It’s my (redshirt) sophomore season at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. We were facing the #1 Team in the country on their home court in South Bend, Indiana. We were going up against the fighting Irish of Notre Dame. The Kress Event Center (our arena) is something special but this was something a small town kid from Oconto, Wisconsin could have never even imagined. Their arena was packed full and the environment was electric. They must have handed out green glowing light sticks as the fans poured into the gym, because when the lights dimmed, the entire arena was glowing a bright neon green. I stopped for a second and looked around in absolute amazement at this moment. I finished my water and I sat down for the starting line ups.
I closed my eyes tight and took the biggest, deepest breath possible and tried to slow down my heart rate but between just finishing warm ups and the pump up video they just played, my poor little heart didn’t stand a chance. It felt like the louder the arena became the faster my heart beat. The entire arena was shaking at this point and my palms were sweating. This was the first season that I earned a starting position with the Phoenix and it’s safe to say that the first two games of the season (which we won easily) in the comfort of our home crowd, was nothing like this. My nerves were high and with my legs a little shaky, I jump out of my chair as they call out my name for the starting line up. It’s game time.
We prepare for the jump and I’m still a little shaky in the legs but I’m ready. I can feel my deep breathing begin to work as I begin to dial in. The ball is thrown up and it's go-time. I quickly saw the difference in the speed compared to the first couple games we played but looking back at it, it should have come to no surprise, as their starting lineup consisted of five WNBA draft picks (all picks #19 and above). In one of the first possessions I went to pass the ball into the post and it was tipped and stolen.
Frustrated, I thought to myself, “Pass Fake Laken”. Almost before I could even finish my thought, the horn rang and I was subbed out. I made my way to the bench and had a seat. It’s funny because as soon as you sit everything seems to slow wayyyy down. I processed my lack of care with the ball and watched for the next few plays, analyzing the game.
“Okay, got it” I thought. I was ready to get back into the game. But as we know in sports, that’s not always how it goes. I continued to sit. Then my mind shifts from analyzing the game and I begin to analyze myself.
“Maybe I’m not good enough to play against this team…” “Maybe I won’t go in the rest of the game” “Maybe the coaches don’t think I can play at this level”
The hamster wheel of negative thoughts began. I fight to stay focused, cheering on my teammates and fighting the negative thoughts in my head. Finally after a big play from one of my teammates and as we celebrated on the bench, I regained control of my mind. Lucky for me, because just like that my number is called again.
I check back into the game and I get another opportunity. I held my own. Got a few assists and well basically just held my own out there. We lost a tight game 71-67 to the #1 team in the country. Of course, I wished we had won and more so I wished I would have provided my team with more than just “holding my own”.
Sometimes being so close to a victory like that lights even more motivation, at least it did for me. I came to our next practice ready to go. Even if I had just a short stint of playing time, I felt the pace of the game and I really believed we could have come away with a victory. So I entered practice with fire.
We do our typical warm up and then break down to specific game-like drills. Like many teams, we often divide our team into starters vs nonstarters. I was asked to flip my jersey over from black to white and just like that, I had lost my starting spot. Maybe, this is the moment that you are supposed to be so motivated and fired up to prove a point but for me, I had the biggest lump in my throat and I knew if I swallowed hard enough the tears would come running down my face. I held myself together and I continued competing in practice but the thing is I was competing so timidly. I was afraid to make a mistake. We wrapped up practice and I headed directly home, where I then swallowed hard and allowed myself to feel the disappointment.
Starting doesn’t prove your value on a team and I knew that but in this moment, it was more of this (false) realization that I wasn’t good enough. I had put EVERYTHING into basketball that previous summer. I did extra workouts, I would play 1v1 with anyone that was willing, I worked with our speed and strength coach weekly because I felt like my lateral quickness and ability to play defense was holding me back and I even changed my diet. I basically was only consuming clean foods and avoided sugar at all costs. I entered this season 15 pounds lighter than I had exited the season before. I was looking for any edge I could to earn more playing time.
