Full Court Stress

Listen to this episode

Jason Johnson: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Between the pandemic, the racial reckoning and the threat of political violence. Many black Americans have been suffering from mental health challenges over the last few years. Those pressures are showing up in our family and our careers. And that’s true for pro athletes whose best and worst days at work are broadcast all over the world.

Speaker 2: When you talk about bringing their race to the game of basketball, I am a believer that race almost precedes us. Before I walk in the room, race almost walks in front of me.

Advertisement

Jason Johnson: Black mental health in sports and beyond. Coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The NBA season is over. The Golden State Warriors have racked up another championship and players across the league are settling in for the off season. On the court, NBA players are among the athletic elite off the court. Most are young black men who are dealing with the same social and cultural trauma that the rest of the African-American community is subjected to.

Jason Johnson: In recent years, players have found themselves at the center of the toughest social and political debates, from COVID policy to racial justice, in addition to all the pressures of growing up in the public eye. Now more teams are beginning to focus on maintaining the mental and not just physical health of their players. With more on this, we’re joined by Corey Yeager. He’s a life coach and the team psychotherapist for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. His forthcoming book is entitled How Am I Doing 40 Conversations to Have With Yourself. Dr. Corey Yeager, welcome to a word.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Jason, it is my pleasure to join you today. Thanks so much for having me. So I want to.

Jason Johnson: Talk a little bit about your background professionally. How did you become a team psychotherapist? Right. Like most people are aware. Okay, team doctor, maybe you you’re a surgeon at a local hospital. I’ve met people who were trainers for professional sports teams. But what was your path to becoming the team psychotherapist for the Pistons?

Speaker 2: So I would say it was Jason a circuitous route for me to land as a as an NBA psychotherapist and life coach. I’ve always been an athlete. I’m a former Division one football player and loved that athletic realm, have four sons. All of them are athletes. So I coached them all the way through and football. One of them is a quarterback for North Carolina anti historical black College University, one of them as a running back at University of Northern Iowa. So utilizing a ton of these skills, therapeutic skills and merging that with my coaching over the years, I really knew even through my doctoral journey that I wanted to find a way to utilize this therapeutic realm that I love in the psychological realm and mix that and bond that with the athletic realm.

Advertisement

Speaker 2: So I was doing that in terms of my coaching with football, and then I began to say, I have to fight, I want to find my way in the NBA. And I felt doing this work. So I started to reach out and got connected with Dwane Casey, who was the head coach at the Toronto Raptors at the time, and then ended up leaving Toronto and got the job in Detroit where I am now and he brought me on staff. So this will be going into my third season as the life coach for the Pistons and I absolutely love it. Absolutely love it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Jason Johnson: Here’s what’s interesting. Regardless of the Jay-Z lyric, you know, I’m not black, I’m O.J. These players don’t leave their race at the door. Right. You could be playing professional ball, but you’re still a 1921, 27 year old black man in your path. While you may have had a circuitous path to becoming a team psychotherapist, the path that most of these guys took to become NBA players has some similarities, right? You had to go to some college somewhere. Maybe some of these guys played overseas, but most, most African-American players go to some school here and get selected. If you had to generalize, what are some of the problems that these young men bring to the game of basketball? There seems to be universal for for black zoomers before they take their first job on the court.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Yeah, I think that their struggles are no different than everyone else’s struggles. I think that’s the first thing I would say, Jason, is that their struggles are not unique to them. When you talk about bringing their race to the game of basketball, I am a believer that race almost precedes us. Before I walk in the room, race almost walks in front of me, so they bring that into the NBA with them finding ways in which to learn themselves. They’re coming in as 19, 18, 19, 20 year old men, and then all of a sudden, one day they had $12 in their bank account. The next day they have $12 million in their bank account. That’s a jump. That’s something that they have to figure out. And. All right, I have to figure out who is going to try to tap into that that financial upbringing and gaming, how I move throughout this life and this newfound fame and fortune.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: So I think that it’s not necessarily unique to them, but it’s on such a grandiose scale that everyone gets to look at it. I think that’s really what it is, Jason. Everyone will see how they move, what they say. Will they stand up when moments like George Floyd and the Reckoning that occurred, will they say something? Will they tuck away and not say anything? So I don’t know that that’s necessarily unique to them, but it really is magnified because of the stage in which they play.

Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on black mental health with Dr. Corey Yeager. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned.

Advertisement

Jason Johnson: This is Jason Johnson, host of a Word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to a podcast and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com.

Jason Johnson: Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re talking about black mental health in sports and beyond with Dr. Corey Yeager. Dr. Yeager this is actually the part that really intrigues me. You know, you were with the Detroit Pistons, but you live in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered in 2020. What was the impact of his death and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Arbery? On the mental health of players that you worked with because look, I remember in 2020 was just a pandemic. You have players who did not want to play. You have players who were like, I’m done. We should take our power and make this country, you know, like a puppy. Just look at the mess that it made. And you had other players who were like, look, the only way I’m going to be able to get through this is by playing ball right now. So how events like that shaped the mentality of of NBA players today mentally?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: I mean, it’s going to be similar to what we talked about just a bit ago, that they’re not unique to the suffering of what that George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Omar Arbery situation brought to all of us as Americans, but specifically as African-Americans. That what we must recognize and one thing that I talked a lot with my players about is that others must realize that when we watched George Floyd be murdered, it was not just that one moment that we watched. There was 400 years of history that came on that one moment.

Speaker 2: So as others seek to contextualize race, this is the struggle that oftentimes folks want to move to decontextualized race. Well, why would they do that? Because it is so heavy laden that there are so many things in the past that no one wants to address or discuss. But if I can be contextualize your race and say it’s just about if you work hard, it’s just about how much you bring to the table and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Advertisement

Speaker 2: Yeah, but we have a history that gives us so much more context that we must understand that others may not want to understand, so that our players are dealing with this on a day to day basis. So they’re bringing that. They struggled with that. What do I say? What don’t I say? Do I donate or don’t I donate? Who would say that that’s right or wrong? So they were struggling with all of those things and having an ear, someone that can talk through those moments with them, I believe was critically important. And my players talked about how important it was to be able to have that voice and someone that they could bounce those thoughts off of.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Jason Johnson: I want to go into that because that actually really fascinates me. Talk about the role that fear plays in the mental health of an NBA player, because, you know, it’s one thing to go on a court and think to yourself, man, I don’t want to miss the game winning shot. I don’t want to screw up. I don’t want to get hurt. Right. I want to get injured. I mean, there’s things I guess they could fear. But in the context of the racial reckoning, in the context of George Floyd, if you’re in a city where something happened, right, you know, if you’re in a Chicago where there was a shooting and things like that, did you have players say, I’m afraid to speak out because I could lose everything? How do you address that kind of fear that a player may have to stand up without it being something that’s suppressed and then it ends up still negatively impacting their health in their game?

Advertisement

Speaker 2: What we talk about a lot is just the recognition and the awareness of what that fear. Where does that come from? Where is that rooted? Right. That fear is rooted in the disappointment of the situation that they’re viewing and looking at. Recognizing that for me, Minneapolis has been ground zero for so much that we’re dealing with in terms of police brutality in the African-American community. So me being in Minneapolis, being a part of that conversation and then connected to the NBA and Detroit and the players that I work with, we were talking about this consistently. So George Floyd didn’t begin the conversation. That was a moment that we began to open up and the rest of the world began to see. It reminds me a lot of MLK, MLK and Bayard Rustin, the architect of the movement we’re speaking about.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Hey, we’re going to have to have moments set up and we need the national media to get in here and see exactly what it is that they’re doing with people in the South. The story that was being told about the blacks in the South was there. All right. They’re not worried. Everything’s good down here. But then what? The country could see the dogs biting them and the fire hoses being turned on, women and kids. All of a sudden, the country had to have a reckoning saying, oh, my God, we didn’t know that. I think George Floyd was a moment quite similar.

Speaker 2: So the fear that our players held, I think again was not unique to them, but the opportunity and the stage in which they had to speak and discuss this was critically important and they utilized that stage. People like Kyrie Irving and other players spoke about where they stood, how they would move forward, and that did not go away. It still is moving and we have to be reminded that we can’t let these moments just move on and. We forget about it until the next moment occurs. We have to stay forthright in that conversation.

