Staying Mentally Focused On and Off the Court

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It’s the closing seconds of the fourth quarter and the game is on the line. You’ve just been fouled and your team is down by two points — to your division rival. You walk to the free-throw line with the whole team, the whole arena, the whole city’s eyes upon you. Can you make the shots needed to tie the score?

Sports, much like life, offer plenty of pressure-packed situations. Board-certified neuropsychologist Dr. Benjamin Johnson-Markve, PsyD, ABPP-CN and Orlando Magic clinical sports psychologist Joe Carella are sharing some wisdom on how to manage stress and stay focused both on and off the court.

Breathe to Stay in the Moment

Breathing is second nature, an involuntary action we don’t have to think about. But Dr. Johnson-Markve says we should be focusing on it more.

“I always start with breathing. It helps us focus and center ourselves more than anything else. Try a nice deep, diaphragmatic, three or four second inhale through the nose and one second out through the mouth,” he says. “When you do that multiple times, it that helps you to stay present and attentive to what's going on or what activity you’re trying to accomplish.”

Staying in the moment can help us stay on task and live a more balanced life in so many ways. With so much outside stimuli, distractions and pressure in today’s world, the ability to stay focused and lead a mindful life has never been more difficult.

Dr. Johnson-Markve likes to recommend the “Five Senses” approach to calm your mind: “It's called the Five Senses because we ask that you look around the room and essentially go through and focus on your senses. Five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste. This can center your attention and help you get a task done.”

Find the Source of Your Anxieties

Sometimes the physical symptoms of anxiety can overwhelm us. Dr. Johnson-Markve says tightness in your chest, a racing heart and sweating could signal an impending panic attack. He acknowledges that when people start to feel these symptoms, many times they don’t know what to do.

“That’s when we will go through an extensive question and answer session to find out what’s at the root of the anxiety or what are the things causing the stress. Maybe we can change a situation or address how a person is reacting to it. There can be genetic and biological components that factor in as well. But oftentimes it's about how we respond and react to life stressors and situations.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Dr. Johnson-Markve knows the importance of repetition for successful results: “One of the reasons players shoot so many free throws in practice, or why we rehearse a speech before giving it in front of a crowd, is because when we have so much memorization, we don’t have to think about the physical or cognitive activity we’re doing. If we can alleviate the stress, we can perform well and focus on the here and now.”

“Some of it is preparation, and some of it comes back to breathing and staying connected to yourself, knowing your body, and knowing how to calm and soothe yourself in high-pressure situations.”

Keeping the Orlando Magic Mentally Sharp

Orlando Magic clinical sports psychologist Joe Carella is available when any member of the Magic organization needs him: “They have my contact info on the ready.”

Carella spends quite a bit of time with both the team and management. “I work with the front office on draft analysis,” he explains. “We'll do interviews at the NBA combine where I supply the team with summaries of what I observe, assessments of player personalities and how players process information. Then when the team is assembled in the preseason, I will meet with every player, especially the new ones, and provide the players with an understanding of the resource that I can be to them. How I can help them manage their lives off the court and their performance on it. I’m here to help them optimize their real life and their basketball life.”

Carella spends a considerable amount of time with the team throughout a given year. Visiting every month in the offseason, throughout training camp, even traveling with the team multiple times per year on road trips. Sometimes he’ll even meet with a coach and player together to help them communicate.

His time with the team has resulted in a trusted relationship with Magic head coach Steve Clifford. “Coach Clifford trusts me enough to bounce ideas off me about how to frame things and best communicate with his guys,” Carella explains. “And that goes for the front office and performance staff as well; I help them with any mental health questions about life or from a competition standpoint.”

The drafting of players can be especially difficult. Carella offers as much insight as he can, even while admitting it is never an exact science.

“It’s the toughest part in some ways. How can you ever really predict how an 18, 19 or 20-year-old person is going to function in four years down the road under completely different circumstances? The notoriety when you're in the NBA is completely different, it is global. We try to do a comprehensive assessment. And if you’re right 50% of the time, you’re doing phenomenal.”

Living in the Now

Carella likes to help the athletes tune out the distractions to maximize their performance and be at peace with their role on the team, too. “The primary framework I use for helping any athlete perform at their best is helping them understand and recognize the three components of all levels of psychology, both on and off the court:

  1. What we think
  2. What we feel
  3. What we do

With the thinking part, it's really about what is relevant right now. How to use mindfulness and focus on the present. What time is it? The answer is always ‘now.’ So what do I have control over at this time? When a player is on the court, all they can control is their behavior, how they regulate their emotions, and what stories they tell themselves."

Time to Sink Those Free Throws

It takes discipline to be present and minimize distractions. “You have to keep the irrelevant things at bay during the game. What is happening with family? What is happening in the crowd? What is happening with relationships with teammates? Helping folks distinguish between what is relevant and what is irrelevant is of utmost importance. Staying focused in the here and now, while creating the most positive story framework with what we’re trying to accomplish,” Carella says.

Life is coming at us from so many different angles these days. As we all juggle family, work, health and social lives, it’s important to stay centered, live in the moment and let go of what you cannot control. Making time for yourself to decompress and focus is key to finding a healthy balance and sense of peace.

As the Official Health Care Provider of the Orlando Magic, we’re committed to enhancing the healthy, active lives of players, fans and the Central Florida Community. Know that whatever you’re facing, we’re here for you with compassionate whole-person care. Learn more about our behavior health services here.

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