Larry Sanders, Professional Sports, and Mental Health

(Photo: Jed Jacobsohn)

During my university days, I once opened up to a professor about feeling depressed and anxious, and completely stressed out – what we call mental health issues. She responded by saying “the worst thing you can do is isolate yourself.” I can’t tell you how much those words helped. Just knowing that in the middle of academia, with its own unique and unrelenting versions of pressure and stress, that this person listened and shared her own war stories. That I wasn’t alone was the only thing that helped. That was 6 years ago, and I was an undergraduate student having a series of never-ending shitty days.

We are all built differently, but with the same parts.

Larry Sanders, formerly of the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association (NBA) recently opened up about what makes him who he is, and about the man behind the facade of lights, contractually-obliges censorship, one can easily become a series of canned one-liners. We all know the standard monotone-laden snippets: I just need to do better for my team/I just gotta keep getting better and better/we have to play hard for 48 minutes/etc. It’s a shock to that system when one of the proletariat changes course – in this case a very well-salaried proletariat, but I digress. Speaking out about voluntarily attending a program for anxiety, depression, and mood disorders is not an easy thing to do, especially in the spotlight of the greatest stage in his field.

Professional athletes are supposed to entertain us, take us away from our day-to-day lives, and gIve us a place to project all of our shit and anger and hopes and of course money. They’re not supposed to feel, to hurt, and if they do, they’re supposed to suck it up and get on with the show. They don’t get paid to feel. They get paid to win. This is why they’re paid incredulous salaries. This whole mountain of pressure falls on their shoulders to perform, even when they are having a shitty day. Let’s face it, we all have them. So why are athletes different?

Everyone’s come up with their own theories about why I’ve been absent since leaving the Bucks. I knew people would speculate, but the crazy thing to me is that people are making it about the money. As a person who grew up with nothing, I know money is important. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the chance to play in the NBA. But at the same time, that’s not what fuels me. I’ve never chased money. It’s never been how I define success. Happiness isn’t behind a golden gate. – Larry Sanders, The Players’ Tribune.

For anyone that has dealt with similar issues, no amount of money can make it right.

See the entire video here:

Can we relate to Sanders?

He is not the first member of the NBA to have struggled with these issues, and he certainly won’t be the last. I’m certain that many are suffering right now, but functionally need to rationalize within themselves that maintaining the status quo is the better decision (versus going public). Families to feed, etc. This goes for the NHL, NFL, and all other professional sports leagues, and hell, for life generally. I know first-hand what it feels like to admit the problem, having myself dealt with similar issues of anxiety and depression. It’s no easy feat – let alone when the pressures of big sports and/or real life compound what you’re feeling.

Without these things [mental wellness] being corrected, I don’t think basketball would be something that I could do – Larry Sanders, Bucks.comTV, January 6, 2015

This statement applies to life. Just replace basketball with whatever it is that you do in your life.

I’m curious to know what you think. Agree? Disagree? Drop a line below.


Phil Jackson – Coach, Mentor, Teacher, ‘Zen Master’

(Photo: Mark Ralston; AFP; Getty Images)

“If you meet the Buddha in the lane, make sure you feed him the ball.” – Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson is the man. He is without question the best coach in NBA history, leading Kobe and Mike (and Shaq) to multiple championships. Some would say he couldn’t have done it without them. I would argue the reverse: championship teams always have great players on them. He has replicated the pinnacle of success more times than any NBA coach ever, and has now embarked upon on the laborious task of rebuilding the New York Knicks (a storied franchise that has flirted with mediocrity over the past 10+ years).

Why is he the TPM Progressive of the Month?

In the big business of professional sports, coaches are the balance-makers between revenue generation and player development. They are given a small army of players, and expected to make it work. Focus too heavily on one aspect, and the other suffers (which might mean your job). In the case of markets where winning isn’t required (see Toronto for more), this pressure isn’t as high.

So, what distinguishes Jackson from his other coaches?

1. Coaches are supposed to win – not only did he win, he fundamentally applied a new selfless system (the Triangle offense) to that end. It forces players to work together, and to read each other, for the best shot possible. We can never extricate his successes from the players he worked with, but that is really a moot point, isn’t it? Eleven championship rings speak loudly.

2. Good coaches are supposed to inspire and motivate – this he did. Through his work, he activates the Situational Leadership model which is the antithesis to the ‘one size fits all’ mentoring and coaching approach. This required him to establish authentic connections to his players, for example making recommendations on what books to read at specific points in time, that were relevant to each player. This is really a tactic that can only be effective by truly knowing what makes someone tick. It is in blending elements of indigenous and Buddhist spirituality together that Jackson has essentially created a new model of leadership development, and in doing so, garnered the title of ‘Zen Master’. This ultimately leads to…

3. ESPN’s Chris Broussard stating that, “[b]eing a great NBA coach is about managing egos, earning your players’ respect, developing team chemistry, making (in-game and off-day) adjustments, and emphasizing the right things. And no one’s ever done all that better than Jackson.”

4. Jackson brought together a group of men who operate in a testosterone-driven environment – complete with traditional gender roles, competitive fangs, and stereotypes of manliness – to open up, hold hands, meditate, and transcend the individual for the group.

While mindfulness has been thrown around as a buzz word, here’s the thing – it works. Applying it to your personal life, daily practice, business, or management strategy helps you achieve great things. It quiets out the noise and lets you and your team focus on the goal at hand: whether greater productivity or inner peace.

The ‘Jackson School of Management’ translates off the court as well – see this Forbes article on Jackson.

I encourage you to read up on Phil Jackson, TPM’s Progressive of the Month. Search for the book at a local public library, or better yet, grab it from your local bookstore.

Selected bibliography:

Sacred Hoops

Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success