Jason Johnson: One thing that always struck me over these last couple of years is the difference in reactions amongst different sports of players. Right. And you had WNBA players who were like, I’m done. Right. Many of them were much more vocal. Some of them almost grabbed ownership by the lapel. You had NFL players that took a knee right on a regular basis and you had some that, you know, vehemently spoke out against them. I’m just talking about the black ones. I’m not even talking about the white ones in this instance. It seems like NBA players were more outspoken, more consistent. I know there’s an economic difference, right? WNBA players don’t make as much money as NBA or NFL players. I know the NBA players have guaranteed contracts, which gives them a certain level of security. That’s different than an NFL player who can be cut at any point. Do you think there’s a difference in the mindset psychologically of the kind of people who play basketball versus football that makes them more inclined to speak out?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: I think that there is a version of progressive thought that is attached to basketball for leadership all the way through in the NBA. I think the NFL is such a Warriors sport that it moves the players in a different way, that they may see it different. They may engage with these moments a little more different. Even the visualization scene, NBA players, if you watch an NBA game, you see the faces of those players. You know those faces. In the NFL, you can look at a number of those players and know the name but don’t really know what they look like. So the mask that is worn in the NFL is quite different than the NBA. These faces are known and seen in the NBA. And then you couple that with a more progressive version of what the NBA may be. And I think that the product and how they relate or engage in these moments of chaos may be quite different.

Jason Johnson: If you are a basketball player. And like you said, there’s a bit of a progressiveness to it. How then do basketball players get themselves or how do you help them get into the mindset of collectivity? Because unlike football, where it’s like, I don’t care how important I am. Heck, even if I’m the quarterback, I’m still only as good as my offensive line. Basketball players really can’t operate in a space of a non y’all eating if I don’t how do you train basketball players to say hey look you know you are part of a collective not just this collective team, but you’re part of a larger black community that may be looking to you as well.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: So one of the things that I talk to players a lot about, Jason, is that especially in the African-American community, we come from a collectivist background. They understand that. And they also understand, Jason, that even Michael Jordan could go score 60 at night. You still lose him in the playoffs early on because you didn’t have enough around you. So pointing out the importance of that collective distinct space, not just in basketball but in other aspects of their lives, and then having a deeper understanding of that connectivity helps them on the cause.

Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more with sports psychotherapist Corey Yeager about black mental health. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with Detroit Pistons psychotherapist Corey Yeager about black mental health. I want to talk a little bit about your forthcoming book. I’ve read it. It’s called How Am I Doing 40 Conversations to Have with Yourself. What’s the meaning of that title and what inspired you to write this book?

Speaker 2: Well, the concept of self-talk is extremely important. How we talk to ourselves. The conversations that we have with ourselves are critically important, but too often we’re not even aware of the conversations that we have with ourself. They’re happening all the time, as I’m speaking. If you’re listening, you’re having a conversation with yourself, Do I believe this? Do I like this? What is this book about? So it’s always occurring. So the ability to tune in with who I am, the value systems that have led me to where I sit and stand today, do I truly understand that? Am I in line with that? Do I reject some of the notions that I’ve been handed? Do I have new notions that I want to receive and take into my life? That’s really what the focus of the book is, is engaging with yourself, being curious with who I am and how I came to be even in the title.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: How am I doing? We always ask people, How are you doing? How are you? How are things? But very seldom do we ask ourselves, Hey, Corey, how are you? How do we look in the mirror? Often times I think one of the struggles is and the book talks about this a lot, we are good at engaging others and being curious about with others and giving grace to others. But we don’t really tune into giving grace to ourselves. We don’t really tune in to be curious and looking in the mirror of our lives and asking ourselves how we’re doing. So the focus of the book was to say, Let’s go on a journey.

Jason Johnson: I was captured by the chapter. Do you love to win or do you hate to lose? It really hit me because I hate losing. I hate losing way more than I love winning. And I was fascinated by that concept. Talk a little bit about that chapter and what that mindset is. I thought that was really fascinating.

