NBA Playoffs aren’t just won through superior dribbling and shooting skills. It’s a mental game, Dr. Chris Johnson says.
He would know. As the team psychologist for The Golden State Warriors and Head of the Navy’s Operational Neuroscience Lab, he’s in a prime position to see how mental agility and toughness gives you an advantage, both on the court and in battle.
Johnson sees lots of similarities between winning an NBA Playoff game and engaging in close combat.
“Let me give you an example,” Johnson told ESPN.com. “Close-quarters combat is really high-stress — confined space, compressed time. They’re making decisions a lot of times under duress. So when a guy comes in for a shootout and he turns a corner, he’s got 250 milliseconds to make an identification and a shoot/don’t shoot decision. That’s a quarter of a second. It’s the same thing here.”
“Of course, the consequences are starkly different — who lives or who dies versus who wins or loses, but the stressors are similar.”
His military work focuses on the brain and how it reacts to stress in different situations.
“We want to look at two things,” Johnson says. “One is, how are they different [brains that handle stress well compared with brains that don’t]. And then the $60 million question is, those mechanisms that are different, can you train them?”
Johnson’s relationship with the Warriors began with a conversation with Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr. Kerr’s forward-thinking approach to the relationship between mental health and sporting performance is what encouraged Johnson to become a part of the team.
“I’m not going into much detail about the things that we’ve done,” Kerr said. “But he’s made a big impact.”
When Johnson first got there, the team was fascinated by the fact that he’d worked with special ops. The Navy Seals were just as impressed that he was working with the NBA Playoff contenders.
“They [Navy Seals] were very open to the idea that, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something you’re going to learn from them that you can bring back to us,’ ” he said. “They thought it was cool.”
His message to Stephen Curry and his teammates was plain and simple.
“You guys are here because you’re at the top of your game. I’m here to help make you 1 or 2 percent better.”
The 1-2 percent that Johnson has added seems to be making a difference. The Golden State Warriors beat the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs by 8 points. The game was won in during overtime, a stressful situation where Johnson’s instructions to the players must have come in handy.
The Golden State Warriors are also the favorites to win tonight on their home court, the Oracle Arena.
So, will the NBA Playoffs be won by the team that has had mental toughness training from a guy who also works with the Navy Seals? Only time, and the scoreboard, will tell.