John Amaechi: This Is Your Brain On Basketball


In professional basketball, there are two games being played. One is a game of three-pointers from way downtown, madcap dashes to the other end of the court and the sound of fans roaring their pleasure at the sight of yet another perfect play. The other is a game we can’t see—the one going on inside an NBA player’s head.

It’s a personal struggle that only someone who has played in the league can understand, which is why we caught up with John Amaechi OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire), a Cleveland Cavalier-turned-psychologist and high-performance executive coach. His journey to the NBA started at the late age of 17, amidst discouraging remarks that he’d never make it. Six years later, he was starting as the first and only Briton to play in the league. From there, he went on to net stints playing for the Orlando Magic, the Utah Jazz and even the Houston Rockets. 

Today, he is an authourity on motivation, inspiration and the mind’s role in maximizing human potential. In short, he’s our guide to the inner workings of a professional athlete. In this interview, we asked him to help us understand the difference between what makes a player simply a good athlete, and what makes him a legendary one—to reveal the mind of a champion.


Photo: University of Salford/Creative Commons In broad terms, how do the mindset and mental traits of professional athletes such as NBA players play into their success, and which ones make the biggest impact?

John Amaechi: I think it is important to note that there are a broad swathe of athletes, not just in the NBA but across professional sports, who are so physically gifted that their lack of mental faculty is the difference between them simply being an enduring player within the league and being an absolute All-Star. Oftentimes, people who get to the very elite in anything, whether it’s business or sport, can be either just so clever (as in academia, for example), or just so physically-gifted in terms of sport, that they would be at that level or thereabouts regardless. The mental faculty side of this is what really makes the difference between people optimizing their talents in a really functional way and perhaps not always doing that consistently.

BnR: Let’s talk a bit about motivation. Do great athletes already possess the ability to stay dedicated to their sport, or is it a cultivated skill? What does a person with a high capacity for motivation have on someone who doesn’t?

JA: Well, motivation isn’t simply either having it or not having it. It’s also not just a question of intrinsic motivation (or something about yourself that makes you want to do it) versus extrinsic (you want to do it for the money, the women, or men, or you want to do it for the fame). There are lots of different parts of motivation on a continuum. And for me, personally, I left England, a place of great comfort in terms of family connections, familiarity, normalcy, to come to a foreign country away from my family, away from those connections that were important to me, in an environment where I would inevitably feel quite isolated and lonely, both familially and culturally. That choice just meant that every second that I spent, I felt like it had to be spent very well, otherwise I was committing—I’m an atheist so this is the wrong word—I was committing a sin… “I was wasting the sacrifice” is better. So, for me, every time I got up in the morning, even if I didn’t go for a run or shoot, [I knew] I was missing out on spending this morning with my family in order to be here and do this, so this is what I’ll do. And this was a very strong driving force for me. 

There was also the idea that people were [saying] that what I was trying to achieve wasn’t possible. I started to play basketball when I was 17, and six years later I was starting for the Cleveland Cavaliers. People told me [it was] impossible to get to the NBA for an English person, they told me it was impossible for someone so late in the game to get to the NBA, and I wanted to prove them wrong.

For many athletes—they don’t talk about it in this way, because it’s unpalatable—but they identify the part of the reward of becoming an elite athlete that appeals to them, and they hold that with a laser-like focus in their minds. And that is not always the part that people talk about, because people often talk about “how I just love to play,” or “I love the fans.” For a lot of people, what they love is earning 50,000 pounds [about $82,500 US] a week. For a lot of people, what they love is to be adored by men, and to be idolized by women. They love that, and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that it’s basketball. There was also a group of people I played with for whom basketball was truly the thing they loved—I mean, there was a guy named Bo Outlaw who played in the league for many years, and it was just very clear that he loved to play, he loved to be on court, he loved to be running. What they do is identify the thing that’s important to them and hold it with great focus.

Improving how fast somebody runs only benefits you on the court. Improving someone’s mental approach to the game improves their longevity, their performance and also has tangential benefits.


BnR: Another mental trait or attitude of a great athlete is the ability to create positive habits and routines that include a good work ethic, as well as the ability to break negative habits, such as laziness. What’s different about an athlete’s mindset in this respect?

JA: I am intrinsically very lazy. Always have been, in terms of physical exercise. So I created a schedule that was incredibly tight in order that my personal weaknesses didn’t interfere with my goals. I built my house in Phoenix, Arizona, not because I love Phoenix, Arizona, but because in Phoenix, Arizona there was a trainer who worked well with me. And I built my house so close I could get out of bed and be at the gym in 90 seconds. And that was done not because I thought this was the best part of town to live in—indeed, it was the opposite of that—I did that because I knew that that kind of structure would remove the opportunity to create excuses. It was only as I got further into the league and the habits became more ingrained that I literally moved further away from where I worked out, because by that point, I knew I wouldn’t suffer from mornings when I would wake up and go “Ahh, I don’t want to drive.” 

BnR: So what it takes is removing the temptation to make excuses or to give into one’s weaknesses.

JA: The very best athletes, although they may not express their inner world very well, the very best athletes do introspection very well. They know what makes them tick, they know their weaknesses and they know their strengths. And although they may not share those things, they use that knowledge to help them create a life that gives them the best opportunity for success. 

BnR: Speaking of introspection and having good inner vision, that may play a bit into how athletes react to the ups and downs of life. NBA players obviously have to take the losses with the wins, so what do they do differently when facing them? Is it possible to become mentally tough when dealing with negative outcomes?

