For Some Championship Teams, Stu Singer Is the Secret Sauce
Singer’s work doesn’t focus on shooting form or conditioning. Instead, he helps players hone their mental skills.
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Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud remembers a moment in Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals when things were very clearly not going the Mystics’ way. In the third quarter, already trailing the Connecticut Sun, the Mystics “massively messed up” a defensive assignment. They took a timeout and emotions were high, but Cloud took control of the huddle.
“Through the adversity, we need to come together and ... figure it out in a productive way so that [on] the next possession, we don't mess up that same ball coverage,” she told her teammates. “... This is a long game.”
On an Instagram TV episode this summer, Cloud said, “That was big for me because, years before, I wouldn't do that. I might get caught up in that, damn, we messed up another ball screen ... we need to sub; we need to do something. But I was calm and I was extremely confident that it didn't matter we were down [seven] points; we were gonna come back.”
The episode’s host, Stu Singer, asked Cloud how she knew how to respond in that moment.
“You're gonna tell me no, but you,” she said. “We worked [together] for, at that point, two years, and … I got there by consistently working.”
Singer is a sports psychology and performance consultant who has worked with professional, collegiate, and high school athletes in various sports. Based in the Boston area, he has had clients around the country, including the Mystics and the women’s basketball programs at Maryland, Rice, Fordham, and Adelphi.
He is also a former high school basketball player and coach whose playing career was cut short due to a significant back injury. “I knew the impact of injury on the mind, because it really messed with me,” he told Her Hoop Stats. That, combined with the interest he developed as a coach in the psychology of performance, “put me on the path to do what I do.”
The cadence Singer generally establishes with teams is a group discussion with the players every two weeks and optional individual work every week or as needed. The group sessions are “really cool because he explains how your mind works,” Mystics star Elena Delle Donne said in another Instagram TV episode. “And he'll have slides up that are explaining like, this is what your mind is doing. This is how you can train it.”
Those sessions are supplemented with meetings with the coaching staff in which Singer explains the importance of sports psychology and performance training and walks through the concepts he is teaching the players. He prefers for these activities to be in-person, though the COVID-19 pandemic has made them virtual for the time being.
Singer teaches essentially the same concepts to athletes at all levels, but his delivery varies. “The fundamentals are the fundamentals,” he said, pointing to the uniformity of humans’ basic brain structures. But professional athletes generally are adults, are more mature, and can dedicate more time to their sport than high school and college athletes. In some cases, professional athletes may also need more convincing of the importance of psychological training.
“With pros, one of the things that you have to always understand is that whatever mindset they had their whole life got them to the top tier,” Singer said. “… It may have gotten them to a Sweet 16, a Final Four, a national championship in college; it may have made them in the running for National Player of the Year, All-American, or certainly all-conference. So there's a deeply held [belief that], ‘Well, whatever I did must not have been that bad’ … So there's a lot of educating that has to happen.”
Part of that education is explaining that Singer is not trying to make huge changes. It’s not like overhauling the shooting form of someone who shoots with two hands; it’s more like helping Delle Donne improve from one of the world’s elite shooters to the best shooter in WNBA history in 2019.
“We’re just trying to get 5% better,” he said, “… just like we do with our physical game on the court, just like we do when we're doing strength and conditioning … We're just saying, ‘Can we get a little bit stronger? Can we get a little bit more flexible? Can we get a little bit more balanced?’ And so if you think of the mind the same way, then it becomes simple to say, ‘Yeah, I probably can get 5% better.’ … If we can do all those two and a half, five percents in all these different areas, that's actually a pretty big jump when you put it all together.”
Singer began working with the Mystics in 2014, the team’s second season under current head coach and general manager Mike Thibault. Thibault and Singer had first met at a coaches’ clinic in Pennsylvania several years prior, when Thibault was the head coach of the Sun. Thibault, the clinic’s keynote speaker, was impressed enough by Singer’s session to ask him to work with the Sun. With the Mystics, Singer initially helped Thibault prepare for the WNBA Draft before starting to work with players in 2015.
Along with key moves such as signing Delle Donne in 2017, the Mystics’ work with Singer helped them double their regular-season win percentage from .382 in 2016 to .765 in 2019. Crucially, Singer said, the entire organization has committed to training the mind, including team leaders Delle Donne and Cloud. It didn’t happen overnight: Delle Donne admitted she resisted practicing mindfulness for a long time, and Cloud declined to work with Singer for a few years because she wanted to prove she could be mentally tough on her own. (According to Singer, that instinct to go at it alone is extremely common among athletes.) But both eventually reached out to Singer—Delle Donne to fix some uncharacteristic struggles at the free throw line and Cloud to address anxieties about keeping her spot on the team and being alone in a foreign country while playing overseas.
Since then, both players have seen just how effective mindfulness and performance training can be.
“You've got that little voice in your head for the whole entire game, and it's interesting because I was able to just shut that voice out,” Delle Donne said. “… I was able to just have so much more focus in the game and not be so concerned about myself or things I was worrying about. And then once I was able to leave that selfish point of ‘me, me, me, me, me,’ I was able to be such a better leader and see what was going on in my teammates’ heads. Like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to pull her out of this moment. She's being down on herself.’”
