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How compassion on the court made Steve Nash one of the greatest NBA players of all time

by Kelton Wright

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[Editor’s Note: The below transcript has been edited for length and clarity.]

Headspace had the pleasure of hosting NBA legend, Steve Nash, in our Santa Monica office in the spring of 2018. Lindsay Shaffer, Headspace’s Head of Sport & Fitness, took the opportunity to ask him about routines, habits, and his mental game.

Lindsay Shaffer: Today we have with us 8-time NBA All Star, 2-time NBA MVP, and it was just recently announced that in September he’ll be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Mr. Steve Nash. [applause] Steve, thanks so much for being with us today. Headspace has been buzzing and anxiously awaiting your arrival.

Steve Nash: It must be slow. [laughter]

LS: In getting ready for today, I’ve watched a lot of interviews, and in one interview I read just recently Trey Burke, point guard for the NY Knicks and a meditator, was asked of all the NBA point guards throughout history, if he could pick any of their brains, who would he pick, and he answered Steve Nash. So that’s what I’d love to do today, is get to know this famous brain of yours and talk about the mental side of the game.

SN: Oh, well this could be really disappointing now for everyone. Have at it — should be short. [laughter]

LS: OK, so short, white boy from Canada. The odds weren’t exactly in your favor. Your high school coach told you to reassess your goals.

SN: Yeah, I didn’t stay at that school. [laughter] But that is true.

facing adversity in sport

LS: And you received one D1 scholarship offer?

SN: Correct.

LS: Was there ever a point where you were about to give up on the dream, or did you always believe you would make it to the NBA?

SN: The toughest time for me was my freshman year at Santa Clara University. My coach was extremely tough on me, but I had the great fortune of having an RA who was also the best player on the basketball team the year before, and he could tell I was struggling emotionally and mentally. What he told me (and maybe he was lying) really helped: “why do you think he’s all over you?” and I was like “I just don’t think he thinks I’m any good.” And he said, “have you ever thought that maybe he believes in you? And he thinks that if he really pushes you, you could be something?”

It’s about not giving in, but about embracing the periods where you’re failing, because you know if you stick with it, you have the mental toughness to stay the course. That's where the big gains are.

I kind of didn’t want to believe it, but I let it sink in, and I started to listen to what the coach was saying in a different way. What is he saying? And I realized it wasn’t a situation of “you can’t do this, you’re no good, you’re never going to get anywhere.” It was “I need you to do this, you’re capable of this, and you’re giving me this.”

He was old school, but he and my high school coach built a real resilience in me, a mental toughness, that grit muscle that’s so important. They were incredibly impactful in my career.

LS: You talk about resilience as a muscle. When you see that ability in people, but they might be struggling, how do you help them to understand that resilience is a muscle and give them the tips and tools to work on that?

SN: It’s really difficult sometimes for professional players because they’re so formed, but there are still buttons to be pushed, there’s still challenges to be given, there’re still honest conversations, and a lot of encouragement.

I had a dad that would always say two positives for every negative. He coached us playing soccer our whole lives and he’d always say “praise is the breakfast of champions.” We’d roll our eyes, but it means a lot for someone to be a key believer in your life. I think you have to give a lot of honesty, but you also have to give a lot of reinforcement. People really do well often with a healthy balance of both, being told they could be good — really good — if they work really hard, but you have to sprinkle in that this is about mental toughness.

It’s about not giving in or enjoying the plateaus, but about embracing the periods where you’re failing, because you know if you stick with it, you have the mental toughness and the grit to stay the course. That’s where the big gains are. But if you don’t embrace the downtimes there’s really no improvement. It’s a very low, boring, and safe landscape.

overcoming obstacles in sport

LS: Can you tell us when you stepped to the line, did you have the same mental routine?

SN: I relied on my practice, on all the free throws I’d taken, all the preparation I’d made, and having that desire to make it, instead of [takes a deep breath] shit. Whenever I’d feel that [shakes] — and it happens, right? my feeling was come on, be strong, be committed, be tough, try to make it, don’t try not to miss. I would pump myself up to put it in the basket instead of [hesitating]. I think that’s a part of having the toughness, the grit, to recognize that hesitation. That’s experience, preparation, and the mental toughness that builds over time.