Speaker 2: That chapter came from a question that I ask as I’m interviewing potential draft picks. And the reason that I ask that question and I want to tap into your understanding of a pessimistic or optimistic outlook. Do you love to win? I’m a love to win, guy. I the exhilaration of winning and and moving a team in a way that we can win together. And the enjoyment of that drives me. It’s not wrong to hate to lose, because that’s an avoidance. I want to avoid that negativity. I want to be away from that. So talking with players about are you aware how you see the world? And again, going back to that concept within the book, we want to understand ourselves better because if I understand myself better, I can fit with a squad in a collective way better because I understand me better. So that’s really where that love to win, hate to Lose came from those interviews. And I thought it was going to be an important aspect of the book and how we engage with ourselves.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Jason Johnson: So we just see this championship, right? Golden State Warriors win the championship. And I actually just had a knockdown, drag out fight about this with some good friends of mine. And I was complaining that, gosh, I didn’t think it was the most satisfying victory, even though I was rooting for the Golden State Warriors and all my boys. Lamont’s like, Why that? And I said, Because it was so obvious to me that it’s not that the Golden State Warriors were more talented team. I think Boston was more talented. But you could tell and I wonder if you can see this or your thoughts about it mentally. Boston started to collapse at the end of game four. You saw that their heads, they were just discombobulated. Can you.

Speaker 2: See.

Jason Johnson: When a team loses it mentally or meltdowns real or is that some post-hoc stuff that that sports analysts and fans see if it is real? How do you address that when the team comes in the locker room after the game?

Speaker 2: So I think meltdowns are real and I think they are akin to the concept of momentum that we can feel momentum, move and shift and change. So the team that gets momentum knows that they have it. And also they know that the team that is losing momentum understands that now we have. And how do we stop it? So what you see is you see teams, coaches taking time out after time out after time out, trying to stop the momentum. And we know that it is mental. It’s all psychological. So how do you break that momentum? Recognize? Okay. Hey, hey. They’ve got some things done. They’re a good team. They have experience in this in this playoff round. We knew that going in. Let’s just reset ourselves. It’s much easier said than done. So that recognition is a complicated and very complex space. But speaking to our players about it, again, it’s going to go back to the concept that you hear me talk about a million times is awareness.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Jason Johnson: And I can think of the different ways that sort of great impact players can sap the will. There’s somebody listening right now who may be going through a mental health crisis or just coming out of one or feels like they’re going into one and maybe hasn’t found the book or the philosophy or the therapist that’s been helpful for them in the past.

Jason Johnson: Can you just name, I don’t know, one or two things that you’ve noticed about the mindset of NBA players that you think, man, if the guy working at U.P.S., if the woman working at all see in insurance, if the lawyer, if the doctor, if they could take this part of the athlete’s mentality and apply it to their life, they would be so much better off. What’s what’s something like that that that you could share with the audience?

Speaker 2: The two things that I would say that come to mind that NBA players do a great job of on a day to day basis is they trust their work. I trust that what I’m doing will lead me where I need to be, where I hope to go, what I hope to succeed with. So if I don’t trust my word, then I’ll continuously question everything that I’m doing. Did I do that right? Oh my goodness. That wasn’t good enough. If I know that I put my effort into something, then I’m going to trust that that will lead me where I want it to take me. So that trusting of the work is a critical space that we want to learn to really develop.

Speaker 2: The second is this persistence. I’m going to be persistent in my work. I’m not going to stop. You’re not going to stop me. You’re not going to put a roadblock in front of me, and I’m just going to quit. Then I’m going to say, Hey, there’s a roadblock there. How do I get around that? How do I keep moving and driving forward? Because I know that I am worthy of what’s on the other side of that roadblock. And I’m not going to allow that to stop me. I’m going to keep pushing.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: So these two pieces of trusting your work and trusting yourself and being persistent with who you are every day and showing up in a way that you know and can trust, I think is the critical thing that we need as we move. So as people are out there and they’re struggling with things, I keep pushing. That’s what we have to do that as I look back, I know that the ancestors that came before me had to move to the Middle Passage and persistently figure out how to make it every day. And they did that. So I can sit here today so they can do that, that I know I can make it through this day.

Jason Johnson: Dr. Corey Yeager is the team psychologist for the Detroit Pistons. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book How Am I Doing? 40 Conversations to Have With Yourself.

Jason Johnson: Dr. Yeager, thanks so much, man. This is a fascinating conversation.

Speaker 2: Thanks so much for having me.

Jason Johnson: And that’s the word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. Our producer is Jasmine Ellis. This episode was produced by Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola. Alicia montgomery is the vice president of Audio at Slate. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week. Forward.