The great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” While his math was off, the spirit of what he said was right for all of sports, especially at the professional level. The game, especially basketball, is predicated on being just as strong mentally as it is physically.
For the Phoenix Suns, and almost all professional sports teams, the physical side is looked after by the strength and conditioning coach but what about the mental side of the game? Who exactly looks after that? What you might not know is that the Suns have a “life coach” that helps prepare members of the team for everything the game and life can throw at them.
Meet Darleen Santore, better known as Coach Dar. For over 21 years as an occupational therapist she’s been helping people wherever they are in life get past the mental hurdles and dominate in whatever field they work in. For the last few years she’s worked with players on the Suns’ roster as well.
“I’m kind of the guide, the life advisor, and coach that’s there for them to help them along the way, keep their mindset in the right frame of mind, and give them little tips that’s gonna help them peak perform both on and off the court,” Santore explained about her responsibilities with the team.
But she didn’t just start out working with professional athletes. Coach Dar’s path to the Suns started working with individuals who had prognosis far worse than 50 years without a championship.
“I started out taking care of traumatic brain injured patients in a neuro unit,” Santore said. “And so my background was occupational therapy with specializing in the brain and cognitive rehab and helping them also physically, but over the years of helping people overcome things that were so hard that they never thought they could recover and get back from. I ended up starting my own practice, and then started helping people with mental edge, and if I can help people that have their mental faculties impaired overcome the greatest of challenges, then I felt like if I could get to people ahead of time and give them the tools, it would help them get better at life, stronger mentally, and not wait for that moment to happen to take them down to go after what they want.”
The transition to working with athletes wasn’t a difficult one for Santore. Her approach is people are people despite how big of a crowd they perform in front of.
“I started in sports with one athlete, and then it was musicians, and then it was executives, and it just grew,” she shared. “And then I started ... whether it’s helping business, sports, or life, the thing is the mindset is the mindset. It’s just your arena of where you work is different, but I can help you through that. So that’s how it started, and then it grew.”
You now know Coach Dar’s background but what exactly is it that she does to help out the 15 men on the Suns’ roster? We know the kinds of drills and workouts that they go through physically but is there a mental equivalent?
“Each person receives information differently, so you really have to know how to approach each person based on their personality, based on how they receive information, and then give them tools. I’m going to talk to them differently, I’m gonna share information. Some of it might be more visual, some of it might be more auditory as far as learning. It might be where we’re just sitting after shooter round and talking and that’s comfortable for them. Someone also might be saying, “Let’s go grab lunch and let’s talk.” It might be in their home, I might just be in their space, where they are and where they’re comfortable. But because this is so private for them and it’s where we have to be where they’re most comfortable, I just meet them where they are. And then I give them the tools that they need.”
The question becomes just how important is the mental side of things? Is it truly “the other half” of the equation for athletes as Berra said? Coach Dar believes so and the Suns’ front office does as well.
“It’s so important and I wouldn’t say one’s more than the other, ‘cause they go hand in hand, but you have to work on your mind set,” Santore said. “You’re in the middle of a game, maybe you’re shot isn’t going as you want it, your body language is starting to slope down, you’re starting to take yourself in a zone where you might go like, “Oh this isn’t my game,” and count yourself out. But if you’re trained, and you know this, and you shift your mindset, you shift your body, you sort of shift how you’re thinking about this and you get right back in the game.
“Especially in basketball, it goes so fast, you have to go from play to play fast, which means you mentally have to rebound just as fast as you physically rebound, and that takes training. And the training also takes happens during the game, in practices, and then when we’re off the court and what you’re filling your head with, whether you’re doing meditation, things you’re listening to, talking to someone like me on tricks and things that you could do. “
If you’re sitting there less sure about mental coaching than Ross was about what it meant when Rachel said they were taking a break, keep in mind that until recently analytics were looked at with a skeptical eye as was healthy eating and working out were in the 1970s and early 1980s in the league. Any competitive edge you can gain on your opponents is a good one whether it be physically or mentally. Even if that edge comes from meditation and talking about your feelings. Coach Igor Kokoskov and his staff on the bench will have a massive impact on the success or failure of the 2018-19 season. One coach, Coach Dar, may have just as big of an impact without ever setting foot on a court.