Alone at the Line

Let me tell you a story…

It’s about a kid who loved basketball more than anything in the world.

If he wasn’t playing basketball, he was talking about basketball — if he wasn’t talking about basketball, he was watching basketball — if he wasn’t watching basketball, he was trading basketball cards — if he wasn’t… I think you get the idea.

While he wasn’t blessed with much athletic ability (he still has never touched the rim, but we can save that for another story…) or blessed with height that could lead to a Division-1 scholarship offer, he still found a way to be a top-tier basketball player from grade school through his high school playing days.

He was a shooter. And he practiced over and over again. Day after day. From making his father pretend to be a basket when he was younger to eventually moving to actual 10' baskets, there was no greater feeling that having a ball swoosh through a net after a shot.

And no matter what team he was on, he was the best shooter. That is what he loved to do. Ask him to play defense and you would get an entirely different reaction. And a pretty mediocre attempt at best. But shooting would always get his best effort!

So, let’s fast forward to his junior year of high school. He is playing in the conference tournament with the winner advancing to the state tournament and the loser going home and waiting until next year. His team is down by three points with only a couple seconds on the clock. His coach calls a play for him to launch a three-pointer from half-court and hope for a miracle that it goes in sending the game into overtime.

The ball is inbounded and the team runs the play to perfection. He catches the basketball at half court and is able to get off a shot as the buzzer sounds. The ball heads towards the basket, almost perfectly on track… and then falls a couple feet short.

Game over.

But wait…

… the ref blows his whistle. He signals that there is a foul on the shot. Someone hit his hand as he hoisted the ball towards the basket. He is awarded three free-throws.

With no time left on the clock.

If he makes all three, then the game will go into overtime and he will possibly be the hero. Just three free-throws. It is no big deal. He is the best free-throw shooter on the team at a 90% clip. He can makes these in his sleep.

But hold on…

Since he was fouled with no time left on the clock, he has to go the free-throw line ALONE. In a crowded gym with thousands of people.

His hands begin to shake. His breathing rapidly increases.

Anxiousness.

Nervousness.

Every feeling you can possibly have are hitting him at once as he stands isolated on the free-throw line with the fate of his team’s season on the line. The ball is handed to him. The noise is deafening. His heart feels like it is going to explode.

He skips his normal free-throw routine that he has practiced countless times before. He takes one dribble instead and shoots it as quickly as possible.

The ball hits the rim and falls to the ground.

Game over… for real this time.

The other team celebrates at half court.

He runs into the locker room. He sits down on a bench inside, puts his head down, and cries. He blew it. All of that practice. All of that work came down to one moment and he couldn’t calm his nerves.

He didn’t even know how.

And he would spend the next couple of years revisiting that moment.

Analyzing it.

Wondering “what if …”?

Now, as you can probably guess — the young man in the story is me. And just writing this story in print brings back the anxiety that I felt almost 20 years ago. I can feel my heartbeat start to pound again, but I know how to finally find peace and calm. I have learned techniques, breathing methods, and other modalities that offer tranquility in my most anxiety-ridden moments.

And yoga is to thank for this new approach.

This practice has not only taught me so much about myself, but it has put me into a place where I am no longer scared. I am no longer fearful of those tense moments because I know how to finally deal with the stress.

I always imagine what my life would have been like if I started practicing yoga at a younger age. If I would have learned these breathing techniques as a child, would things have been different during that one fateful trip to the free-throw line in high school?

Who knows what would have happened. There is no guarantee that I would have made the shot just because I would have been able to control my breathing and calm down, but it certainly would have helped.

This is one of the many reasons why I love to teach yoga to young children. We learn how to breathe together. We learn how to find peace in the chaos.

And hopefully one day, that little boy or girl who I teach will face a similar challenge in their sports career — but they will know how to deal with this pressure.

And maybe, the outcome will be a little different.

By Grant Henry