David Nurse, the nephew of Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, is combining NBA skills development and mental health to form an unshakeable mindset to optimize a player’s performance on and off the court.
“The NBA is weird and ever-changing,” as Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk told HoopsHype. “Sometimes, you feel on top of the world feeling great. Other times, you feel like you don’t know if you’re going to play again. I think in four years in Boston, I don’t think I had one DNP (did not play). When I get to Miami, and you’re healthy and you’re dressed for the game and you get a DNP, that’s tough.”
Nurse, who previously worked for the Brooklyn Nets as a shooting coach, has trained over 150 NBA players, including Olynyk, All-Star Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lin, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Rui Hachimura, and others.
During his time working with players on the court and speaking with them outside the lines, Nurse realized there’s more to development than just mechanics and repetition.
“I felt like I was shooting the ball really well in drills and practice, but in the game, it just wasn’t connecting,” Powell told HoopsHype. “I wasn’t finding my flow and my rhythm in the games. Since then, me and David have been working on breaking down my game, sending me clips, and asking me different questions that aren’t usually asked when you’re working with your coach and watching film and what I saw from my perspective. He asked me a bunch of questions about what I thought about the game, my confidence level, and gave me a different perspective on how I approach the game and how I viewed myself.”
The key for Nurse was transferring a player’s successful mindset in practice or a private workout into games with fans in the stands and increased pressure to perform.
“He’ll go further into detail and what was my confidence level heading into the game?” Powell added. “How did I feel during my shooting time? Was there anything in the game that I wasn’t so confident about or I didn’t feel right about? Where was my mind at in terms of letting things go? Was I able to stay in the present moment if I had a turnover late in the game? Did I hang my head on that and let it bother me the rest of the game where I couldn’t focus on helping the team get a win?”
Powell, 27, has taken his game to new heights working with Nurse shooting a career-best 49.5 percent from the field last season and 43.8 percent from beyond the arc so far this season. He’s become a consistent 16-point per game scorer the past two seasons and is setting himself up for a potential pay raise if he declines his $11.6 million player option this offseason.
Other players see their names in trade rumors constantly with mobile alerts and fans chastising them with occasional threats after a bad game, turnover, or missed shot during the social media era. To perform at a high level, an athlete needs mental fortitude to block out any distractions. Amid a global pandemic, it’s even more critical than ever with daily changes for all of society.
“So much of the game now is just having confidence,” Olynyk explained. “Whether you’re a star player, you need that confidence out there every night to do stuff, or you’re a role player, someone who might only get three or four opportunities, and you’ve got to make sure you’re making the right decisions. If you only have two shots, you’ve got to step up and shoot those with confidence. If you waver at all, you might not get those opportunities again.”
According to Nurse, there will always be different circumstances on the outside, but in your head, you can control that environment.
“His deal is all about, can you get to that mindset, and that zone as many times as possible?” Olynyk said. “And when you get there, you feel like you can’t be stopped.”
To maintain that belief in a player as often as possible, Nurse outlined seven steps to achieve unshakeable confidence.
Confidence through comparison
In this step, a player compares himself to a player who he believes he can become. Kobe Bryant compared himself to Michael Jordan, studied everything he did on the court and mirrored many of his moves. In Powell’s case, he compares himself to Dwyane Wade.
Confidence through strength focus
The goal of this step is to focus on a player’s strengths instead of his weaknesses. Some players are elite at one skill like shooting such as Kyle Korver, who became one of the league’s top shooters all-time instead of marginally improving as a better ball-handler or playmaker off the dribble.
Confidence through redefining vocabulary
Often, players will be asked about dealing with failure, pressure, or a shooting slump. The word slump has a negative connotation. To combat that mindset, Nurse has shown his clients star players they look up to such as Bryant shooting air balls in the playoffs. The purpose is to show a player there’s growth from those moments.
“We don’t call it a slump,” Powell said. “As soon as you start putting that out there, you start believing it. Now, every shot that you miss is like you feel like you’re in a shooting slump. You change the narrative and wording around it so that way your perspective on it changes. I feel like a lot of times people get caught up in what’s being said, and how it’s said to you where it resonates with you differently, and it can affect you performance-wise.”
Nurse will use different vocabulary and call it a “shooting hippopotamus” instead to deviate from a negative mindset and get a laugh from his players.
Confidence through creating your own highlight reel
Here, players enter their swag zone. To do so, players will watch repetitive highlights of themselves in the morning and before practice or a game so their subconscious is at its best and not that the player is coming off a bad game. Nurse wants to instill a state of mind that the player is always who he is at his best, not his worst.
Olynyk also wore a snapback hat backward during pick-up games and his play improved. According to Nurse, that was a trick where it helped put him in the best mindset. Entering the arena, Olynyk routinely wears his hat backward to keep him in that same mindset.
“When a construction worker is going to work, he’s got his hard hat on and you know he’s ready to go to work,” Olynyk explained. “After that, snapback is on, I know I’m ready to work.”
Similarly, Nurse used the same tactic for Brook Lopez, who loves Disney World. While developing his three-point shot, the two would talk about Disney World and Lopez would wear a Disney shirt.
Confidence through pouring into others
The focus is to take the pressure off individual performance by being a part of something bigger in this step. Think along the lines of a screen assist. A player may not get the praise for making a clutch shot down the stretch, but without that screen to free the shooter, the shot may not even happen at all. There’s no statistic for diving for loose balls or hustle, but fans, teammates, coaches, and opponents recognize it.
Confidence through cue word
When you’re in the heat of battle during a game, you can’t watch your highlight reel or wear your favorite hat or t-shirt, so what do you do if a player needs a quick reset? Choose a particular word to help trigger your subconscious mind back into the self-confident person you are.
“I always had a confidence chart that would explain to me different things as my confidence cues to keep me focused and remember the present moment,” Powell said. “David would always send me three cues that I’d always have to remember or go over before I stepped on the court. They were different things that remind me of confident things that can help me stay the course no matter what comes my way. I’ll always get a reminder with that every so often throughout every few games.”
Powell’s cue word is unshakeable. He also is reminded to be as confident as the most confident person he knows, his uncle Raymond, remember Russell Westbrook’s “bring it on” pregame mindset, and remember if something goes wrong in the game, how Bryant embraced those failures to improve.
Confidence through preparation
The glue that ties all the steps together is relentless consistency with daily preparation.
Nurse isn’t focusing on the results in this step. Rather, he and the player are focused on the process and work they put in, so there’s no fear if a player misses a shot because he put in the work and had the right mindset to take it. Even the greatest shooters miss half their shots. Eventually, by tracking the process of whether a player took his best high-level shot, the results will follow organically.
Take Sabonis, who is working on his three-point shot, for example. Sabonis shoots a flat ball, so he needed more of an arch according to Nurse. After every shot, Sabonis and Nurse stopped and assessed his shot to make sure his elbow was to his eyebrow and perfecting every rep after watching his film in slow motion.
This season, Sabonis is shooting 37.1 percent on a career-high 2.8 attempts from downtown.
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto