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Positive Basketball: Mental Health and Beyond

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is a physical sport. As much as I concentrate my mind on a basketball, it probably will not fly into the hoop; my physical body is required. As such, players often do not play games when they are physically injured (e.g., fractured fourth metacarpals).

Drawing inspiration from positive psychology, I want to provide a counter perspective on this dominant narrative. The first part of this argument - that basketball is a mental sport - is not new, and may even be considered rote. The second part of this argument - which I find more interesting - is that basketball is negative. A framework of positive basketball would foreground conditions where players flourish, both physically and mentally, in contrast to the current focus on physical injury and mental illness.

Basketball is a mental sport. I don’t think that statement needs lengthy justification in this venue. But I do think that the mental side of basketball is overlooked.

For starters, the physical side of basketball is more readily apparent while watching games. The players endure rigorous training and are a smidge taller than the average gentleman. Even for sophisticated fans, the underlying X’s and O’s are mediated by the sheer physicality of the game. The physical side of basketball is simply more tangible.

It is important to mention racism as well. Across sports, Black athletes are more likely to be perceived as physically gifted, whereas white athletes are more likely to be perceived as hard workers. Further, white players are more likely to be described as cerebral. In a league that is primarily comprised of Black players, it would be remiss to downplay this aspect.

The correlate of the statement that basketball is a mental sport is that mental health is important. To be able to play the mental game of basketball, things need to be alright upstairs.

Yet, injury reports remain almost entirely dedicated to physical injuries. Players like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love have recently advocated for the importance of mental health, but they face an uphill battle. In a physical sport like basketball, athletes are expected to be strong, and this expectation is reinforced by cultural expectations of masculinity. Mental health is unfortunately still treated as a weakness, unlike its physical counterpart; I don’t think too many folks called Pat weak for breaking his hand.

But even this view of mental health emerges from a negative frame. Even if depression were a more accepted rationale for a player’s absence from a game, the focus would remain on conditions when players are unable to play.

This negative focus echoes the field of psychology in the 20th century. Psychologists were more likely to study mental abnormalities (e.g., schizophrenia); there is even a subfield called abnormal psychology. Studying these illnesses helped develop treatment for inflicted individuals. It also deepened our understanding of “normal” psychology. But in general, psychology remained fixated on what went wrong, instead of examining what went right.

Positive psychology emerged as a pushback to this negative frame in the late 20th century. Its lens was trained on the good life. You have probably heard of some of its core tenets: happiness, flow, well-being, and so on. Foregrounding these phenomena allowed psychologists to conduct research that had more appeal to the average person who was not inflicted with relatively rare mental illnesses.

It should be noted that these are two sides of the coin. It would obviously be detri(mental) to study well-being without studying schizophrenia, and vice-versa. But there is often a tendency to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive, a fact that has manifested in both psychology and basketball.

So what would positive basketball look like? There is fluctuation in how bodies and minds feel, even on days where players are healthy enough to play. Thus, we could evaluate players’ physical and mental well-being and chart these fluctuations over time.

I’m not quite sure who this “we” would entail. I can imagine that teams would have incentive to track this information - and they likely do so already - because it would help the coaching staff evaluate player performance and align training (both physical and mental) accordingly. It could be useful to players themselves for similar reasons.

I’m not sure that there would be incentive to share this sort of information externally, though. It might be viewed as providing a competitive advantage to opposing teams. Another barrier is that mental health in particular is perceived as private, whereas physical health is publicly broadcast through casts and braces. A solution that preserves privacy could be to aggregate the data across players on the team.

I could go on speculating how positive basketball could manifest, but I’ll close with my usual, more present-oriented takeaways. Since basketball itself is not positively framed, we have to supply that frame. We can be aware of when players are feeling down, and we can be attuned to signs of physical and mental well-being. This is a challenge; most of us only interact with the players through screens. But we can try to apply the same skills that we use when interacting with friends and family - listening, observing body language, and so on - to discern their ups and downs. In doing so, we can support players’ physical and mental health; in other words, we can treat them as human.