Sat. Dec 3rd, 2022

Sometimes the explanation reveals more than the incident itself.

In a moment that now lives in basketball infamy, Ben Simmons — then a member of the Philadelphia 76ers — passed up what looked to be a point-blank dunk during a crucial fourth-quarter possession of Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. Instead, he passed to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and made one of two free throws. The 76ers lost the game and were eliminated from the playoffs.

Afterward, All-Star teammate Joel Embiid insinuated that the game turned on Simmons’ questionable decision. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers made headlines by balking when asked whether Simmons could be the point guard of a championship team.

You all know the rest. Simmons never played for the 76ers again.

After being traded to the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons finally addressed that Game 7 moment during a podcast with former NBA guard JJ Redick, explaining the thought process that led to him passing up the shot.

“In the moment I just spun and I’m assuming Trae [Young] is gonna come over quicker,” Simmons said to Redick. “So I’m thinking he’s gonna come full blown and I see Matisse going — you know, Matisse is athletic, can get up. So I’m thinking, OK quick pass, he’s gonna flush it, not knowing how much space there was.”

Watching the replay, Simmons’ explanation makes perfect sense. He turned, sensed a defender in front of him and a teammate cutting, then made a pass he’s probably made thousands of times in his life.

But Simmons’ breakdown of the play also reveals, in his own words, a critical detail of the moment — one that can often lead to athletes failing in high-pressure situations: He was thinking.

It seems counterintuitive, but science has proven that often times in the most pressurized of clutch moments, thinking can be an athlete’s worst enemy. This is according to research from Dr. Sian Beilock, an award-winning cognitive scientist who authored Choke and How the Body Knows Its Mind. Her TED Talk on the subject of choking under pressure has been viewed nearly 2.5 million times.

“If you start performing poorly when the pressure is on, what happens is, you’re trying to figure out how to correct it,” Beilock told CBS Sports. “And what I’ve shown is that often leads to overthinking — you start paying attention to everything you’re doing, second-guessing yourself. For a high level athlete, that second-guessing can actually disrupt your performance more. So what maybe was like a fluke, or just overall ups and downs, turns into something more permanent. Because all of a sudden, you’re trying to fix what you think it’s wrong.”

In a game as fast as NBA basketball, so much is based on instinct. Simmons is 6-foot-10. Young is 6-foot-2 in thick-soled sneakers. In a vacuum, it’s hard to imagine that Simmons would have gone through that elaborate thought process he described. He would have just risen up, dunked the ball, and never thought about it again.

But it wasn’t in a vacuum. We have to remember what led to this moment. A career 60 percent free throw shooter at that point, Simmons made just 25 of 73 attempts (34 percent) from the stripe in two rounds during the 2021 playoffs. We’ve seen players get the “yips” from the free-throw line before — an uncharacteristic streak of poor performance — and such struggles make sense when viewed through the lens of Beilock’s research. Shooting free throws is the one instance in basketball where you have ample time to think, with every eye in the arena on you. If you’ve missed a few more than you’re used to, your brain can quickly turn against you, and the overcorrection can lead to a vicious cycle of failure.

Some speculated that Simmons’ poor free-throw shooting led to him passing up shots he would normally take, for fear of being fouled. He hasn’t admitted as much, but the numbers certainly support the hypothesis. Simmons took three total shots in the fourth quarter during the seven-game series against the Hawks, and zero in the final four games — simply remarkable for the second-best player on a potential championship team.

Toward the end of the series, the media and NBA fans at large had picked up on Simmons’ reluctance to shoot. Even the Philly faithful let out audible groans when he caught the ball near the basket. That kind of external attention can often make matters worse.

“It sort of causes you to overthink and monitor yourself, and it puts this other level of pressure on you, even if you’re trying to ignore it, and even if you don’t believe it,” Beilock told CBS Sports. “You know that other people are watching and it sort of makes you want to watch yourself a little more. It can be this sort of downward spiral.”

After missing the entire 2021-22 season due to a contentious holdout with the 76ers that involved mental health concerns, and then back surgery after joining the Nets, Simmons played in an NBA game for the first time in 16 months this past October. You might think that with the time off and new scenery in Brooklyn, Simmons would show signs of getting back to the player he was during his All-NBA season in 2019-20.

Unfortunately for Simmons and the Nets, that hasn’t been the case so far.

Simmons has attempted just over five field goals per game this season, averaging fewer than six points in nearly 30 minutes. He stopped taking jumpers a long time ago, but now he rarely even shoots from outside the restricted area. There’s clearly a hesitancy and lack of confidence when it comes to scoring that has carried over from that fateful playoff series.

Take this play, for example. Transition scoring has been one of Simmons’ biggest strengths over the course of his career. A 6-foot-10, 240-pound freight train moving with the ball at breakneck speed is virtually impossible to stop. But watch what happened this season when Simmons approached Milwaukee Bucks defenders Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo on a fast break.

