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  • Writer's pictureDanny Ourian

Why Sport Psychology?

Updated: Mar 2


I had some time recently to reflect on why I chose this path to be a mental performance coach and here, now, I’d like to share it with you (long piece that I hope our @dominican_aspp students and @hoopsminded athletes will enjoy). 


So often we do what we needed, to retroactively fill in the gaps that were left in our lived experience. 


When I was 9 years old my eyes first properly set eyes on the game of basketball and my jaw was on the floor with what I was seeing, for about a full year. It was like meeting a long lost friend that I knew I would spend the rest of my life never letting go of. I was hooked.


And I haven’t let go since. 


So of course I began playing every day and when I first got a chance at age 11 to play in the local recreational league, I jumped at the chance to don a jersey, play under the lights, get a coach’s tutelage, hear the ref’s whistle, and know the scoreboard’s final judgment. 

But here is the thing. I wasn’t ready at age 11. Many aren’t. I wasn’t ready to compete. I was ready to play but not ready to absorb the slings and arrows that come from competition. I didn’t understand that it was OK to lose, that disappointment is a part of the act of naming winners and losers. 


But they put me in anyway, of course. Everyone played! And I played well. And the better I played the more I cared, and much to my surprise I not only loved the game beyond reasonable measure but I was showing some semblance of promise in it. 


The value of good early experiences with coaches cannot be overstated. I didn’t have that. I had what I now recognize as a young kid coaching me, getting huffy on the sidelines, yelling, frantic, accelerating my already jumpy nerves. 


I wasn’t ready for the emotional roller coaster that is the game in a competitive context. Didn’t know how to process the experience, the ups and downs. Couldn’t put it all in perspective. 


But I did have a knack for handling the ball and passing. Yes - I could pass! Short, but I could be a Point Guard! I had a degree of court vision and found my way as a player that loved to get teammates good looks. 


Handling pressure? I wasn’t ready! But here I was, my team down one, the Jericho Basketball League playoffs, 10 seconds to go. I take it upon myself to be aggressive, drive to the basket, attempt a layup and miss, but was fouled with no time left on the clock. 

Perhaps you can predict where this is going?


There I am, barely aware of the totality of this moment, at the FT line with zeroes on the board, no one else on the lane lines, teammates and opponents back at their benches, watching. All the parents. The coaches. And of course the millions of viewers watching at home in the movie in my mind, watching. “All Eyez on Me.” - Tupac


Or so it FELT.


Watching me, spotlight fully trained on me, the moment I had been preparing for, the movie in my mind, needing one make out of two chances to send my team into overtime. Eyes, everywhere, piercing into my very soul as I (of course) missed both attempts and my team’s season was over. 


You saw that coming, no?


I make a beeline for the corner of the gym. Water works on full blast. No teammate comes over to console me, no coach, no parent. The head of the league comes over and I have no idea what he said because I could barely hear above my own internal dialogue: you failed. You aren’t good enough. You care so much and yet you couldn’t deliver when your team needed it most. 


I didn’t give up on the game. Somehow at age 11 I had watched enough interviews of greats that I was wired with a motivational patois telling me that when you aren’t good enough you keep working at it and you will improve. And so I persisted. I practiced. I grew. I improved. I loved harder. I continued to care so much that the sport became the center of my world. I woke up thinking about it, went to sleep thinking about it, thought about it the whole day through. Ages 12-17 most of what I did that wasn’t basketball was in my eyes a divergence from what I wanted and needed to be doing. And so it went. 


When I played middle school and high school basketball, similar themes emerged: care so much that you can’t manage the emotional nature of the game and the perceived pressure leads to an inability to execute in high leverage moments. Catch me in the park and we are good! Watch me go off in practice. Put the scoreboard on and have the refs jump it up? I wasn’t as capable. 


Into college, where, unrecruited, I tried to walk on to my D3 Wesleyan University (CT) and didn’t make the cut. Not to be shut out from the game, I instead vied to serve as team manager for my freshman year. If I couldn’t keep this hoop dream going as a player, I would stay on the “inside” of the game - where the competition lived - by studying to be a coach. 

And so I coached. I coached from that moment forward, in the summers during and immediately after undergrad. I coached youth camps, a middle school team, a JV, at D3 John Jay College, at a Sunday league at the 92nd Street Y. I coached as much as I could, studied the game from an X’s and O’s perspective, went to clinics, networked. 

