by MARIKA KROMBERG UNDERWOOD | EDITORIAL INTERN
Understanding the role of basketball as a cultural phenomenon has always been important to me. Many of athletes, including myself, have played this sport three times a week since we were six years old. We focus on footwork and shooting and our relationship with our teammates, but we infrequently stop to ponder the social implications our sport has. Last week, I sat down with Lindsey Wilson, a prodigious athlete and mental health educator, to understand how she experienced basketball as a social and cultural adventure. Lindsey is a graduate of Iowa State and played basketball professionally across an incredible amount of cultures in Europe and Middle East over an eight-year span. She founded and currently works at Positive Performance, a program that aims to educate athletes through mental performance training. Her experiences provided her unparalleled insight into the basketball as a social phenomenon. Lindsey analyzes the role of basketball in forming social bonds, the role culture had in an overseas basketball experience, and the challenges basketball faces as a sport aiming to promote positivity.
“When I was 16, I reached a breaking point— you’re either going to quit on yourself or you’re really going to go for it.” – Lindsey Wilson
Do you think basketball played a role in shaping your social life?
Yes and no. I was lucky that I had strong friends outside of sports, which was really important. But certainly, in a sport like basketball, you create strong bonds— in college, especially, living and travelling with your teammates. Basketball has been a huge part of my social life, but it hasn’t been the only thing. In basketball, regardless of your backgrounds and regardless of where you’re coming from, you can create really strong bonds. There’s something about struggling together and pursuing something that is pretty special.
What was your experience like playing overseas? Did you feel like an outsider? Did you stay within a basketball community?
I had never left the country before I went to live overseas, so I am forever grateful for that opportunity. But it was really hard at times, especially the beginning. You can’t prepare yourself for being a foreigner. It’s a difference experience. That being said, once I got comfortable— comfortable being uncomfortable in different countries, I guess— I got good at packing up my life, living abroad, and making my life there. It is an amazing experience on all levels, and it challenges you far beyond basketball.
When you were playing abroad, what was your opportunity to connect with the culture like? Did you know any of the languages?
I really got into the cultures. I love travelling; I love understanding a different culture. It is such a blessing in life. It’s so different than just going and visiting. You have to figure out everything— the subway, taxi drivers, what food to cook, how to cook things that you’ve never seen before. You get to go to your teammates’ houses, and their grandmothers cook for you. You really live in those places, and you have to make a life. One way to do so is through making good friends that are not American. If it’s just about basketball, I don’t need to be 10,000 miles away from my family. That’s not enough. But these are life experiences. Every place I played, understanding their culture was my favorite part.
I’ve also traveled a lot, and I’ve always experienced the United States as the most competitive— “cutthroat capitalist,” as we’re dubbed. Since basketball is an American sport, did you ever experience a dissemination of harmful American values into the local cultures as a result of basketball?
No… There’s a richness to the way that a lot of the rest of the world lives, and there’s a richness to how we live. When you first go overseas, your eyes open up to how many things you take for granted that are actually cultural things— how we drive, how we dress, how we say yes and no. So, yes, Americans are very driven. But you can partake in that, or you can choose not to, or you can find your balance somewhere in the middle. I don’t know that basketball has much to do with that. Americans that go over there are very competitive, and sometimes the local athletes don’t understand that as much. But there are also places where they are. And, beyond basketball, some of that is related to gender. Male soccer players in some of these countries are just as competitive as Americans. I think it depends on the sport, the gender, the country, and how seriously the country takes the sport. I don’t think there’s a linear argument you can make about a particular sport.
To transition to your program, what led to think that ‘thinking positive thoughts’ was important enough to start a company around?
When I was 16, I reached a breaking point— you’re either going to quit on yourself or you’re really going to go for it. My mom talked to a coworker, who talked to somebody who was a mental training coach. I didn’t know that I needed that, or that it existed. But that was the moment my life changed. I met them, and I learned, over the course of the next few months, that I was in control of my mind, and I could decide to feel good about myself and have confidence. I started feeling better about myself as a young woman. I started recognizing that I could go for my goals, and that I deserved my goals. It put everything together for me. I went down this path of constantly going back to the mental component of my sport. I thought that people should know this, and it seemed like no one was talking about it. I saw a lot of my teammates struggle; they didn’t know how to get their minds right.
“I learned […] that I was in control of my mind, and I could decide to feel good about myself and have confidence.”
When I was in the process of writing the questions for this interview, I found this article on Facebook that I thought fit perfectly with what you do. It was called, “An Open Letter to the Coach that Made Me Lose Passion for Playing Basketball.” It was a letter from a girl in her late teens that had played basketball. And when I was reading through the comments, some mom wrote a long comment about how this seemed to happen most frequently in girls’ basketball— mental breakdown, a coach being brutal enough to the point that you don’t want to play anymore. Do you agree with what that mom said? How is that something that you address in your program?
I don’t think it’s more prevalent in girls’ basketball. I think there those coaches in any sport, at any level. I think that women are a little more susceptible to being affected by that negativity. You can talk about nature vs. nurture all day long, but, yes, in my experience, I see women struggling with this a little more, or at least talking about their struggles. What I teach in my training is that you have a choice to be affected by negativity or not, and I think sometimes we forget that. It’s not that it’s easy, but it’s possible. Athletes need to be empowered to know that they can respond to that negativity or not. That was a big ah-hah moment for me in my life, so I don’t think that it’s easy, or that it’s taught, but it’s true.
We always talk about how youth sports are empowering, and they teach your life lessons. And that’s true… But there are horror stories. You went to Roosevelt; you had a teammate that went through something like this, the girl that was victimized by her trainer. How does basketball take those hits and continue to be an empowering tool and have a cumulative positive effect on society?
There’s those situations in all aspects of life. There’s coaches that are bad, but there are also pastors and teachers that are bad. I don’t think it’s limited to sports. It’s more about vigilance, and it’s something we need to be involved with. I don’t know that there is any other solution.
Each month, one of our high school interns will interview a former athlete and current leader. Our mission is to connect our girl athletes to experienced ones, to tell the stories of our women’s sports community, and to inspire her own voice. Interested in joining our Editorial Internship Program in the spring? Send a letter of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.