In The Zone: Meditation With The Miami Heat and The Modern NBA Athlete

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As I walked into the visitor’s locker room of the hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, meanest, nastiest team in the NBA on Nov. 9 at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, it stuck out more than ever just how physically gifted the modern NBA player is.

It’s so easy to forget how throwback NBA players weren’t always this healthy. You don’t have to go back very far to find tales of athletes ignoring nutrition or strength and conditioning. Even the 90s NBA has plenty of stories of players refusing to lift weights, drinking beer before games, and bringing McDonalds bags to practice.

That eventual shift to the weight room seemed to spring from a rapid recognition around the league of exploiting any last undeniable competitive advantage. As Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra likes to say, “Adapt or die.”

The transformation from days of playing out of shape, avoiding weight training, and eating fast food have long been replaced by year-round strength and conditioning, nutritionists, and personal chefs.

How much stronger and faster can the modern NBA player possibly get?

Naturally, players will continue to develop their basketball skills. With every 7-foot prospect who shows up on the scene with the ability to shoot, dribble, and pass like a guard while blocking shots and rebounding like a center, the game never stops evolving in tangible ways.

But what about the intangibles? What about the next competitive edge that has yet to be awakened and maximized? The top athletic physique of today has seemingly arrived at pretty darn close to its peak, so where does the next evolution of the athlete manifest itself?

The NBA has increased focus on the mental wellness of its athletes, partnering with resources such as Headspace (a meditation app) and introducing its content to players at the Rookie Transition Program.

When you hear an NBA player talk about being “in the zone,” they often talk about how the game slows down for them. How the rim grows wider and wider. How every shot feels great — even the ones that miss feel like they are going in. Players have talked about the zone being a place where they are so “locked in” they feel as if they are in an almost trance-like state.

Well, what if you can access that “in the zone” state more often? For longer periods of time? What if eventually, it could be accessed at will? Sounds about as crazy as someone describing LeBron James to me in 1991.

In asking Miami Heat players their thoughts about meditation, mindfulness, and visualization, many shared how it has benefited their journey in the NBA.

“I think its good. It’s calming. Soothes the mind, you know, just puts you in a good place,” Heat forward Kelly Olynyk said. “I’d like to do it more. I did the most meditating in college. I took a meditation class. That was the most I’ve done it. It was beneficial. It’s kind of a learned skill that you can’t really expect to be good at it right away. And you have to be okay with that (not being good at it) at that start.”

Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr. said he started meditating more this season since signing a two-year deal.

“I actually started this year. It’s something we’ve been talking about. It’s something that helps me with my game and everyday life,” Jones Jr. said. “I try to do it at must as possible, at least two times a week, when I’m at home or when I’m in my room alone.”

And the results of reaching higher consciousness, according to Airplane Mode?

“I feel like I’m much calmer. I’m more calm, cool, and collected. I mean, especially when I’m out on the court. I feel like my mind isn’t racing a mile a minute anymore. The game is coming a lot smoother to me, and the game is a whole lot slower now,” he said.

For Josh Richardson, having an app on his phone has helped him get started. Richardson has even explored some mindfulness tools with Heat assistant coach Chris Quinn.

“It’s an app I have on my phone. It’s called Vision Pursue. Coach Quinn and I, we do it, [and] talk about it,” he said.

Richardson’s results seem to mirror that of Jones Jr.

“I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s like you’re more at peace a lot of the time. When things get going fast or something, it’s like, I can slow it down a little bit.”

For NBA journeyman Wayne Ellington, he has used it as a tool to relax during the busy NBA life.

“I definitely need to do more of it,” he said. “I was introduced to it probably midway through my career. It’s something that definitely calms you. Any thoughts you’re having or doubts, it gets rid of them for me. I use it as a relaxation tool to keep my thoughts straight and mental right.”

All-star guard Goran Dragic has reaped the benefits but expressed that it’s not easy to find the time to do it on a regular basis. Most people who have attempted these practices can probably relate to that sentiment.

“It’s good, especially before a big game. Just to relax, focus on your breathing. It’s something I have had good experiences with,” he said.

The Dragon stopped short of saying he practices meditation regularly, though.

“If I said I did it regularly, I would lie,” Dragic said with a chuckle. “You know when you go through stressful moments, it helps just to clear your mind. Especially, the breathing techniques.”

“But not every day, you know, with the kids at home,” he said with a smile.

As a father of two myself, I know very well the challenges of finding the time to be still and quiet at home.

When I asked Udonis Haslem about meditation, he had a unique perspective as he talked about doing it, but in his own way.

Haslem discussed using visualization to prepare for playing sports at the highest level. When asked if he mediated:

“In my own way, yes. In a quiet place, just thinking, envisioning things before they happen. I’ve done that. The night before the game, game days,” Haslem said.

I think its always good to visualize something before it happens. Put yourself in that place, before you actually end up in that place,” Haslem added. “For me, when I sit down the night before the game, like when we played in the Finals, I would envision myself doing my job, envision myself in different situations, and play both sides. I play the side where I become the hero. I play the side where I make a mistake. Each way, I look at it from both sides.”

When asked if he ever meditated during a game like LeBron James famously did on the bench in the NBA Finals as a member of the Miami Heat:

“Yeah, sit back, close my eyes. Take a couple deep breaths. I don’t know if it’s considered meditation. You have to take yourself to that place sometimes,” Haslem said.

I believe what has worked for great ones like Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, Derek Jeter, and Lebron James in going to “that place” may be the key to unlocking a new element of greatness that has yet to be fully harnessed by athletes everywhere.

“For some reason, it’s one of those things, you never find enough time to do it. Right?” Olynyk remarked.

Maybe the time is now.

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