There are many physical risks for NBA players entering the semi-permeable bubble at Walt Disney World to resume the 2019-20 season — chiefly the danger of contracting the COVID-19 virus or suffering a serious injury following a four-month layoff from competitive basketball. With all of that at the forefront, however, we can’t ignore the mental health dangers associated with this unprecedented situation.
To get an idea of the biggest challenges to mental health for players in Orlando, I spoke with Dr. Jesse Michel, a Certified Mental Performance Consultant who has a PhD in sport and exercise psychology and two master’s degrees — one in counseling and the other in exercise science. He’s been a mental skills coordinator for the Houston Astros for the last three and a half years, and worked with Army soldiers for four years before that, so he has experience both with athletes and with individuals facing extreme environments with a real threat to health and safety.
First and foremost, Michel said, it’s important to recognize the importance of mental health and mental training in regards to the performance of an athlete and their overall well-being. Michel breaks up performance into three areas: physical (strength, speed, power), technical (execution) and mental (confidence, focus, coping with adversity, responding to failure).
“I don’t know what percentage is what for every player, but I know all three are really important, and I know that on game day, the mental side is arguably the most important,” Michel told CBS Sports. “And so it’s about helping the player understand that you can train up all three sides — you don’t have to just leave it up to chance. The reason you played well that day wasn’t because you put your socks on one way or had juice in the morning. It’s really a purposeful way to train up the mind to get ready for performance.”
The NBA situation is particularly unique because the players aren’t just worrying about performance — they’re also trying to figure out how to remain in a good mental space despite being away from their families and support system for at least a month, while being limited to the Disney campus for as long as three months. All of this under the constant threat of contracting a potentially fatal virus. Forget winning a championship — simply making it to the end of the season in Orlando will be a challenge in itself.
It’s also going to be almost a 180-degree transition from what the players have grown accustomed to over the past three months. Most players have been quarantined, spending much more time with their family and friends than they normally would during the season, and some have been engaged in social justice initiatives and Black Lives Matter protests, which has given them a support system and sense of purpose during a difficult time. All of that goes away when the player enters the bubble. There are built-in ways to maintain social connections with others like video games, cards and pool, and players will, of course, be able and encouraged to communicate with their loved ones via social media and video conferencing tools. But will that be enough? Michel thinks that in some cases, the player going back to work in a safe environment could actually be beneficial for both the player and their family.
“I’d imagine, honestly, there might be some families or some family dynamics where they want him to get out of the house and go back to work. It could be that too, right?” Michel said. “It’s almost like, not only are we happy that you get to go and do what you want to do, but it’s pretty high security there, so they have full confidence that the players are going to be supported, that there’s no danger of getting into trouble, everything’s there for them. So it might be a relief to some families.”
The social dynamics between players are going to be fascinating as well — anyone who attended a summer camp as a child or teenager knows that social circles form quickly, which can lead to certain groups being alienated. Michel said that in sports, just as in society at large, athletes tend to cluster based on shared interests or background — being from the same city or state, being in the same draft class or playing the same position, for example.
Because these social circles mirror those of the real world, Michel said that they aren’t necessarily harmful, and can actually lead to team success. But it’s essential that the team culture allows everyone to have a voice that they feel is legitimately heard. This is an area that has come into question recently, as some NBA players were reportedly upset that their opinions were not considered before the NBPA agreed to the league’s plan to restart the season. “Culture” has become a buzzword in the NBA, with teams like the Spurs, Heat, Clippers and Raptors generally at the top of those discussions, but it could be even more important in the bubble.
“I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to have that hierarchy, because inherently it’s going to happen, but you’ve got to make sure that the leaders at the top are OK with going to the younger players or the ones that might not make as much money or that don’t have the same type of voice and getting input from them, and then listening to them and being heard,” Michel said. “That’s the type of relationship of culture and trust that you want in a team, and I think is probably sustainable and leads to winning, too.”
In terms of the virus itself, Michel said that players who are generally more susceptible to stress and anxiety might have a more difficult time adapting to the constant “invisible threat,” but that it’s important for teammates, coaches and mental skills trainers to take a fact-based approach and make sure that the player’s fears are rational. If it’s too much to handle, that player should receive additional support. For that reason, Michel encourages teams to have a mental health professional on-site as part of their 34 allowed personnel.
Even if a player manages to work through being away from their support system and adequately allays the fear of contracting COVID-19, they still have to worry about performing on the court in this bizarre, fanless situation. In order to maintain performance, Michel suggests that players prepare a plan for their new routine prior to entering the bubble and make sure that they make time for themselves every day throughout their stay in Orlando. The hardest part, in his opinion, will be generating the same energy and focus in what amounts to a training camp environment. Michel alluded to the famous 1992 Team USA scrimmage between Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and other legends, which has been described as one of the most intense games of all time despite no fans being there to watch it.
“For me that’s the interesting part. How do these guys get up the same level of energy, confidence, focus, the same level of intensity?” Michel said. “How do you bring that level of intensity to every single night when nobody’s around? If I’m a mental skills coach for one of these teams, that’s what I’m asking. Because if that’s the case, you’ve blocked out everything else. You’re so locked into the game, you’re so locked into what you need to do that night that really nothing else matters.”
Fan interaction is a crucial component of any sport, but particularly basketball where spectators are sometimes literally sitting on the bench right next to players. Teams like the Golden State Warriors have fed off their crowds to spark insurmountable runs, and in the playoffs things go to another level. Some players have even said they thrive off rival crowds booing them. The NBA is experimenting with different ways for fans to engage during games, but there won’t be anyone in the stands. It’s going to be up to players to generate much of that energy and focus on their own.
“What do they need to do mentally, what’s their mental routine before games during the season and how can they bring that to this little bubble?” Michel said. “And if they don’t have the same resources, well, they better find something or they better talk through how they’re going to make adjustments. Because you want to feel, and you want to be in the same mental and emotional state that you are before a game in Madison Square Garden that you are in the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex with 15 people there.”