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‘Focus on today’: Don Kalkstein on mental health in the NBA & maneuvering through the COVID-19 pandemic

‘Focus on today’: Don Kalkstein on mental health in the NBA & maneuvering through the COVID-19 pandemic


Mental health.

A taboo subject indeed – for not just professional athletes but for everyone.

Talking about and opening up about mental health is certainly a nerve-wrecking thing that you may try your best to tip-toe around or shut out of your mind.

For a professional athlete, opening up about your mental health may give you the sense that these insecurities or fears make you seem weak and that you’re handing your opponent an advantage on a silver platter.

Not the case. At all.

We all go through things. We all have ups and downs. That’s life. *queues ‘That’s Life’ by Frank Sinatra*

For Don Kalkstein, his day-to-day life is occupied by helping athletes, coaches, students – you name it – understand what may be troubling them and how to work through it.

Kalkstein has been apart of the Mavericks organization for 20 years, where he’s currently the Director of Mental Skills. He’s also an Adjunct Professor at SMU and Senior Advisor to the General Manager for the Texas Rangers – basically, he wears a lot of hats.

The hat he wears for the Mavericks is an essential one, as Mark Cuban deemed in 2012 during a radio interview with the Ben & Skin Show on ESPN Dallas, letting Kalkstein go in 2005 as his ‘biggest regret’. Not a botched trade or free agent signing nor passing on a future All-Star in the Draft but letting ‘our psych doctor’ go.

If that doesn’t speaks wonders to the importance of Kalkstein then I don’t know what will.

Today with the Mavericks, Kalkstein’s every day is, well, something different every day.

“An average day? Gosh, I wish there was one. I think what most people probably don’t understand of the position of what I do or what others do, it’s not one of what they’re used to from quote-unquote a clinical session or a clinical environment because we are around each other every day,” Kalkstein said of his average day on the job.

“It’s more of the ebb and flow of what the season is and continuing to work on items that assist our team in optimal performance, whether that’s developing programs for our players, understanding the cohesion of the team and trying to develop that, or working with our coaching staff and assisting them and delivering information that our players can contain and hopefully utilize.”

The importance of having such a casual, open environment that’s more of the ‘ebb and flow’ as Don said certainly adds a level of comfort for the players. This isn’t an appointment-based, lay down on the fancy therapist couch and open your heart up kind of situation. The comfort level that not only the players but the organization feels with Kalkstein sets the team up for success.

“It’s way more casual. We kind of set the foundation about what’s under the umbrella of mental skills and performance and optimal performance. My philosophy isn’t one to sell these guys anything. My philosophy is more of be available and be prepared in the event they do need something. Once we build relationships then we have the opportunity to maybe bring something to their attention,” Kalkstein said of his philosophy.

“If you looked at it like a strength and conditioning coach or an athletic trainer; we’re all watching practice and somebody’s running a certain way. So maybe the trainer says to himself, ‘wow, that’s kind of odd. Wonder what’s wrong with him. Maybe his ankle or knee hurts.’ Then maybe the strength coach is watching the same thing and thinking this could be an area of weakness. And I’m standing at another spot of the court thinking ‘hm, wonder what’s going on?’ We’re all basically doing the same thing but from a different standpoint and then gathering information and seeing if there’s some sort of trend and communicating with the player and try to go from there.”

Having the different view points from the likes of Don alongside the likes of a trainer or strength and conditioning coach is important to link all facets of the player’s body and mindset for the best possible performance.

When it comes to the best possible performance, it’s not just about being in a clear mental state regarding your time on the court but off the court as well. Your personal life outside of the game can certainly affect your performance on the floor, whatever those issues or concerns may be.

“Sure, they’re interweaved. They’re part of what makes them perform in certain ways. And so those items do absolutely come up when they’re areas of concern from anyone whether player, coaches, or staff and in a different area, we utilize our mental health consultants that we have and maybe referring if they choose to,” Kalkstein said of a player’s personal life. “Again, this is an environment that’s no different than a standard work place. Here you are at work and an issue takes place and there’s experts available to assist you with whatever issue, whether mental, physical, nutritional stand point. So we’ve tried to be able to assist the player from every avenue.”

So, whether it’s discussing in-game segments or the player’s personal life, when they step out on that floor, it’s pivotal that the athlete is ‘in the present.’

“It’s not really a cookie cutter type of approach. It’s more of what that approach might be or what those needs are for that particular player,” Don said of mental skills training. “We talk a lot about the buzz word that you hear to be present or play in the present. What does that mean? How do I get there? What are some techniques I can utilize to teach myself how to bring myself back to the present so I don’t allow my emotions from the past or thoughts and emotions from the future dictate how I’m going to perform now?”

Every player is different. Every player has different needs whether that’s regarding physical training, mental skills training, etc. Having different regimens and programs for each player for both physical and mental training, as the Mavericks and presumably all NBA teams do, is crucial for the continued growth of the individual player and the team as a whole.

“Maybe at a lower level or at a high school, we’d do some group stuff but these guys are coming from a lot of difference places with a lot of different types of training so really my goal is to try to figure out what are their needs and develop a program that assists them if in fact they want assistance in those areas.”

When speaking of physical or mental training, you have to think that the Mavericks training staff is involved, which of course they are. The Mavs are known to have one of, if not the best, training staffs in the league, led by Casey Smith, who’s been with the team for almost 16 years.

Specifically for a long-term injury, it’s important that Don and Casey work hand-in-hand during the rehab stage as the player works through both the physical and mental side of recovery.

