Assistant coach DeAndre Haynes preaches the importance of having a short-term memory on the court. When Isaiah Livers first heard the advice, the sophomore forward found it so striking, he wrote it on his shoe. That way, every time Livers looked down, he would remember to forget.
In basketball, the ability to block out noise and remain calm amid distractions is a vital and underrated aspect of the game — a skill many players don’t develop until later in their careers. But in the offseason, when the Michigan men’s basketball team’s practice time is limited, many players worked on their mental games — and they’re beginning to see it pay off.
Livers didn’t stop at his shoes. He spent a lot of time reading books by his idol Bruce Lee.
“I learned more about, life is gonna happen, you just gotta let it,” Livers said. “ … That sticks with me every day now. Even before practice, I think about it, like if you’re gonna miss a shot, you were supposed to miss a shot because it’s what fate had for you, so I kinda don’t try to control everything as much as I did.”
Livers didn’t make a single 3-pointer in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a stat that still sticks with him — a byproduct of not having enough of a short-term memory last year. A jump shot is all about fluidity and muscle memory, and because of that, being slightly off mentally can have a big impact physically. It’s a lesson Livers now wishes he could have used in every game of the postseason.
That’s why the coaches have also been emphasizing the psychological aspect of the sport. Michigan coach John Beilein has brought in a person to run guided meditation sessions and help players with the mental side of free-throw shooting. Sometimes, it works almost too well.
“We’ve been doing a lot of meditation,” Haynes said. “(Beilein) brought in a guy the other day, and we all was in the media room, and he actually put a lot of people to sleep. He just taught us to relax.”
And while meditation can seem soporific to some, many players have discovered its benefits — and credit it with improving their mental game on and off the court.
“It’s done a lot,” said junior guard Zavier Simpson. “At first, I’m not gonna say I wasn’t a fan of it, I just didn’t do it. As I began to mature, so I would probably say beginning of last year, I started doing a lot of meditation amongst myself and just trying to read certain books that dealing with mental health, just trying to make life and basketball and everything around me a lot easier.”
Simpson keeps his specific meditation practices to himself, but he’s also happy to give his teammates advice if they ask. After all, as one of the team’s veterans — and one who has faced his fair share of adversity — he has a lot to offer to younger players beyond his on-court presence.
He frequently tells teammates to find little segments of time to relax and take their minds away from everything else going on — even if it’s just a few minutes per night spent reading or doing meditation. Many of the underclassmen are now discovering how much of a difference it can make.
“I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and meditation,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “More relax time. I’m saying I used to just want to hurry up and leave and go somewhere last year.”
Poole went beyond just taking time to relax. After a brush with celebrity following his buzzer-beating March Madness shot against Houston, Poole wanted to learn more about himself. He deleted most social media. He went to pumpkin farms. He watched real estate-themed TV shows with his parents. And most of all, he took the time to learn new things and discover everything the world had to offer.
Last year, Poole was always moving. Now he knows the importance of slowing down.
“(I learned) to be extremely composed, not get overwhelmed with things because when so much is getting thrown at you, you can start to … freak out a lot and and start moving too fast and not go back to the basics,” Poole said. “But when things are being thrown at you, and you’re able to just relax and in the moment and calm down and take things slowly, I feel like it helps on the court and off the court.”
The mental side of the game is something players often learn from each other, and for no teammates is that more true than Poole and Livers. Over the summer, the two hung out constantly, swapping video games, TV shows and books. Even subconsciously, the best aspects of Poole’s effervescent personality and Livers’ mellower one influenced the other.
“I noticed (Poole) was changing and getting more mature. He used to be late to everything. Now he’s more on time,” Livers said. “No matter what it was, he was late, so I was like, ‘Dang!’ I think he’s more, I think I rubbed off more on him.
“ … That swag and that chip on his shoulder rubbed off on me a lot because the offseason I was working on my mental game and just hearing his positivity every day helped me a lot.”
In theory, the changes are simple. But in a sport where the right frame of mind can be the difference between a flood of shots and a scoring drought, those changes can be monumental. And while every player has a different method of developing confidence and ignoring distractions, everyone has started to see the value in it.
“Just finding peace and blocking out all the noise,” said junior center Jon Teske. “ … I think that’s a big part of the game too.
“ … I kinda just, kinda clear my mind. I love naps, so I kinda just take a nap.”
As long as they’re not during meditation sessions.