Playing in the Present

By Alan Stein, Stronger Team Blog (re-posted with permission)

“Basketball is a complex dance that requires shifting from one objective to another at lightning speed. To excel, you need to act with a clear mind and be totally focused.”

Phil Jackson

If you want to maximize your play on the court you have to learn how to ‘Play Present.’ There are as many as 150 individual plays over the course of a game (roughly half on offense and half on defense). The best players in the world are totally focused on the present moment – because that is all they can control.

Great players don’t worry about a missed shot or a bad call. They don’t get distracted by trying to think about winning and losing. They focus on the here and now. They ‘Play Present.’

The ability to ‘Play Present’ is a skill that takes practice – just like shooting and ball handling. Basketball is a highly cerebral game. As Coach Jones has said, ‘you can’t just play the game; you have to think the game.” That is where mental training comes in.

Whether you are a player or a coach, you need to practice ‘Playing Present.’ You need to constantly remind yourself to be focused on the task at hand. Build your self-awareness so you recognize immediately when your mind starts to drift. Over time, you will be able to sustain focus and concentration during the chaos that occurs during a game. This will drastically improve your performance.

Think about this hypothetical scenario. Imagine if at a random time in the beginning of practice or in the first quarter of a game, your coach called your players over and said, “If you get a stop on the next possession, I will buy each of you a brand new pair of Jordan’s.”

Do you think they would get a stop? I do! Why? Because your players wouldn’t be thinking about anything in the world except for getting that stop. They would have razor sharp focus and make sure they were in position, were playing as hard as possible, and were communicating. They would be ‘Playing Present.’ The key to success is learning how to achieve that level of focus every possession!

Like any skill, if you want to learn how to ‘Play Present’ – you have to practice!

A mental training exercise you can do at home is called “100.” Find a quiet spot to sit and relax. Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. When you breathe in, say the number 1. When you breathe out, say the number 2. Repeat all the way to 100. In the beginning, your mind will be elsewhere and you will be thinking of all kinds of distracting thoughts. But the goal is to ‘Play Present’ and bring your focus back to your breathing and to the next number. Do this every day (only takes a couple of minutes) – when you first wake up or right before you go to sleep.

Another powerful mental training exercise is called the MVP (Meditate – Visualize – Positive Talk). This is perfect to do before your team’s pre-game talk and warm-up.

Meditate: Sit in silence with your eyes closed, take 15-20 slow breaths, and focus on the moment. Let the day’s distractions leave with each exhale. Get present.

Visualize: Using all of your senses, recall a time when you played in the zone, a time when you played (or coached) your best basketball. See it and feel it.

Positive Talk: Repeat your favorite motivational affirmations and quotes to yourself.

Another concept that goes along with ‘Playing Present’ is the concept of ‘Next Play.’ Whether good or bad… the last play doesn’t matter… let it go… focus on the ‘Next Play.’

Learning to move to the ‘Next Play’ is the foundation of how you ‘Play Present.’

I learned about the concept of ‘Playing Present’ (as well as the exercises above), from my friend and colleague Graham Betchart. Graham is the founder of GB Performance Coaching ( and is a wealth of knowledge. I am extremely thankful for everything Graham has shared with me. He has made me a better coach.

In the past 20 years, few college programs have played with the mental toughness (and thus success) of the Duke Blue Devils. Coach K is a firm believer in the concept of ‘Next Play.’

Train hard, train smart.

Alan Stein

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