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Play Present



Great players never get too high or too low. They play with a consistent level of energy and emotion.  It’s the same for leaders, teachers, or anyone in a high-pressure position.

They don’t let themselves get wrapped up in the emotions of the game or project, where they don’t play by their instincts, and start to view the situation as pressure instead of an opportunity.  When you get wrapped up in emotions, either high or low, it lowers your ability to stay present and focus on the process.   Whether it’s a bad call, a turnover, or getting pulled out of the game you have to be able to come back to the present. Center your mind and focus on the things you can control.

Imagine being a player in a huddle where your coach decides to take an aggressive tone. He wants to challenge the team and instill a sense of urgency. As you approach the huddle you see his intensity and immediately start thinking “Man, here we go again. He’s going to yell at us.” Soon enough as he is drawing up the next strategy your mind wanders…

“Dude is drawing so hard on the clipboard, could he just chill out for once?”

He finishes the talk and the huddle is about to break. You’re thinking, “Thank goodness that’s over.” Immediately followed by, “Wait. What’s that play he drew up?”

In this scenario you’re attention fixated on one component of a larger picture. Yes, perhaps your coach’s body language and tone were abrasive. But maybe that was his intent. To instill that urgency and get some energy back into the team. That being so, you have allowed his portrayal of emotion to deter you from your responsibilities as a player in that huddle, on that team, in that game. You’ve compromised your team’s chances of winning the next play and potentially the game.

And for what?

Because your coach drew on the board too hard with the marker.

Let’s flip the situation. You’re a coach, down by 1 with 13 seconds left ,and just called a timeout.  Do you take a deep breath and in a calm, collected demeanor explain to your kids what you want them to do?  When I was coaching there was a direct correlation to how well our guys executed and my demeanor in a time out. 

Don’t get it twisted — a team is a reflection of their coach. If you’re feeding them intense and anxious energy how do you expect them to go out on the floor, calm, cool, and collected — ready to execute.

Your players can little feel your energy and will perform accordingly.

In either case, practicing meditation gives us the ability to carry out this focused, calm and relaxed demeanor into the rest of our day. And when I say calm, I don’t mean low energy.  It’s a combination of calm and energy at the same time, which is tough to explain until you experience it.  At its core meditation is training your mind behave the way you want it to in daily life. In practice, work, and school. So when your coach draws too hard on the clip board, someone tells you your project needs a lot more work, or you have the ball in your hands with 9 seconds left down by 1, you can stay completely present.  You don’t take things personally and see these are just things that are happening. They don’t determine your worth as a human being. And, instead of being lost, trying to protect your ego, you’re completely focused on the task at hand.

A big reason coaches, players, and leaders get so high and to low is that we place so much emphasis on winning. When this happens we lose focus of the things that actually determine whether or not we win. And focusing on the process is actually the only thing that we can control. We can only control the work we put in, not the fruits of our labor. As Phil Jackson says, “We only control the work. Not the rings.”

Without meditation you can’t reach the type of awareness that I’ve discussed above, but these concepts below are a great first step.  The concept “Play Present” from sports psychologist Graham Betchardt can be simplified as focusing on one task at a time throughout the game.

Below are a few phrases we use that in basketball (and life) that are situation specific to help us and our players “Play Present.”  It’s 4 concepts or teaching points that you can use to help you stay mindful and play present during practices or games.

“One for One”

It’s amazing how difficult it is to stay focused throughout a workout — great players have developed ability to do this. We use this phrase ‘One for One’ in every shooting drill that we do.  It helps players focus on shooting one shot at a time, not thinking about the last shot they missed or the one 30 seconds in the future that they are trying to make.  Focus on your feet and your follow through, one shot at a time — every time.  We don’t want to just get up 500 shots. We want to shoot 1 shot 500 times.

“Next Play”

This concept is from Duke Basketball and Coach K.  I think this phrase is appropriate for after a mistake is made.  Mistakes are part of the game and life — expect them, accept them, and move on.  So many times 1 mistake leads another mistake or a lack of focus on the next possession.  By using the phrase “Next Play,” we are turning our attention and focus immediately to the next thing in our control.


Preparing for a game the only thing we want players to focus on is the one ahead of us. Every game is a big game and needs to be treated that way.  Specifically here we want to focus on the process of going “1-0” – things we can control like rebounding, spacing the floor, closing out, and communicating.

“1 Stop”

Defensively if you can focus on getting one stop at a time throughout a game you are going to be successful.  It’s extremely difficult to focus all your effort on one single defensive possession at a time, and the teams that do, reap the benefits.  Closeout, contain, and contest.  Rebound — it’s not a stop until you do. To challenge your team see how many stops you can get in a row.  Keep adding them up. Set records and beat records.

If you can discipline yourself to be present – yes it’s a choice – with your feet on every shot, making each dribble move quicker and maximum effort on every possession you’ll have more enjoyment from the game, and make quicker improvements.

“My heroes growing up, the Jordans, the Bill Russells, the Magic Johnsons, they all won multiple times. I wanted more. But it wasn’t just the result. It was the journey to get there…I love the process. The results come later.” – Kobe Bryant

We need deep, deliberate practice to improve, and “Playing Present” is how you get there.

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