Aida Johnson-Rapp by Aida Johnson-Rapp

Thaddeus Young is a 13-year NBA veteran who has played for five teams: 76ers, Timberwolves, Nets, Pacers and, currently, the Bulls, where he was voted team captain by the players in 2019.

Off the court, Young is an entrepreneur and philanthropist. He has invested in real estate and start-up companies through Reform Ventures, LLC, a private investment fund. In every community where he has played, he has worked to enrich the lives of young people through various youth foundations, and in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., through the Young for Youth Foundation and Reform Sports, which provides and create resources for aspiring athletes looking to become pros.

ACE Expert and Owner of Aspire to Harmony Aida Johnson-Rapp spoke with Thaddeus on how he uses mindfulness practices on and off the court.

Aida Johnson-Rapp (AJR): One of the things that motivated me to begin a meditation practice and to get certified as a yoga and meditation instructor was managing people. And managing people is challenging because you’ve got a million different personalities and you have to be grounded in yourself so that you can understand how you would react. Have you found that meditation helps you to do that better?

Thaddeus Young (TY): Yes, for sure—like just being able to use your patience to be able to deal with certain situations even when I don’t have the patience [laughter]. Another thing I try to do is to be in complete silence. When you are hearing a lot of different noises, it can sometimes cloud your judgement and the way that you think. So, if I have 30 to 40 situations that I’m trying to think about at the same time, obviously that’s going to cloud one or the other. I sometimes try to ride in the car in silence or sit in a room in complete silence, where nothing is going on—no TV, no phone, nothing—and I can kind of just sit there and think about whatever I want to think about to its entirety. And solely focus on that and then figure out what’s the next move, the next plan or the next step forward so I can move forward with whatever I am trying to think about at this time and make a decision for.

Meditation helps with managing those egos and different personalities. You have to be able to converse and communicate with all these different egos differently. [For example,] I might be able to go to one person and get into a heated exchange, and [still] be fine afterward. I might not be able to go to the next person and have a heated exchange with him and have it end in the same way. I might have to talk to him with a little bit of calmness. So, [it’s important to] understand how to manage egos and talk to people in different ways, to be able to get through to them so that we can all work together to get through the day. That type of talk takes a toll on you eventually because you have to adjust every single day. You have to adjust based upon the people you are talking to so we can all play a great game.

AJR: Well, that’s great to be able to do that. How did you come to that method of grounding yourself, of finding some comfort and peace in your mind? Did you get that from the apps (meditation) or read about it or did you go to a workshop?

TY: I have always been a laid-back type of person, a loner per se. I’ve always stayed to myself, and didn’t necessarily need company to be able to get through certain situations or to help me feel comfortable in myself. Some people need people around them to keep them stable, but I am not one of those people. For me it was always kind of easy to fall into those states because I was always by myself and didn’t really hang out with a lot of people. Typically, a basketball player has four or five different people around them every single day, all day. I always kept to myself and read up on stuff about health. One of my close family members suffered with anxiety and that really got me to thinking about health. When you see somebody go through it and you deal with somebody who’s going through it, you want to understand how to help them. I had to understand their thought processes, so I started to dive into it to learn more about it. And then I started to see more and more athletes coming around to their mental health. I didn’t want to turn into a high-anxiety person or have to deal with those stresses, so I read up on it and tried to help my family member through their healing. I also have a young son and I wanted him to understand that it’s O.K. to talk about fears, to feel a certain way and not let it overtake you. I had to figure out those things to try to get myself through so I could understand how to coach my kid and continue to help my family member.

AJR: That’s great. So what did you read? Do you have any favorite mindfulness leaders that you refer to?

TY: No, first I just started Googling everything I could about mental health and mental diseases and stuff like that. And then I started to just learn more by reading excerpts and small clippings and stuff like that and just diving into what a lot of these different terms really meant.

AJR: One of the books that I had read a few years ago was written by George Mumford, who is a mindfulness teacher. The Chicago Bulls were one of his clients. He worked with Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and a few other NBA players to help them with the anxiety, tensions and stress that come with being at the top of their game. His book, The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance, is helpful and talks about being in the zone and being in flow.