Indecision. Fear. Resignation.

For comparison’s sake, here’s how a similar play turned out during Simmons’ All-NBA campaign of 2019-20, against those very same Bucks.

Decision. Confidence. Power.

In the half-court, it’s been even more evident. Back in 2019-20, which seems like a decade ago when it comes to Simmons’ career, he averaged 11.9 drives per game, according to Second Spectrum. This season, he’s averaged fewer than three. Instead, he sits in the dunker spot or wanders around the floor looking for openings that will create point-blank layups or dunks — which have essentially been all of his made baskets this season. He’s averaged fewer than two free-throw attempts per game after going to the line almost five times per game in his first four seasons.

When Simmons attempts shots even slightly outside the restricted area, we’ve seen evidence of indecision and a lack of confidence. Watch here as he airballs a finger roll that would have almost certainly been an easy bucket a few years ago.

Beilock has examined the brains of people who claim to be bad at math in real time when they’re asked to do math problems. The parts of the brain that are activated are the same ones that are involved in pain responses. Even before they start doing the problem, the expectation is they’re going to fail, so how can they possibly succeed?

“What we’ve shown is that when you are in this negative state, even going into a situation, that it can cause you to perform poorly,” Beilock told CBS Sports. “So you can imagine Ben Simmons or other athletes, when they’re worried about how they’re going to perform, it’s like they’re already in the negative state before they go into the situation, and that can then exacerbate it.”

It’s clear Simmons is experiencing some sort of block — mental, physical or most likely a combination of both — so the question is how to get out of it. Beilock’s research shows that the best way to prepare for a stressful situation is to simulate the conditions during practice ore rehearsals. If you have a big test coming up, take a practice exam with the same time restrictions you’ll have on the big day. Giving a speech to a large crowd? Rehearse with some artificial noise in the room while filming yourself or standing in front of a mirror.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to duplicate an NBA playoff atmosphere with tens of thousands of fans screaming and dying with your every mistake, but Beilock says humans are good at learning from analogy. Anything that can increase the pressure in a practice scenario, whether it’s pumping in crowd noise or having consequences for poor performance, can help train your brain to remain calm and focused in tense situations.

Another technique is to remember that life is more than your job, even for pro athletes.

“I’m a big proponent of habits to help one control their attention. So things like mindfulness training and meditation, which allow you to get rid of negative thoughts,” Beilock told CBS Sports. “And I’m a big proponent of doing things off the court that get you ready for on the court, whether it’s journaling, which we know helps, sort of, download negative thoughts from minds, whether it’s focusing on other aspects of yourself. So what else makes these basketball players great people? Even reminding themselves of all the different things in their lives — maybe it’s family, or the businesses they’re starting, or they’re a great friend or father — takes a little bit of the pressure off of what happens on the floor.”

Taking your mind off basketball is easier said than done when your name has become synonymous with failure, as Simmons’ has in NBA circles, but that’s where infrastructure and support comes in. It’s hard to know what really took place between Simmons and the 76ers, but he contends that he did not receive adequate support when it came to his mental health.

“I was in such a bad place where I was like, f—, I’m trying to get here and you guys are, like, throwing all these other things at me to where you’re not helping,” Simmons told Redick on “The Old Man and the Three” podcast. “And that’s all I wanted, was help.”

Players like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have been incredibly helpful in bringing the mental health to the forefront of sports, but there is still a stigma when it comes to athletes. Asking for help can be perceived as a sign of weakness, which is why it’s crucial to have a support staff cognizant of players’ mental states.

“It’s up to teams and leagues and institutions, how they think about this,” Beilock told CBS Sports. “If teams spend many millions of dollars thinking about a player’s physical health, I think they’re missing something if they’re not also focusing on a player’s mental health. Because you can’t perform well, or at your best, unless you feel OK.”

While right now it may not seem feasible for Simmons to return to his previous form, there’s certainly a path to redemption. Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook was considered a lost cause by some analysts and fans before a move to the bench helped jumpstart a run of solid, high-efficiency basketball. Simmons himself has been coming off the bench in the few games since returning from knee soreness, so perhaps he’ll find less pressure and more freedom in that role.

No matter what happens, we shouldn’t minimize what Simmons is going through. Overthinking and anxiety are parts of daily life for almost all of us, and trying to get out of a tailspin can be overwhelming and deflating. Now just imagine trying to recover with your every move being recorded, analyzed and replayed by millions of fans across the globe.

“It’s not just basketball players. We’re in somewhat of a mental health crisis for younger people across the board, and it’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic and this lack of control,” Beilock told CBS Sports. “I think it comes back to organizations, whether it’s basketball teams, or companies or educational institutions, really focusing on the whole person. We can’t just focus on someone as their worker self anymore. We have to think about who they are as individuals, and really focus on all aspects of that and how we can support it.

“Because the truth is, if you want the best performance on the court, you have to be supporting players off the court.”





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