Focused and Centered: Mindfulness coach Greg Graber helps keep LSU calm amid the chaos of college hoops

By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor

Editor’s note: This is the cover story of Tiger Rag’s 2017-18 Basketball Preview, out on newsstands across Baton Rouge now. You can also order a copy by clicking here

Greg Graber knows the answer to the question he’s about to ask, but he’s going to ask it anyway.

He has the attention of the entire LSU basketball locker room, to whom he has just shown a carefully crafted, thoroughly edited PowerPoint presentation, featuring LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan and others – all of whom, like Graber, practice meditation, and, all of whom, unlike Graber, are elite basketball players.

Who here, Graber asks, is better than any of these guys?

No hands go up, and that’s when Graber knows he’s cleared the first hurdle in selling a room of basketball players on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.

Graber, a mental performance trainer with the Memphis Grizzlies and, now, having followed Will Wade from VCU, for LSU, knows how hard the sell can be, because at first, he didn’t buy it either. An educator by trade, Graber has always been fascinated by the workings of the mind. But more than decade ago, he came away from a meditation course his wife practically dragged him to vowing never to return.

“I thought it was the worst thing in the world, to have to sit there and do 10 minutes of nothing and focus on my breath,” Graber says. “I thought it was real New Age-y, and back then it was less mainstream. It was very fringe. I just thought it was weird.”

Given his current role working with athletes, it’s fitting Graber’s path to mindfulness came via sport. A former high school soccer player at the Montverde Academy – the same school former Tiger Ben Simmons attended in Florida – Graber is an avid runner. He’s an avid reader, too, and it was the intersection of those two hobbies that brought him to a more open-minded perspective on meditation.

“A couple years later, I was reading an article in a magazine about the similarities of running and meditation, how you can focus on your breath and how it helps you get calm and centered,” he says. “I kind of fell into it that way. As a runner, it really piqued my interest.”

Before long, Graber was practicing on his own, attending classes, getting certifications. His headmaster, Stuart McCathie, sent him to Harvard and UCLA to learn about how to implement mindfulness for students and teachers, and Graber brought the practice back to his school, Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, there instituting the first in-school meditation program in the South. Graber’s transition from the classroom to the court came through Josh Pastner, currently the head coach for Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball team, then the head coach down the road from Lausanne at Memphis.

“Josh was always nice enough to come out here and present to my kids at my school,” Graber says. “Then he made the mistake of giving me his phone number.”

Graber began messaging Pastner about mindfulness training for athletes. He emailed him articles about Phil Jackson’s relationship with George Mumford, Jackson’s “Zen Master” with the Bulls and Lakers.

“He was a little bit reluctant at first,” Graber says. “He didn’t know if his guys would buy into it.”

They did – with the help of Graber’s PowerPoint – and soon he was working with the Tigers on a daily basis. One player, Trey Draper, joined Wade’s staff at Chattanooga as a graduate assistant and recommended giving Graber a shot.

“Trey kept telling Will about this,” Graber says. “Will called Josh Pastner about it, and I went up and visited with Will. We clicked.”

Before long, Graber was driving the six hours from Memphis to Chattanooga to help Wade’s team, free of charge. He’s since followed Wade to VCU and, now, LSU, flying in once a month during the season and once every couple of months in the offseason to work with both Wade and his players. He also works with six to eight players individually, meeting with them one-on-one when he’s in town and texting them during the season. He ordered purple bracelets with the word “BREATHE” in gold lettering that Wade and the players wear, tactile reminders of their practice.

“Will is one of these guys who is really forward-thinking and progressive,” Graber says. “He realizes players getting the mental edge is really going to help. He’s willing to try whatever.

“Will’s really into it. Because he’s into it, they buy into it, too.”

When he finishes his initial presentation, Graber’s first session with any team or individual he works with – in addition to the Grizzlies, he also consults Mount St. Mary’s, coached by former VCU assistant Jamion Christian, and has worked with Alabama softball, Memphis golf, and local lawyers and physicians in Memphis – is what he calls “a demystification of mindfulness.” He breaks down, from a scientific perspective, what it is and what it isn’t.

“I talk to them about the way the mind works,” he says. “The flight or fight syndrome, how adrenaline works. How different parts of the brain work and how they can learn to control it through their breath to facilitate focus and calmness.”

There are four different exercises Graber leads. First, he teaches how to think about thinking. A thought, he says, is mental activity. It’s not an absolute truth, and he shows them how they can observe those thoughts, rather than be consumed by them.

Next, he works on breathing, the vehicle for entering a mindful state. There’s proactive breathing – how to breathe before they go into a game, or how to get focused and centered before they take a free throw. Wade, for example, has his own 10-to-15 minute pre-game routine. There’s also reactive breathing – recognizing a state of agitation after a bad call or an angry coach, and breathing out the adrenaline to restore calm.

Third, he helps them develop a daily meditation habit, and shows them how it “helps build up the parts of the brain that facilitates focus.” Every day, strength coach Greg Goldin – who meditates twice a day – leads a three-minute pre-practice meditation for the entire team. Graber, whose book, “Mindful Living in an Accelerated Cultures,” comes out next year, also encourages them to develop a routine of individual meditation, typically in the mornings.

LSU’s pre-practice meditation routine includes a team shoe-tying session at halfcourt. Photo courtesy of LSU

“It’s just like lifting weights is a physical exercise to build their biceps, meditation, focusing on their breathing, and learning to deal with distraction, is a mental exercise,” he says. “It’s the mental equivalent of lifting a barbell for their attention span. It makes them more patient, it cultivates their ability to deal with stress in more responsive manner, instead of being knee-jerk reactive.”

The final piece of the puzzle is visualization. It’s the “mental rehearsal” tool the players use the night before a game, when Graber instructs them to take whatever component of the game they want to work on and run through a simulation of it in action, tying in the five senses. A shooting guard, for example, imagines letting rip from three, feeling the ball leave his fingertips, watching it go in, and hearing the pop of it passing through the net.

“When they can do that, for their brain, it’s almost the same thing as doing it physically,” he says. “So when they get into the game situation, it’s like their brain has seen this and done this before. They are more confident and can get into the flow.”

If there was any hesitation among LSU’s players to Graber’s ideas, it quickly transformed into enthusiastic endorsement.

“It’s been really beneficial for me,” says sophomore guard Skylar Mays, who is also a pre-med student. “With my major and how much we’re doing on the court, I think taking a little time away from it, for just five or ten minutes, it’s really helpful.”

Junior guard Brandon Sampson said he immediately latched on to the concept because he’d heard players like James and Curry espousing its benefits. He’s become an active proponent, developing a daily practice every morning and every night, in addition to the regular team session.

“If you’ve had a long day, when you get to the meditation before practice, it lets you take everything off your shoulders and just leave it right where you are so you don’t bring it on to the court,” he says. “The meditation just frees your mind up. It’s helping my mind be clear, so everything’s not so cluttered up there.”

Graber is just as clear on what meditation isn’t as what it is. It’s not, he says, “some quick fix elixir that facilitates perfection.” Nor does it create “emotionless blobs” or monk-like tranquility for the players on the court or Wade on the sideline. Look no further than the broken toe Wade suffered kicking a scorer’s table last season at VCU. Instead, Graber says, it’s a tool, a net to soften the emotional and psychological blows basketball deals out night after night.

“Instead of getting thrown out of the game, he might break his toe,” Graber laughs. “Maybe it’s mindful he kicked the table instead of going off on the referee. We look for a growth mindset, not a perfection mindset.”

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