“The luxury of being able to work for an organization as long as Casey and I have with the Mavericks has really built in trust between Casey and I but within the players as well. There’s a couple different protocols that we’ll go through depending upon the level of injury and depending upon the player’s experience with injury. So, once those things take place and it’s a long-term thing, it might be a little different than a short-term ankle sprain but there is an outlook of what that’ll look like. With players like that who have been around the system, part of the protocol is really utilizing the same techniques that we’ve utilized for performance,” Don said of long-term injuries.

For instance, Mavericks forward Dwight Powell tore his right Achilles tendon on January 21st against the Clippers. The Mavericks training staff is very familiar with dealing with this type of injury, as J.J. Barea tore his Achilles last season as well as helping Wes Matthews rehab his torn Achilles back in the 2015 offseason. Barea spoke highly of Powell’s work ethic and attitude once the injury took place, as Powell is known to be a workhorse and as positive as they come.

Even for someone as mentally strong and positive as Dwight, you never know just how tough and tolling a rehab like this can be on a player.

“When an injury that takes place for any athlete that’s long-term and/or requires surgery, there’s often the ‘what if’. How are you going to look like? How are you going to feel like? Am I going to be able to play or perform the way I used to? That’s more of a future thought process which doesn’t really assist anybody because there’s no definitive, concrete answer. We really try to focus on, and it sounds simplistic and often cliche, but we’re trying to really focus and spend more time on what’s going on today and what the athlete can control today and teach them to focus on today versus spreading themselves to ‘man, what if I didn’t get hurt? I probably could’ve helped the team. Am I going to be able to return?’ That’s exhausting. Very taxing when you don’t have those answers but we do have answers for what does it look like today,” Kalkstein said.

“As a player progresses from an injury standpoint, they have established physical goals. Once that’s established, the athlete and I will talk about what that’s going to look like and feel like, preparing them for that but still staying in the present of ‘what’s it feel like today?’ and the anxieties of what it’s going to feel like because that’s something we don’t know and haven’t experienced.”

Though the Mavericks as an organization hold the importance of mental health to a high regard, as every organization in not just the NBA but across all sports should, every athlete may not choose to or know how to confront their mental health.

But they’re starting to.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love came out with a piece on The Players Tribune in 2018 discussing his battle with not just understanding his mental health but the anxiety of talking about it following having a panic attack during a game. San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan, at the time a member of the Toronto Raptors, opened up to The Toronto Star about his battle with depression and anxiety about a week prior to Love’s article.

This past December, Lakers forward LeBron James partnered with Calm, a meditation and relaxation app that helps aid and build mental fitness.

And just last week, Dallas Wings guard Katie Lou Samuelson opened up to ESPN about her mental health journey.

“I think as a population as a whole we’re discussing it more and becoming accepted. We’re gonna see more and more of it because it’s not a negative thing. It’s changing the connotation and the players are starting to understand that there is assistance out there for them that can, through counseling or medication, if necessary for some. That can help them feel better about themselves and what’s going on and maintain a certain level of mindset to be productive for their family and as an athlete to feel a lot better about themselves, and that’s really the goal for everyone, right?” Kalkstein said of the prominence of mental health.

“And when you have those resources available, they’re starting to learn to take advantage of them and we want them to. The more players that come forward and feel comfortable enough, I think really makes a huge difference for everyone involved, players, staff, and coaches included.”

Maneuvering through these past few months has been difficult for everyone. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly taken not just the NBA but the world by storm and changed our daily lives for the foreseeable future. How has the Mavericks organization guided the team through these times? Consistency.

“What I think is important, and you’re going to hate this answer, is for them to spend more time doing what they’re doing, which we try to talk about during the season. There’s things constantly going on in the world and their lives and their families and relationships, and when they come to the facility for a practice or film session or whatever, in essence, we ask them to let that go and be here,” Kalkstein said. “It’s very similar. What is your routine now and let’s continue that routine. If you look at it as a whole, for the players who are fortunate enough to get with their families, it’s somewhat similar to what an offseason looks like and to that standpoint, it was very helpful. I know Casey and our trainers are contacting the players daily. Whatever it is they’re working with, that’s what we try to do. We have the tools. We have the resources. We just try to build that program for each player and see what’s useful for them and what we can do.”

While there’s currently no set plan for the return of the NBA season, it’s looking promising that the season will continue at some point as talks have heated up over the last week or so. As an official agreement looms, you have to wonder just how comfortable all parties involved will feel essentially living in a bubble to finish the NBA season to crown a champion.

“Would there be anxiety? I think even if there was a total clearance, when you’re thinking about anxiety, you’re thinking about not knowing or starting to determine in your mind possibly what is going on, which could be true or false. So I think we’re going to have to experience that on the way and I think partially, we prepare mentally if and when we do come back, there’s that period of training camp and if we have to be quarantined but here again, if we have to spend our time on all these if’s, I’m exhausted,” Don said of potentially coming back to play.

“One of the things we try to do is gather the information we have and the information that we know and take out the speculation component. If and when they say we’re playing on the moon or playing all in one facility, the great part about it is so is every other team and we’re all on the same boat and we’re on an equal playing field with obstacles that we’ve never dealt with before along the way and we’ll deal with them once they arise. Instead of revving ourselves up and working ourselves up, let’s not displace that energy and go with what we have today.”

“Let’s not displace that energy and go with what we have today.”

That’s powerful. That’s something we should we all read every morning to start our day to help ensure our feet are on the ground and focused on today.

Don’s significance to the Mavericks organization is evident. And so is the importance of mental health. As Kevin Love said, “Everyone is going through something that we can’t see…I want to remind you that you’re not weird or different for sharing what you’re going through.”

You’re not, because we all have something.

Managing Editor for Dallas Sports Fanatic | Lead Editor covering the Dallas Mavericks | UNT Alum | Twitter: @TheMulf

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