 

The roadblocks to a career in coaching were made abundantly clear: college basketball was not about what you know or who you know, but who you could recruit. The pros were a stretch if you hadn’t played college and entirely political/protective in nature.  The pay, at most levels, was paltry. Challenges, everywhere you look. I persisted. 


While assistant coaching at John Jay I procured a cargo van and posted on Craigslist as Dan the Man with a Van and did small moving jobs around NYC for extra cash. I eventually found private training and rode my basketball backpack on a bike around the city to do 1on1 and small group training sessions. Whatever it took, I needed to stay in the game. 


Along the way I realized where the big hole was in my ability. I was passionate, fiery, a hard driving coach who coached the way he was coached as a kid. I could connect with players in 1on1 sessions but come game time I would alienate them with my histrionics, shouting, and attempts to control the action with my voice on the sideline. 


What I was missing was any sort of understanding of the mental game, the psychological elements baked into performance.  I told myself then that I would pursue a Master’s degree in Sport Psychology, and the wheels were set into motion. 


I moved to California with my then girlfriend, now wife. I enrolled in a Master’s of Arts in Sport Psychology program, which I completed in 5 years, coaching my way through. 1on1 training sessions, small groups, hoop camps and eventually, as a head coach of a local HS varsity team in Oakland, College Preparatory School. 


Early in my education, I met an alum of the program, acclaimed basketball mental skills coach @grahambetchart. He became a mentor and a friend and he invited me to join him at a talk he was doing for USF basketball one day. In his talk he discussed the importance of “being where your feet are,” and “failing fast,” having a great “next play speed.” Jaw, again, on the floor. I loved what he was teaching, his approach, his apparent mix of mental skills with basketball with mindfulness and a touch of spirituality. I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. 


And then came the crescendo. 


Graham and I are post-talk, outside at USF, debriefing. In that moment, we talk about how people take the game so hard, that they care so deeply that they can’t handle when things inevitably go wrong. He said, “people don’t realize, you are not your sport.”


You are not your sport. 


I remember the words, the moment, the exact location we were sitting when he uttered the words. Hit me like a ton of bricks. 


You are not your sport. 


He went on: you are a human being. There isn’t a tiger in the gym that will be set loose to go kill and eat you if you don’t shoot well. You are a human being who can’t be defined by the results of a basketball game. You are free to fail. 


Jaw, meet floor, again.


I nodded. I teared up. Gulped. Though perhaps obvious to some, this was an idea I never consciously  conceptualized. It took me 35 years on this earth to begin to untangle my identity as a human being from my choice to play and coach basketball. 

By uttering those words to me, Graham helped me see my path in a new light. I was no longer studying Sport Psychology in order to add a layer or value to my basketball coaching. Mental skills coaching became bigger than hoops; mental skills are life skills.

I knew then that I was going to eventually put down the Xs and Os on the coaching clipboard and replace them with the pursuit of becoming a mental performance coach.


That evening I flashed back to 11 year old me, crying hysterically having missed those two freebies at the line. I tried to tell him, “it’s OK, Danny. You are not your sport, you are a son, a brother, a friend, a student - all roles that define you more than how well you shot free throws today. Who you are as a person is far larger than that, little guy. You are free to fail and try again the next day.”



When we turn to competitive contexts at a young age, our brains are often not ready to handle the emotional turbulence that comes with wins and losses. We intertwine our identity with our sport so deeply that when we don’t perform well we can’t handle it well, and worse, it can negatively shape our sense of self-worth. By recognizing you are a human being who chooses to play your sport and you are safe - psychologically and physically safe - no matter what happens on the 94x50 - you not only allow for your well-being to remain intact, you not only play free to fail (and therefore likely perform better), you put your sport in the proper perspective within the full picture of your life. 


Importantly, this doesn’t imply you should care less. Of course you will still care! You put your best foot forward- blood, sweat, tears, heart- into the game and that won’t change. On the contrary, when you take time to let this concept marinate (this takes time; it takes time to change the wiring associated with long term thought patterns), you will care appropriately. You will care in such a way that you can perform free and live with the results, knowing you’ve done your all. That’s true success (just ask Coach Wooden). 


So now, why sport psychology? So that I can help others perform their best, knowing that they are not their sport, that they are human beings who bring their full being to the dance. So that I can teach mental skills that double as life skills which will help in areas in and out of sport. 


And sure, perhaps, to do that which I needed most as that 11 year old kid, searching for guidance, for perspective, tangled up with the game in an unhealthy way, needing the perspective that a mental performance coach can provide. 



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