Injuries are an unavoidable, if unfortunate, part of life in the NBA. The combination of giant athletes running, jumping, cutting and colliding with one another portends all manner of maladies, from stress fractures and sprains to torn ligaments and broken bones.
The sport's best and brightest certainly aren't immune to such consequences. If anything, NBA superstars are more susceptible to serious injury. They play more minutes than most, exert more effort than most, shoulder more of their respective teams' burdens than most and, in turn, are paid more mind by opposing defenses than most.
It's no wonder, then, that so many top-tier talents have wound up in the training room in recent years, with Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo among the most notable names. We hear so much about surgical procedures, rehabilitation regimes and timetables for physical recovery.
However, rarely is any attention given to the mental side of a major injury, perhaps because it's so difficult to quantify or qualify in any general way. The field of sports medicine has come so far in a short period of time, but still has plenty of work to do in dealing with the psychology of such setbacks.
For a bit of insight into these matters, I turned to someone working just outside the scope of traditional sports performance improvement. Art Rondeau of Peak Performance Coaching has spent decades applying the principles of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), which were pioneered by famed motivational speaker Tony Robbins, to athletes at the collegiate and professional levels, most notably former New York Knicks All-Star Allan Houston.
The core of Rondeau's approach—changing an athlete's beliefs about her/himself—applies to injuries, as well. How quickly and how well a given player recovers from a particular problem can, in some ways, be affected by that player's outlook, both generally and in relation to the specific circumstances at hand.
For instance, as Rondeau explained, there's a big difference between an NBA player who views a wound as yet another setback in a never-ending line of them to one who sees it as an opportunity to overcome an obstacle. The language used indicates a certain emotional state. Each emotional state is correlated with different hormones in the blood, which, in turn, can affect the chemistry of the blood and way the body recovers.
In other words, Rondeau's regime emphasizes the connection between the mental and the physical.
Which is vital in the case of a recovering NBA star. Imagine, for a moment, that you're Derrick Rose. You know, just your run-of-the-mill, 23-year-old superstar point guard with a league MVP in his back pocket. You've risen to the top of your sport with a herky-jerky, uber-athletic style that causes crowds to swoon but, beneath the surface, puts tremendous pressure on the tendons and ligaments in your joints.
The following season is delayed by a prolonged lockout, though you get paid all the same—$94.8 million over five years, to be more precise. Amidst all the accolades and expectations, your body begins to break down, as does your feeling of invincibility. One lower body injury leads to another, which leads to another.
Until, in a playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, you pull up lame with a torn ACL. You're done for the postseason. After undergoing surgery, you'll need months of grueling physical therapy before you're ready to play again.
How do you cope with all of that? How do you deal with the reality that your body has betrayed you, that you can't play the game you love and that lifted you out of horrific circumstances on the South Side of Chicago?
Do you look at your torn-up knee like Roseanne Roseannadanna would (skip to the 3:11 mark)? Or do you think of it as a challenge, and then, remembering all the challenges you've already overcome in your life, take heart in the experience that's to come?
According to Rondeau, that distinction can make a significant difference in the recovery process. In Rose's case, he ultimately wound up on the more positive end of things, even after suggesting that tearing his ACL constituted his closest brush with death yet.
Andrea Bargnani, though not anywhere near Rose's level as a player, expressed similarly shifting sentiments after tearing ligaments in his elbow back in December (via Ryan Wolstat of The Toronto Sun):
“I’m very upset that it’s something very bad again, kind of depressed.
“It was a bad fall, could have been worse, could have broke some of my bones, my wrist, so I got lucky in certain ways, but it’s really bad. Bad moment, bad timing, everything.
“You have to think this kind of stuff happens (it’s) sports, try to stay positive."
For Rose, Bargnani and numerous others, one's trust and belief in the power of the human body to heal itself, and in the wisdom of doctors and other medical experts to guide that healing, can be vital in the effort to shift that internal narrative.
