An Inside Look at the Mental Side of an NBA Star Returning from Serious Injury

Art RondeauSpecial ColumnistMarch 14, 2013

When an NBA player returns from a serious injury, the mental "hurdle" can often be difficult to clear.

We've seen that firsthand with Derrick Rose, who remains on the sidelines after tearing his ACL in the 2012 postseason. Although he's been medically cleared to play, Rose hasn't rejoined his Chicago Bulls team yet during the 2012-13 season.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by Bleacher Report to be interviewed for an article that Bleacher Report’s Josh Martin was writing regarding the mental aspect of elite athletes coming back from injury.  The primary focus of the article was Derrick Rose.  Although I’ve long known how important the mental aspect of sports is, little did I know how prophetic Josh’s article would turn out.

As was reported on March 9 by’s Melissa Isaacson, Rose has been pronounced physically ready to play.  According to the report, a team source said "[Rose] told the Bulls that until he feels 'in his mind' he can confidently dunk off his left foot in a game situation, he is not 100 percent mentally ready to return to competition."

And, as the video clip below shows, Rose admits that he’s not ready to return just yet.

Rose deserves a lot of credit for being as honest as he has been about the mental hurdles he’s faced.  That honestly allows us to better determine what’s really happening with Rose and look to see if there are ways he can reach his targets more quickly. 

It also helps the majority of us, who aren’t superstar athletes, understand that what we go through in returning from our own injuries is similar to what those playing at the top level of sports go through.


Between Rose’s statement regarding “not thinking” and what the team source said Rose stated about wanting to “confidently dunk off his left foot in a game situation,” there are some questions that Rose can answer for himself and some ideas that may help him identify when he has hit his mental targets. 

Of course, any suggestions assume that Rose continues to do as well physically as he has stated he’s doing.  Whether the suggestions are taken or not, Derrick ultimately has to make his own decision about when and where to return to NBA action.

Before we begin, it’s beneficial to review Rose’s injury.  As a review of the play shows, Rose jumped to his right, primarily off his left leg, landed on both feet and immediately jumped almost straight up.  Sometime between his first landing and his second jump, the injury began.  It became apparent during that second jump that his left knee was badly injured.  Throughout the entire play, he touched none of the other players.

This last piece is significant because it means the injury “came out of nowhere.”  If a player is knocked to the ground and gets hurt, he knows the cause was getting knocked down and will eventually adjust his game accordingly.  If someone slips on the ice, they avoid ice. 

But what if they’re just walking on dry pavement and still slip and fall?  What is the “cause” of the fall that they can avoid in the future?  Who knows?  So they walk with less confidence.  Rose jumped in the air, was untouched and got hurt badly when he landed.  It’s a move he’s probably made hundreds or thousands of times in his career.  What can he do in the future to avoid injury?  Not jump?  Not come down?  Without a “cause” to point to, uncertainty becomes part of the equation.  And uncertainty and confidence rarely go hand in hand.

Yet Rose says he wants to “confidently dunk off his left foot in a game situation” before returning.  Here’s where a couple of questions can be of assistance.  Most of my work is based on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).  NLP has identified something called a “convincer strategy.”  How many times or for how long does someone need to see/hear/feel/do something before they are convinced?  Infomercial producers, for example, know that most of the U.S. buying public need one, two or three reasons to convince them to buy a product. 


That’s why you’ll see infomercials present the product and its benefits (one reason); say “but wait!” and throw in a set of steak knives (two reasons); and say “but wait!” and reduce the purchase price by a few dollars (three reasons).  The infomercial has now hit the convincer strategy of most of the people watching it.  Knowing about convincer strategies allows the company to succeed in selling products.

Knowing specifics about his own convincer strategy will help Rose be aware of when he’s dunked off his left foot enough times in game situations to feel confident enough to return to playing NBA games.  Does he have to dunk “X” number of times in a day?  “Y” number of times per day for “Z” days?  The correct answer here is the one that Rose comes up with.  Knowing the answers to these questions will help him know that he has, in fact, reached his target.

A side note here: it’s very easy to feel confident anytime you want to.  If a person doesn’t feel confident, he or she can just think of a time when they did feel confident.  In pulling up the memory, (s)he will feel the same feelings that (s)he experienced the first time.  So confidence, or any other emotion, in and of itself is no big deal to access.  If that’s really all Rose needed, he could be back on the court in about five minutes.

But what Rose really needs here are experiences to support his belief that his knee is ready to play in an NBA game again.  Thinking back to when he could dunk off his left foot, pre-injury, won’t help.  He needs to experience these successful dunks, post-recovery, so that he’s not just taking the doctors’ word for his recovery but has experiential proof that all is well.

The more recent comment of “When I’m out there and I’m not thinking, I’m just reacting, that’s how I know I’ll be ready” has a couple of built-in traps which, fortunately, are easy to get around if you know that they’re there.  Trap No. 1: if he won’t play in the game until he’s ready and he won’t be ready until he’s playing in the game and not thinking, this becomes an egg-and-chicken type of thing. 


Trap No. 2: self-starting aspects of sports (serving a tennis ball, hitting a golf ball, taking a free throw) all have the potential for that little voice inside our heads to get us thinking too much.  And Rose’s thinking about when he’ll be ready to get back to playing automatically employs that little voice.  Left to its own devices, that little voice often keeps us from performing our best.

Here’s a suggestion for avoiding both of these traps: when Rose, his doctors and the Bulls all agree the time is right, have D-Rose play limited minutes and a limited game.  Have him come in as a sub a minute or two into the first and third quarters—since he’ll still be stretched out and warmed up—and play two minutes and only play from three-point line to three-point line. 

If he’s ahead of the field on a fast break, he stops at the three-point line.  If he gets picked off on defense, he switches.  If his man heads through the lane, Rose stays at the three-point line.  Assuming he continues to feel good physically, he plays the full two minutes even if he plays poorly.  Even if he hits six threes in those two minutes, he still comes out.  The parameters of his game time are agreed to (and maybe released to the media) ahead of time. 

This isn’t about D-Rose helping the Bulls win a game.  It’s about helping D-Rose get back on the horse that threw him and about getting him critical information that will allow him to get back on that horse, full time, as quickly as possible.

This approach does a few things: first, it eliminates the egg and the chicken thing.  Second, he’s playing in NBA games (in a safe manner) and is able to evaluate how he’s actually playing in NBA games, not how he thinks he might play in one. 

At best, he’ll find himself playing instinctively, like he wants to.  At worst, he finds that he’s thinking more than he wants to and can take steps toward getting that under control.  There are a number of NLP techniques that would quickly assist Rose with this.

Assuming Rose continues to be cleared physically, getting this type of actual NBA game situation data this season is vital.  Waiting until next season means months of uncertainty about his ability to play until NBA games start being played again in October. 

If he can get back to playing full court and long minutes this season, it will be outstanding.  If he can’t, he’ll know, with certainty, which things he needs to work on—mentally and physically—during the offseason so that he’ll come back at full strength when the 2013-14 NBA season begins.

Derrick Rose is a highly talented player who is exciting to watch.  We owe it to him, and to ourselves, to give him the space and time he needs to bring his talent back to the NBA.  He’s handled his injury and subsequent recovery with strength, determination and dignity.  The NBA will be a better place when he returns—as soon as he is ready and not a day sooner.


Art Rondeau is an NLP Trainer with unique success helping NBA, NCAA, WTA, LPGA, and Olympic athletes with the mental side of sports. Follow him on Twitter here.