TY: I am not familiar; however, I am going to start reading a bit more books like that. Searching and reading was how I just started to get my mental capacity in check. As an athlete, basketball has always come easy. Basketball never really gave me anxiety. You have some big games sometimes, and that’s where it started to take a toll on my mental health. I didn’t really start to battle with mental health until probably a couple years back and everything was like a downward spiral because the team wasn’t winning. I wasn’t being listened to as the elder statesman on the team and there was conflict around minutes of playing and that type of stuff. It put me in a situation where it was taking a toll on my mental health and it almost caused me to consider retiring from the club. My first year with the Bulls was bad year.

AJR: It was something new and there had to be the pressure of that high level in a town like Chicago.

TY: The newness part was [challenging] along with the unfamiliarity of the situation. I had been in Indiana for the past few years, and I knew everybody there, so it was [challenging] going to a new team, a new city and new people. The basketball situation didn’t go well, and other situations started not to go well. It had a trickle-down effect and it started to take its toll on me. The one thing that I did get from it was that I am a very tough individual. I had to start being able to deal with adversity. I had dealt with adversity in all different forms but never in the form of my 13th season. I am one of the oldest guys on the team, and the direction of the team was up in the air. You have all these young guys who are coming in they are playing really good basketball, so I am wondering: Am I still going to play or are they going to push me out of the league? I was always on the younger side of things and on the other end of the spectrum. When you start to crossover to being the older side, you have to become that veteran, that leader, that guy who’s going to help groom the young guys. That puts you in a situation where you have to make an adjustment call.

AJR: In the face of adversity, what did you turn to in terms of mindfulness to help you?

TY: I started to build more confidence back into myself. I have always been one who would talk to myself.

AJR: Would you call that positive self-talk?

TY: Yes, I would always give myself positive self-talk like: “You can do this,” “You know you’re better than this,” “Go back to what you were born to do,” “Go back to how you were raised,” or “Go back to all the different things that have gotten you to this point.” I would always refer to the things that have gotten me to this point, which was availability, accountability, responsibility, respect and determination—words that mean a whole bunch to everybody on the roster and to everyone who has gotten to this point in the NBA. A couple of those words mean something to everybody because guys like me had to use all of that to get to this point in our careers.  When you start to refer to those words, you understand what got you there. You know they can keep you in this position.

AJR: Positive self-talk is good for anyone—even someone with a 9-to-5 job can get into negative self-talk. Positive self-talk is a big one in terms of mindfulness.

TY: Some people do the positive self-talk, but they don’t really believe it, so it’s hard for them to get over the curve or get over the hump because deep down, they really don’t believe it. I am one of those guys who firmly believes in it. I think that’s what has helped me get back to the point where I am happy again playing basketball, happy with everything that’s going around my full-time job.

AJR: Do you use positive self-talk when you are playing in a game?

TY: Yes, [I use] all that same stuff. If I’m not having the best day, I figure out a way to get myself up through it by continuously pushing myself and believing in the end goal that what I am doing that day is going to make me better for the next day.

AJR: It sounds like you really try to focus on the present moment.

TY: Yes, I try to focus on the present moment and not dwell on the past. People who dwell in the past are going to continue to get pushed down in their own [stuff].

AJR: You’re right and get stinky and worse off than ever.

TY: Exactly, and instead of getting up and going to take a shower and moving on, they get to that point. For me, I either try to live in the moment or focus on the future. Living in the moment and trying to make myself better in the moment or try to be better in that moment will make me know what to do to be great in the future.

AJR: You sound like a really great role model for a lot of players. Do you feel that this practice of being mindful, spending time with yourself and the positive self-talk are practices that made you a better athlete?

