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Basketball is Psychology: Introductory Blog

Updated: Dec 7, 2018

What is Psychology?

Psychology is defined as the science of the mind and its effect on behavior. Psychology analyzes the 3 pound organ that is the headquarters for your thoughts, perceptions, ideas, memories, conscious and unconscious movements and functions, and so much more. Everything you do and who you are is a result of your mental states and processes.

So what does psychology have to do with basketball?


Each shot, pass, sprint, and dribble you have ever taken was initiated by your brain. Your brain is what moves your body. It all starts in your head.

Your brain manages more than just your physical actions. Your mind also controls and processes all of your emotions. Basketball is an emotional game. Many people describe their basketball journey as a love story. But chances are if you have ever been a part of a basketball game, you’ve also felt the roller coaster of emotions it brings- from nervousness, excitement, to frustration, and maybe even burnout. Basketball has a way of bringing out all of your emotions- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The clinical side of psychology also seeks to ensure mental health. One in 6 adults live with a mental illness, and basketball players and coaches are not exempt. Right now, there's more pressure than ever to succeed because of the visibility social media brings. Recently, the importance of mental health in basketball has been given an increasing amount of attention, rightfully so. Staying healthy on the inside is not easy and it is worth discussing.

Basketball is a complex game, and you probably weren’t born with all of the knowledge and skills you currently have of the game. There was likely a long learning process that is still going on today. This process you automatically posses of acquiring and understanding information through your experiences, thoughts, and senses is called cognition. As you play and practice the game of basketball, your brain is constantly taking in information. New plays and drills are being explained and players have to grasp this information, remember it, then perform. Players listen for whistles, buzzers, fans, play-calls, and comments or feedback from teammates and coaches. Observations are being made as each possession is played out. Your brain has the difficult task of taking all of this information in, and distinguishing what is important and deciding how to react. The learning process is essential to basketball and it’s all psychological.

Psychology is also the reason behind many phenomenons like why some people choke under pressure while others are ‘clutch’, why home court advantage exists, why basketball players are able to sometimes ‘play in the zone’, why teams who high-five more also win more.

You Can Change Your Brain

Your brain is plastic.

Actually, it’s made out of neurons, but it’s like plastic in that it has the ability to be changed. In psychology, this is referred to as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to form physical connections and pathways between neurons.

How does this happen?

Your thoughts. Thoughts are not invisible floating things, they are taking up space in your brain. Your thoughts shape your brain and for that matter your life. Your life moves toward what you think about because those thoughts are changing the physiology of your brain.

While you may not have much control of the thoughts that pop up in your head, you have complete control over which thoughts you think about. What you choose to think about creates a physical pattern between connections of neurons in your brain.

Your habits of thought are part of the physical features of your brain and you can control that.

The Advantage

Your mind can make you better at basketball. Strengthening your mind is a skill, and this blog serves the purpose of growing and developing your mental skillset. If you want to gain every advantage by controlling as many aspects of the game as possible, you need to take advantage of the most powerful tool you have- your mind.

If you don't yet understand the advantages psychology can bring your game, think about what made the greats so great.

Kobe Bryant's famed ‘Mamba Mentality’.

Michael Jordan’s relentless competitiveness and ability to get through anything. This mindset is what enabled him to overcome getting cut from his high school team, and perform heroically in his legendary ‘flu game’.

The sports world was baffled at LeBron’s ability to recite a 2 minute stretch of play-by-play in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals in May. This didn’t come as a shock to those who know LeBron James’ impeccable memory has been present his entire illustrious career. ESPN published an article by Brian Windhorst titled, “LeBron James’ greatest weapon is his brain”. (

Bobby Knight once said, “Mental toughness is to physical as four is to one.”

Coach K has established himself as a great leader because he understands the importance of getting to know the personalities and motivations of those he is leading. He’s been quoted as saying,  “A common mistake among those who work in sport is spending a disproportional amount of time on “x’s and o’s” as compared to time spent learning about people.”

Pat Summitt even advised that anyone who aspires to become a basketball coach should major in Psychology.

Coaches rarely discuss the practical use psychology, but most coaches agree basketball is as much mental as it is physical. So why isn't a greater focus put on psychology?

Psychology has been severely neglected in the realm of basketball until now.

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