JA: I think the best athletes understand that their entire life in sport is about process and not about outcome. The very best understand that they come on the floor, and as long as they come with the mental attitude that as long as they come with the energy and the requisite focus, that that is controlling the maximum amount of things that they can control. Coming up against a team that is red hot on a day that you’re not is just one of those inevitable obstacles that you can’t control. That’s a very process-oriented way of thinking about things that I think the very best do. Routine, doing the same thing again and again, is exactly how they make sure they deal with their sporting life. And if they come out with a loss at the end, it hardly matters to them if they gave it everything they can. I’ve never seen anybody who’s been happy with a loss, but disappointment is a natural part of that. However, it isn’t a festering wound, which is how many people respond to loss, or losses, or challenges. That’s because they know that the technical mistakes that were made on the floor can be addressed (and that’s a positive), or they understand that they were simply outclassed on this occasion, which happens inevitably.


Photo: University of Salford/Creative Commons

BnR: From a player development standpoint, are there indicators or tests that can help discern young or new players who exhibit the traits to become a future success? 

JA: In a purely academic sense, I imagine that many of these traits are a product of positive parenting, and that if you have positive parenting, having had the life where your delay of gratification has been expanded with things like controlled crying, for example (which is the technique that some parents can use for weaning their children off the idea that they can cry every five seconds and get what they want). You can see how from the very beginning, you can parent into kids ideas about delay of gratification which are very important for goal orientation; ideas about picking challenging items that are not overwhelming to aim for in life; ideas about executive management of your lifetime. You can see how that is part of it. Surely, that is measurable. But at the same time, all of these are skills that you can develop. I think the biggest crime in the pathway to development of sports is that they focus almost entirely on the “what” of playing, and not enough on “how” to develop the athletes to maximize their skills. It can certainly be taught very easily. I’m doing a bit of work with the NBA right now on helping athletes with their transition to the league, and indeed their transition from the league when they’re finished. More of that would really be important.

BnR: Can you tell us a bit more about that new program?

JA: Essentially, he NBA’s always had training in place for players that’s been everything from drugs and alcohol awareness, to relationship advice and awareness, to financial management. But what we’ve realized is that you would be less likely to find yourself struggling with the adjustment to the NBA if you’re an emotionally literate, aware young man, which would make you more likely to be resilient against the thousands of people who will certainly come to you and tell you you’re the best thing since sliced bread. If you’ve done some introspection work and actually understand who you are and what you’re all about, if you actually sat down and made a plan about what it is you wanted to achieve in the world. These things are precursor factors that aren’t quite as broad as simply educating you about how not to spend money.

BnR: A good many NBA teams have psychologists on staff. In what ways do these staff members support their teams, and why are they necessary for the mental well-being of professional basketball players?

JA: I would always tell people who ask that question to imagine that are going to do your job—the job that you do regularly—however, that when you did it, a million people would be watching you. And along with that million people watching you, there would be an additional 10 million people across the world following what you are doing through the internet, including various clips from the day, and that you can’t control which clips are being used. And in addition to that, once you go home, at least once every six months somebody will do a story about what you do at home as well. You add that together, and you know why you need a psychologist.

BnR: Keying off some of the traits that we’ve discussed, in today’s NBA, which players would you consider good mental role models for wannabe ballers?

JA: Tim Duncan, and indeed, most of the veterans from that [San Antonio] Spurs team. Popovich, who is the coach of that team, said that they don’t bring people onto this team, onto the Spurs, until they’ve gotten over themselves, which is a highly unsophisticated way of talking about the fact that they look to themselves, understand that they aren’t necessarily “all that” in every context and could be plied into a team format more easily. Many of these players just understand their role, they understand longevity in the league, they understand how to apply their skills in the most efficient way possible on the floor. And while there may be stuff that’s flashy, it’s almost accidental. 


Conference Photo: SportBusiness/Creative Commons 

BnR: How do you feel about the current NBA season and how it’s shaping up?

JA: Yeah, I watch a little bit. The Spurs I think are a continuing surprise, I don’t think anybody would have predicted they would be top of the Western Conference right now. It’s not because people did not think that they were good, it’s just that they’re so forgettable in comparison to Oklahoma City, the Clippers and many of the other teams that are just more exciting to watch, perhaps. No, you know what, that’s not fair—they’re not more excited to watch, but have more highlight-film worthy clips on a daily basis. But I think they’re a shining example of consistency in sport.

BnR: Awesome! In terms of the mental aspects that separate good NBA players from the truly great ones, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

JA: I don’t think that the mental aspects of sport are as well utilized as the physical. I think if we think of the technical expertise of basketball teams, or any sports teams really, as near enough in the 90th percentile all the way up to the 100th percentile, and if we look at the strength and conditioning nowadays as being again in that 90th to 100th percentile with the cutting edge utilization of everything from hypobaric chambers, to [electrical muscle stimulation] and all of the stuff that’s going on out there, then the mental aspects of the game, on a consistent basis, are really not even in the 50th percentile.

I’ll be honest, I think that the impacts of that are much larger than people imagine. Not only is it the frontier where the largest of improvement can be made—given that anybody knows that moving from the 90th percentile to the 95th percentile is much more difficult than moving from the 50th to the 70th percentile—but the mental aspects can have impacts that are great for business. An athlete who has really, thoroughly sorted out the stuff that’s going on in their head is less likely to get involved in substance abuse, in or outside the league; is less likely to handle conflict by throwing people by throwing people through plate glass windows; is less likely to beat up on their partner; is less likely to say things that damage the club and their own brand in front of the cameras.

Improving how fast somebody runs only benefits you on the court. Improving someone’s mental approach to the game improves their longevity, their performance and also has tangential benefits [for which] there is good evidence. Improving people’s executive skills within practice, we know that tends to wash over into other aspects of people’s lives.

BnR: Thank you for your time! John Amaechi explores a different breed of elite athlete and the secret to their success in his new BBC One documentary, Inside the Medal FactoryFollow him on Twitter for more of his thoughts on success.


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