After all the hard work and sacrifices, I now felt defeated. I continued to work hard and continued doing extra workouts but it was different. Basketball was always my escape from my everyday stresses and now it was what was causing me so much stress and even sadness. When I showed up to practices, I could tell I didn’t truly believe in myself and my abilities. I was hypersensitive to the things that went on around me. One small thing and I was back on this hamster wheel of negative thoughts. I would miss one shot and fill my mind with “wow, I’m bad” or “I suck”. My mind was controlling what I was capable of doing on the court and because it was filled with so much negativity, it was nearly impossible to perform the way I was capable of. I was struggling with my self-confidence in a way I had never experienced before and I had no tools or idea how to get out of this funk.
My family and friends (bless them) tried to help me but it’s called SELF- confidence for a reason. It doesn't matter what others tell you, the only thing that matters is what you tell yourself. So I started reading and researching self-confidence and mental training for athletes. I figured I couldn’t be the first athlete that has gone through this but what I couldn’t believe was the lack of resources. I began to read the book Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence. This book was filled with gems. One of my favorite quotes in the book, regardless of its simplicity was,
“You have to train your mind like you train your body."
It was an eye opening quote for me. Almost like a Duhhhh moment. I had spent the whole last summer doing everything I could do to be physically ready and now here I was mid-season and the thing I was struggling with the most, was my mind.
I wish I had a happy ending to this season but that’s not the way the story plays out. I struggled mentally the remainder of the year. I took many small steps to improve my mental health. One of the most influential moments was in Target. (Yes, Target, like the store you go in looking to buy one thing and leave with a cart full of random goodness) It was a typical mother daughter night, which we had a lot of this year because my Mom is usually my voice of reason when I’m stressed or struggling, and we were wandering Target in case there was something we discovered we needed. We were walking through the books section and at the end of the aisle was a journal. The cover read, Dream. It was a black cover and the words were written in gold. My Mom picked it up and said, “Maybe it’ll help to write what you are feeling.”
My Mom’s a smart lady but this is the best thing that she ever suggested. That night in Target, I got my first journal and a green fuzzy blanket because why not? Fuzzy blankets help everything. Both of these things became like a lifeline for me. The journal was a place for me to write my thoughts and feelings and the blanket just symbolized my family and a sense of home for when I was feeling down.
I had a successful career at The University of Wisconsin Green Bay. I ended my career as the starting point guard and earned 2nd team All- Conference. I am now entering my 3rd year of Professional basketball and throughout this journey, I continue to balance my physical and mental training equally. The journey has had many highs and many lows but I have never stopped journaling because it has become my greatest outlet. Today, my journal has been transformed into a Google Doc because it turns out I have a lot to say, a lot of the time and typing is just a faster way to get my feelings out. It is titled James’ Journal and it is currently 87 pages. James’ Journal is filled with my journey and lessons I’ve learned along the way, in sports but also in life, the good and the bad. As for the blanket, it comes with me everywhere, 18 countries and counting. I don’t think if you Googled, “How to overcome a lack of self-confidence?” The search results will say, “Go to Target with your Mom and buy a fuzzy blanket and a journal” but for me, this was the most helpful moment in that entire season. It got me to acknowledge my negative thoughts and you won’t believe how ridiculous some of your thoughts appear after they are out of your head and on paper.
Life and sports can be hard, but sometimes the best thing we can do is write about it. Not only does it help us to get our thoughts out of our heads and on paper but when we share our stories (the good and the bad) it allows for us to connect with others. Maybe someone can relate to our story and even better, maybe someone can learn from our experiences. I think sometimes in sports, we shy away from being vulnerable because we are always taught that we need to be tough but in reality it’s our ability to be vulnerable that will truly make a difference.
So with that, Welcome to James’ Journal where Elite Athletes will share pieces of their journey in hopes to help make someone else’s journey a little easier.
Founder of Five Star Academy,
- Laken James
Just Authentic, Motivational, Empowering Stories
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