TY: Yes, I have been fortunate enough to have every team that I play for love me, love having me around, love keeping me on the team—and they hate to see me go. I have been fortunate enough to have a lot of young players really like me as well. A lot of older guys don’t really like the young players because they feel like they don’t know how to play, or [they’re concerned] the young players are going to take their jobs. I am comfortable in my own skin, but that’s not true for everyone. I’m comfortable with who I am as a person, so it helps me connect with younger players and people that I am around every single day. I’m not someone who is going to put people down even if they are brought in to replace someone or because they have potential. I just stay comfortable with myself because I understand basketball can’t be won by one single person. A game has to be won by a team not an individual. I know to do that everybody has to be on the same page, and we all have to be connected. If we are not connected, then we have to figure out how to get connected or we will continue to have terrible seasons.

AJR: When did you begin to adopt this mindset? Do you remember when you began to focus on positive self-talk, focus on keeping connected with the team. How long do you think you’ve been having this mindset?

TY: It all started for me when I was in high school. I was fortunate enough to have a coach who would always teach formations and coordination and [working] together. I started to realize that as good as I was in high school, I could not succeed without the guys I was playing with. We all had to trust each other in those games. I could go out for 50 points, but is that the best for our team? No. That’s when I started to realize how valuable a team could really be and is. If you don’t have everyone on the same page, then the success won’t come from anything because we are not together, and we are not holding each other accountable.

AJR: Speaking of accountability, how often do practice mindfulness, such as meditation, journaling or yoga?

TY: [This is my schedule] when I am getting ready for this upcoming season: Breakfast, workout, leave that workout and drive to the next workout. Leave that workout and go home to hang out with the family for a little bit. When I get done with that, I might do some work on all my other companies, get updates from my businesses and employees that are working with other companies. By the time I am finished my day, it’s time for me to hang out with the family a little more before bedtime. I get in the shower at 10 or 11 and that’s when I practice my mindfulness. During the season, it’s a little easier because I have dedicated naptime on gamedays, which is two or three hours when no one bothers me. I turn on the meditation music and just lay there and soak that all in.

AJR: Playing music with 432 hz frequency is said to be the most relaxing frequency for the human ear and to use for relaxation and calmness. The streaming music services have many playlists that specifically have songs selected in the 432 hz range—just an FYI since you put on meditation music at nap time. It seems like meditation is also one of your go to methodologies for mindfulness

TY: Yes, either that or total silence. Yoga is cool but yoga hurts [laughter]. As a basketball player, I am very, very stiff so I like mindfulness to be less painful.

AJR: Is there anything that excites you about mindfulness practices that you want to share?

TY: What’s cool about mindfulness is that it lets a person put themselves into sort a box. By that I mean you can deal with your own state of mind and restore and regenerate or reenergize yourself by just lying there or thinking positive thoughts. That’s one of the coolest parts about it. You can be mentally drained all day and then take an hour for yourself just to get to a state of relaxation. It’s like getting a massage. Your body is hurt but you’re able to use those practices to get yourself back to feeling great again.

AJR: And you can do it all by yourself. That’s the beauty of mindfulness, to have that level of consciousness to be able to reenergize and reflect. Sadly, many people are unaware of the benefits of mindfulness. As a role model and captain of the team, do you ever suggest this to the other players?

TY: I try, but everyone has their own way of coping with things. I try not to put what I do on other people. I try to be mindful of the fact that everyone has different ways that they use to deal with adversity. I try to observe how they manage so that I can be helpful along the way as well.

AJR: As team captain, how do you manage the sports media and press with perhaps negative questions, comments and feedback. This is a topic dominating the news right now.

TY: When you have to answer the same questions over and over, it becomes rehearsed. You have to understand how to deal with the media and deflect the negative and turn it into a positive. If we lose, I admit to that and also let them know the things the team and individual players did well as opposed to dwelling on the things that didn’t work for the team. If [one of the] guys had a bad game or didn’t score a lot, he still might have had a bunch of rebounds or steals, or helped us on a defensive end. He might have afforded us a chance to win at the end of the game, even though he didn’t have the best game. I try to understand what people do and what they bring to the table and then put that out there as opposed to allowing negativity to prevail. [I’m focused on] always keeping it positive.