As well as to mend the "mental split" that's often created in the event of an injury. Again, to inhabit Rose's shoes, after tearing your ACL, you might now distinguish between playing safe and playing fast and loose, where once there was only playing. Per Rondeau, this split is the result of a self-defense mechanism, whereby the mind creates a break as a means of preventing the same sort of trauma from reoccurring.
If you're D-Rose, then, you might tell yourself that you should take it easy, that you should cut down on the violent acrobatics that were your signature, lest you throw yourself in harm's way again.
This division can lead to its own physical consequences. Suppose you come back from that torn ACL and decide not to go full-throttle quite as often. There might be an occasion in which, by "pumping the brakes" a bit, you wind up inviting more physical contact rather than speeding around it or through it. That, in itself, could result in further damage.
All of which is to say nothing of the hit to your confidence that such an approach intimates. If you no longer trust the efficacy of your own body, and become tentative as a result, can you really be as effective on the court as you once were?
Think of Andris Biedrins. The big man for the Golden State Warriors suffered through a litany of injuries in 2009-10, during which he also saw the beginning of his notorious problems at the free-throw line. Might those injuries, and the accompanying drop in confidence, have affected his performance at the stripe?
The key—in Rose's situation, and in Rondeau's estimation—is to reunite those disparate perceptions, to get the player in question to believe that playing safe and playing normally are one in the same.
But what about the days, weeks and months in between a major injury and a return from said injury? What's a guy to do with all that downtime outside of rehab, when he can't take to the court?
For some, the time away from the game is an opportunity to engage other interests and professional pursuits. New York Knicks guard Iman Shumpert sought out a side career in the world of hip hop (albeit with mixed results) while working his way back from an ACL tear. Such hobbies, in Rondeau's estimation, can indirectly assist the recovery process by boosting the player's mood and keeping up his confidence in the absence of basketball.
Andrew Bynum infamously hunted for fulfillment on the bowling lanes while dealing with knee problems of his own. But, by Bynum's own admission, the physical impact of bowling likely delayed his full recovery.
How might someone in Bynum's position find the contentment that comes from such physical activity without jeopardizing his health? Here, the use of visualization (i.e. closing one's eyes and imagining the activity in question) can replace some of the benefits that'd otherwise be lost without physical exertion.
It may seem strange that merely thinking about an activity can have any impact, much less a powerful one. But consider a study conducted at the University of Chicago by Dr. Judd Blaslotto, to which Rondeau directed me.
Dr. Blaslotto wanted to measure the effect of visualization on free-throw shooting. So, he gathered a group of basketball players, recorded their existing free-throw percentages to establish a baseline, and split the players themselves into three groups. The first group would practice their free throws for an hour each day for 30 days. The second group would go to the gym, but rather than shooting, would spend the time laying down and visualizing the shot. The third group, meanwhile, would do nothing, if not actively try not to think about or engage with the game.
Predictably enough, the third group saw little, if any, improvement, and the overall accuracy of the first group shot up by 24 percent. Of greater note, though, was the spike seen in the second group—23 percent—despite its constituents having gone the month without so much as attempting a real, live free throw.
Hypothetically, this same technique could help a basketball lifer like Derrick Rose develop his game and keep his spirits in working order even while he's laid up with a bum knee. By devoting time and energy during his day to visualizing different aspects of the game (shooting, dribbling, rebounding, defending, etc.), an NBA player might be able to derive benefits similar to those he'd see from actually playing, even while his body prevents him from doing so.
To be sure, such techniques are far from proven in these situations and at this level. Methods like those employed by Art Rondeau remain rather clandestine in a realm dominated by more conventional medicine.
Nonetheless, in thinking about Rondeau's approach, we can begin to unravel the mystery behind the mental side of basketball's most devastating injuries, even if only some small way. What's most important, though, isn't a complete mapping of the emotional aspects that accompany a physical affliction, but rather a rudimentary understanding of and sympathy for the human beings who sacrifice their bodies and minds for their own economic benefit as well as our entertainment.
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