and has partnered with Headspace, a popular meditation app. Shake Milton takes full advantage of meditation as a tool to “try to keep my energy pure.” Now that probably sounds very new age and gimmicky, but the advantages of mindfulness are scientifically proven. Not only does meditation help center the mind and quiet disruptive thoughts to aid in the process of sleeping, but it can aid performance itself.
According to Lindsay Shaffer, Head of Sports Science at Headspace, “It is well known that we can proactively train our bodies and improve our physical fitness, but there is much less awareness on how we can look after our minds to improve our mental fitness.” She continues, “The mind plays a crucial role in pursuing our goals. While meditation is great for stress and anxiety relief, it is equally as valuable in building the mental skills necessary to achieve our goals. Performance Mindset combines the influence of the NBA and WNBA with the expertise and accessibility of Headspace to inspire, guide, and support our members and fans to build their mental fitness and unlock their full potential.”
Kathy Behrens, the President of the NBA’s Player Programs said, “The new Performance Mindset category will be a great tool for athletes and fans and anyone looking to take their wellness to the next level.”
Sue Bird, three-time WNBA Champion, 11-time WNBA All-Star, and point guard for the Seattle Storm, uses meditation as a powerful tool for performance mindset. Sue Bird is part of a modern sports power couple. Her girlfriend is World Champion, Megan Rapinoe. Bird and NBA point guard Ricky Rubio use meditation as key parts of their mental resilience and performance training routines.
Physical and Mental
Even Elton Brand famously uses yoga as a primary means to remain healthy. He began using yoga as a way to maintain flexibility as he trained to return from an Achilles injury. He has continued to use it as a valuable health tool. A 2012 Finnish research study concluded that “From yoga and meditation, to massage and flotation tanks, there are any number of ways to relax. A number of studies provide evidence that massage can increase parasympathetic nervous system activity. The mechanism moves us from stressful ‘fight or flight’ responses to those associated with more relaxed ‘rest and digest’ functions.”
Optimizing the time an athlete has is vital to improvement and performance. Lying in bed in distress over a missed shot or an upcoming game is wasted energy. The challenge is for each athlete to find the routines and tools that work for themselves. Time invested in learning new skills will have long term payback in an athletes career.
For more information on meditation apps and techniques go to https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/g25178771/best-meditation-apps/
My personal favorite is Calm, and I also use Aura, as well as multiple podcasts. The trick is finding a balance between routine and novelty to keep your brain from ignoring it. As far as sleep podcasts go, https://www.sleepwithmepodcast.com/ is an excellent choice.