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Mind Games: The Psychology Behind Basketball

The psychological aspect of athletics has been a hot topic with professional athletes. Many college and professional teams have psychological coaches who are hired to work on the mental aspect of their performance. These psychological coaches are often referred to as “mental game coaches”, and help teams and individuals with issues such as anxiety, choking, mental practice, confidence, focus, etc. For example, the Dallas Mavericks have had psychologist Don Kalkstein on their staff for 15 years. In an interview with the LA Times, he states that, “Players do so much training, physically, fundamentally, that they often lack mental skills training.” He mentions that players are consistently being told, “You got to focus”, but they are rarely instructed how to go about focusing and what specifically they should be focusing on. That’s what Kalkstein is there for. He works with the players to help them develop mental toughness that helps their on-court performance.

Having a professional psychologist on hand as a mental game coach is a luxury that is not realistic for many people. However, it is possible to work on your mental toughness without a certified professional. Below are some helpful strategies to help hone in your focus and mental stability for this basketball season. Some can be done individually, while others will require the assistance of a coach.

Concentration Grid (Used by Kalkstein)

Use the above grid and have the athlete cross out numbers 1-100 in sequential order. While they are doing this, provide distractions. Distractions can include music, random noise, conversation, etc.


Visualization has the potential to increase your mental capacity on the court. Imagining yourself in game-like situations will not only increase confidence in your own ability, but also positively affect some cognitive processes. Motor control, perception, planning, memory, and attention are five processes that appear to be enhanced with visualization ( Visualization takes patience, practice, and time, but here is a list of helpful tips to help you get started!

==> Find a quiet place where you won’t be distracted or bothered. ==> Visualization can happen at any point before a game or practice, so experiment with when it works best for you! Are you able to focus best the night before? What about directly before your game? ==> Imagine yourself in realistic situations. The probability of making a basket from half court is not very high, so that would not be the most productive use of visualization. ==> Make it repetitive. If you are visualizing yourself making a free throw, repeat the image over and over again. ==> Make it a habit/ritual. Many athletes use visualization as a consistent component of how they prepare for a game.

Positive Thought Transformation

When you are going about your days, make it a goal to acknowledge whenever you say or think anything negative. This may be a simple statement like, “it’s too cold to go outside”, or “I can’t seem to do anything right!” Once you realize that you have said or thought something negative, try to replace it with something more positive. For example, “it’s cold outside, but once I put on all of my warm layers it won’t be so bad”, or “I may not be getting exactly what I want, but I’m trying my best!” The best athletes in the world are experts at quickly transforming their negative thoughts into more productive ones. They don’t get bound down with negative energy, and instead use positivity to boost their confidence and performance!

To read the entire LA Times article, see here:

For more information regarding visualization, see here:

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