Whereas Delle Donne focused on quieting her internal voice, Cloud worked to channel her emotions more productively. “I'm an emotional person. If you follow me, follow my career, you can see that. I'm the energy of our team,” she said. “… But for me, that energy on the court could hurt me. You know, you get so emotional, you get so much energy, you get wrapped up in it. … One thing that helped me most [was Singer] explaining to me, the emotions are okay; that's normal. It's normal for you to get pissed off; it's normal for you to be excited when Elena comes down and hits a trail three in someone's face. But how do you control those emotions and … okay, what’s next? … Moving to that next moment helped me set myself and kind of reset myself after those emotions.”
Off the court, too, mindfulness had a big impact on Cloud and Delle Donne. Cloud said that it was a form of self-care this summer while she fought for social justice. It also helped her channel her outrage because, as much as she wanted to yell and scream at people to change, it was sometimes better to take a more collaborative approach. For Delle Donne, mindfulness meditation helped her calm her anxiety, deal with an excruciating back injury suffered during the 2019 playoffs, and improve her interpersonal relationships. “If I didn't do it, I could feel that anxious feeling and it was like, ‘I'm missing something,’” she said.
Singer’s teachings have been equally effective at the college level. Maryland head coach Brenda Frese called hiring Singer “a home run” and “a huge piece of our success” in 2014, when the Terrapins made the Final Four for the first time in eight years. They would repeat the accomplishment in 2015 as Singer helped the players with focus, leadership, confidence, and overcoming their fear of failure. “Every player utilized him,” Frese said. “… Everyone saw improvement.”
Despite the benefits, relatively few college and WNBA teams have a dedicated sports psychologist. As of 2018, only the Mystics and the Dallas Wings listed sports psychologists on their staffs, though other teams may share a psychologist with their affiliated NBA team. At the college level, Singer said, most Power 5 teams have access to psychologists, but those psychologists may not have specific expertise in sports performance. Former college athletes still nearly universally tell Singer that they wish they had had more access to or had done more performance training, and professionals often wish they had started years earlier.
“It's still not where it should be is the bottom line, at any level,” Singer said. “… Every bit of everything that we do is influenced by the mind. … So it doesn't make sense that we don't train it more often and with more understanding.”
Yet Singer sees undeniable progress over the past decade as sports psychology and mental health in general have both been discussed more widely. Teams are always looking to gain a competitive advantage, and in some ways, sports psychology is the last frontier because they have largely optimized their training in technical skills, tactics, and strength and conditioning.
More generally, athletes and coaches have become more aware of—and open to discussing—mental health. In women’s basketball alone, WNBA players Liz Cambage, Kayla McBride, and Katie Lou Samuelson have all written about their battles with depression and/or anxiety, and Buffalo point guard Hanna Hall released a video in May 2019 about her battle with anorexia. And just this month, former Duke women’s basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie published a book, Secret Warrior: A Coach and Fighter, On and Off the Court, about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder early in her career.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new mental health challenges—especially, Singer said, for college players. They had an abrupt end to the 2019-20 season, dealt with the subsequent isolation and disruption of their routine, and are facing postponements and COVID-19 shutdowns throughout the 2020-21 season. “As a species, [uncertainty and change] are two of our biggest triggers for fear,” Singer said. “And so of course that's going to bring about ... stress and anxiety.”
WNBA players spent the 2020 season isolated in a “bubble” in Bradenton, Florida, which had its own mental health challenges, but Singer believes that college players are facing significantly more uncertainty about the future without a bubble.
“The upheaval of schedules and [hearing], ‘Come to campus.’ ‘No, don't come to campus.’ ‘No, be on campus.’ ‘But now we have to be in isolation.’ ‘Yes, we're playing.’ ‘No, we're not playing’ … weighs heavily on them for sure,” Singer said. “… It's hard to say, ‘Yeah, I'm going to come into season and prepare as if’ when you just don't feel like you're necessarily going to have that game next week, or a season even, or a tournament afterwards.”
The pandemic has also made it more difficult for Singer to provide services. He has always offered virtual appointments—even before the pandemic, he was using FaceTime or Skype “most days” to work with individual athletes. But that was never a complete substitute for the work he did in person. “Going on-site to work with my teams is absolutely one of the most powerful and important parts of what I do,” Singer told The Sun Chronicle in 2019.
That is particularly true during the postseason. “It’s heightened anxiety, so we think it’s important for him to be around,” Frese said before a Sweet 16 game in 2015. He was also with the Mystics when they won the 2019 championship—in fact, he is the person standing right behind Cloud in this photo of her meditating before Game 5:
However, for the times that Singer can’t be present, either because of his busy schedule or the pandemic, he offers two other virtual training options for athletes and coaches. The DoSo app offers daily sessions that last 12 minutes or less and are designed both for athletes and for a broader audience of people looking to sharpen their mental skills. “Win First In the Mind” is a course that gives coaches tools to improve their own performance. “Coaching is performance,” Singer said. “… Coaches are pretty stress-ridden. They're pretty anxiety-ridden. They can be angry, they can be moody, and that's all mental maintenance.”
For the Mystics, Terrapins, and so many other teams, Singer has been a secret weapon of sorts to help them reach their goals. But he is the rare secret weapon who doesn’t want to stay hidden. Ultimately, Singer hopes that the psychological edge his athletes and coaches have will one day be the norm, much like how strength and conditioning evolved at the college level from a niche offering in the 1960s to a ubiquitous element of teams’ training today.
“I can't picture anything better than [everyone] doing mindfulness meditation every day,” Singer said.