Last season, Stephen Curry was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. The news was expected, but also ironic, as it dropped on May 4, also known as Star Wars Day. As Twitter was ablaze with mentions of #Curry and #MayTheFourth (be with you), it suddenly occurred to me: the psychology behind both events was not altogether different …
We all know the original Star Wars story: boy grows up woefully unaware of his genetic stock. Along the way, he finds some key mentors who teach him how to harness the power he was born with and realize his destiny. He struggles at first, his body and mind letting him down, but with perseverance he eventually goes on to become a Master of his craft, and the hero of a new generation.
This byline for Luke Skywalker could read just as well for Wardell Stephen ‘Steph’ Curry II.
Growing up as a son of an NBA journeyman named Dell, he lived in five different cities as his father moved from team to team. Steph was not in love with the bright lights of fame and success, but nor was he burned by them either. It was just a part of life: legend has it that when not allowed to go to practice with his dad, he would throw tantrums not because he wanted to be around the fame but because he couldn’t work on his shot.
Only a few months ago, Curry himself wrote of the power that coaching has had for him throughout his journey. Being around the NBA is one thing, but Curry was a sponge for lessons from the good teachers and mentors around him — not only the basketball tricks from his father and his teammates, but just as importantly, the life lessons his mother taught him as well.
Despite the pedigree though, and the work ethic required to capitalize on it, things still didn’t come easy for Curry. His relatively frail ankles threatened to derail his career before it even got off the ground. He stuck at it though, despite setback after setback, and only now is he nearing the peak of his own career after 5 and a half seasons at the top level.
What This MVP Really Stands For
Not only has he dominated the numbers in recent seasons, he is arguably one of the most popular endorsement figures going around, and practically owns vine thanks to numerous, ankle-breaking, jaw-dropping highlight clips. Curry is the right call for this year’s MVP.
But beyond all the accolades that will come with the award given to him on Star Wars day, it’s fitting that these three letters each identify the three psychological principles that link Steph Curry’s story to the humble training of a Jedi Knight.
M is for Mastery
Like it or not, the three-point shot is becoming a more and more important part of the future of basketball. And leading that charge is Steph Curry, slowly building a record list that will underline one of the greatest shooting careers of all time.
But becoming the Master of the Arc doesn’t just happen thanks to lucky genes, or a good game plan. Ok sure, Dell was a good shooter — but even his dad is adamant that Steph is a more complete player than he ever was. Just like the ancient Jedi tradition, mastery is something that comes through many years of focused practice.
As it turns out, science now supports the famous claims from the Star Wars movies. Psychology research from two different sources suggest it’s Curry’s practice mentality, built on the foundation of grit and character that his mother instilled in him, that sets him apart from the rest.
Research from Anders Ericsson at Florida State University found that the key to mastery in any performance arena — from music to surgery to athletic pursuits — was a simple product of how hard you trained, and for how long. Coining the term ‘Deliberate Practice’, Ericsson suggested that people who purposely trained at the uncomfortable edge of their comfort zone got better faster — but it still took them around 10,000 hours in total to achieve mastery.
A few years later, frustrated in her efforts at helping 7th graders at a New York public school learn math, Angela Duckworth took the unusual step of leaving teaching to study psychology. She initially started by looking into what it was that separated those who nailed it from those who didn’t: grit. But when she investigated the reason why her research had found a link between grit and performance that Duckworth really unearthed the fuel for firestarters like Curry. What she found was simple: Deliberate Practice Spells Success.
“Grittier spellers are more likely to engage in deliberate practice,” Duckworth says, “and their cumulative time devoted to this activity explains their superior performance.” And this is exactly how the new MVP goes about mastering his craft, renowned for some of the most meticulous practice habits in the league.
V is for Vision
Despite the genetic pedigree, and being raised around the professional game for his entire childhood, Curry has always had his doubters.
Standing only 6'2" coming out of high school, it was hard to imagine he would one day become the best professional basketballer in the world. In scouting reports, he was only rated as a three-star recruit: not bad, until you consider that the last two MVPs were both five-star players — one was even rated so highly they drafted him before he even went to college.
But lust like in Jedi training, Curry was taught to look beyond size, and to tap into something deeper. He had a vision for himself, fostered through tough coaching and a fierce confidence. But where do you get confidence from?
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her groundbreaking book Confidence, sums up all the research in one sentence: “The goal of winning is not losing two times in a row,” Moss Kanter simply says. The key to bringing that to life, however, is hidden in the positive psychology principles of explanatory styles & learned optimism — the way you explain why things happen, and whether they are likely to happen the same again next time. To become truly great, and constantly expect to perform well despite perhaps having just made a mistake, you need to develop a flexible focus that can provide a level of protection against doubts — both others and your own.
A key element in both Curry’s story and Star Wars are mentors, coaches (which Curry had in spades, and who he credits greatly for his success) or training partners — people who can remind you when you aren’t living up to your agreements with yourself, or thinking too rigidly about past results.
P is for Presence
Nothing carries more respect in the NBA than being labeled ‘clutch’. Not only does it garner instant bragging rights in trash talk on the floor, but there are now even specific statistical categories dedicated to it — and therefore, by extension, dollar amounts assigned to it in contract talks.
Curry wears the label comfortable and is not shy about his ability to hit shots when the game is on the line. In Jedi training, being present without getting caught up in emotion is a central theme. And once again, modern day research provides evidence that this is also a key to winning battles involving balls (both literally and metaphorically) as well.
Miles away from the Golden State Warriors home base, a team of researchers at Manhattan University in New York have uncovered evidence that the most effective approach to pressure is not to ignore it, not to calm down, or to hype up. The key is to accept the feelings, stop thinking, and just go with it — exactly as Obi Wan Kenobi taught Luke during his early lightsaber training.
Modern day research has laid the foundations for performance enhancement with a model called the MAC (Mindfulness Acceptance Commitment) approach, which is based on the underlying principles of ACT therapy. ACT is a therapeutic method designed specifically to reduce experiential avoidance, but when applied to performance focused people like athletes, it helps them engage more with the task at hand, regardless of how they feel.
One of the original researchers who built the model, Zella Moore, says it is all about removing thoughts that focus on the feelings instead of the task — a non-negotiable for high performers. “The MAC intervention protocol helps clients in high-pressure positions reach and maintain consistent optimal performance states.”
Instead of trying to change how you feel and then act, they say you can do both — that the action can happen without changing the feeling. It describes perfectly how Curry himself has taken on the biggest moments of his basketball life: by not worrying about the stress, he’s able to keep his mind focused on the job at hand — and ultimately free of anything as he has entered the zone to shoot a number of game-defining shots under pressure.
The acronym of ACT fits perfectly here: if you act tough — recognizing the nerves and pushing through them — you’ll be tough. When the pressure comes, you gotta feel it, and do it anyway.
In so many ways, Steph Curry embodies the classic Hero’s journey tale. And just like Luke Skywalker, this star wasn’t just born that way. He has been busy working on his Mastery, Vision, and Presence for years, with a little help along the way.