LS: So another stat: 6-time leader for total assists in the regular season. It’s been said you have the ability to see the game in slow motion and know where everyone on the court is going to be seconds before they’re there. It’s kind of like a super power.

SN: [laughter] I don’t think it is at all — I’d choose another superpower if that’s a superpower! But it made sense to me. I was lucky I had a dad who was a soccer player, and not only played semi-pro soccer, but really understood the nuances of the game, and so my system of values of wanting my dad’s approval wasn’t “how many goals did you score?”, it was “when were you unselfish? When were you clever or witty or when did you use or manipulate the game?” He always made us value bringing your teammates into the game.

The ego says, "yes, I want it!" But the reality is staying process-oriented. You let those thoughts come in, you let those thoughts go away.

LS: Do you think that youth basketball could use some more of your style and lessons of the way you learned?

SN: Yeah, of course. I talk about this a lot, but what is your approach to the game, to training, and to being the best player you can be holistically? A part of that really mimics your values in life. Every day, it should be, “this is what I set out to do, and I got there, even if it was a bad day, I got there.”

I think that these values are what are everlasting. Whereas scoring the most points on your high school team, that’s not an enduring value. That’s something that’s gonna come and go. But the value of playing the right way, of being unselfish, fighting for the team, being resilient, being hardworking, accepting responsibility and not pointing fingers, whatever it may be, these are the values I think the best people end up having, so if we teach them at a younger age, we’ll all develop at a more prolific rate.

LS: You won your MVPs back-to-back. How did you handle that pressure? I’m sure there were now raised expectations on you after the first MVP — how did you handle that pressure to do it again a second time?

SN: That was never my approach. Getting awards or accolades are a byproduct of performing well, and performing is a byproduct of your approach and your preparation, so I tried to stay process-oriented. Constantly refining and being super diligent in my training —that’s a process goal. Getting an MVP or performing is an outcome of process. Without the process, there’s no positive outcome, or your potential isn’t realized.

Of course, you have an ego, you hear everyone else talk about it. Those things seep into your mind, and the ego says, “yes I want it!” But the reality is staying process-oriented. You let those thoughts come in, you let those thoughts go away. And you go back to process, process, process.

A big part of that is valuing your team above all else. When your values or goals are centered around the group, it takes the pressure off you indirectly because you’re busy worrying about the process of the group to create a good outcome. I knew if I sat on an accolade, it would be a surefire way to go down a level or two instead of getting back to what I know works, what I know has taken me places, and helps me fit into my team in a happy and healthy way.

working with teammates

LS: So was that same process and focus on team and the holistic sense of wellbeing what allowed you to last 18 years in the NBA when the average career is 5 years?

SN: Eighteen versus five looks phenomenal but I think the numbers are swayed. I did play longer than most people and that definitely starts with a passion and a love for the game, because with a gratefulness for what you’re doing, you’ll make the sacrifice. You want to put in those extra hours in the off season. When you play 82-100+ games in a season, you could totally cut corners wherever you want, whether it’s eating or sleeping or what have you. It’s about the cumulative effect over the course of the season that can keep your performancing improving.

Gaining momentum makes things easier, but it takes a while to get that momentum. It sounds funny to say, but most of the time after practice you’re like, “I don’t wanna sit in the cold tub, I wanna go home.” But you’re gonna sit in the cold tub, because you’re committed to this. You’re gonna do it. You’re gonna do it tomorrow, you’re gonna do it the next day, you’re gonna do the same with your shooting, your sleep, your diet, everything — and you’re gonna keep doing it.

That’s a big commitment, and it takes a lot of resilience to stay there, but it’s also a beautiful place to be once you’re there.

Kelton Wright

Kelton Wright is the Editorial Director of Movement and Sport at Headspace. She is a published author, an avid cyclist, and a slow but enthusiastic trail runner. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @keltonwrites.

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