Off the Floor Episode 005: The Mindfulness of Mike Lee
We have all encountered challenging situations. Your response to that may be anger, frustration, blame, or the occasional comeback.
Whatever it is, as haphazard as it may be, is your routine.
Mike Lee is an entrepreneur, basketball expert, and keynote speaker. He's also a living and breathing example of the power of having a mindfulness routine. To handle adversity in a better, and more consistent, fashion.
What is the "Off the Floor" Podcast?
There are so many life lessons that come to light through ballroom dancing. After all, you can compare anything to it and it will probably work. Off the Floor aims to connect the challenges, success, struggles, and learning experiences from people outside the world of dancing to your dancing hobby.
Off The Floor Episode 005: Transcript
CL: Chris Lynam
ML: Mike Lee
CL: Why don't we start with just your backstory. How'd you get rolling, carving out your identity, building up a great profile, and doing what you're doing?
ML: Well my profile doesn't really reflect this, but I've been in the basketball world for the past 12 years. I have a basketball-training company that works with middle school through NBA players; we run camps all across the United States and we've done stuff overseas as well. I got started with that by starting a camp in my hometown in my sophomore year of college with a friend of mine. It just grew every year. It grew from one camp to a few camps to a club program to having our own training academy in in Milwaukee, and it's grown from there every year.
The other piece of that is I am starting a speaking career to teach mindfulness and emotional intelligence. About 3 years ago I decided to go off an anti-depressant medication that I was on for 14 years, and getting off of it was extremely comparable to getting off of heroin. It was that bad. I had crazy episodes of chronic anxiety. Literally like how you see an addict in a TV show or a movie that's paralyzed and curled up on a bathroom floor, throwing up, nauseous, and that was me. I had this experience in Seattle where I was in my hotel room, sweating through my sheets, completely nauseous, and having this crazy out of body experience, and that's when I knew how bad these drugs were. I finally, by the end of the weekend, I realized I was going through withdrawal, and that's what led me to needing to pick up a mindfulness practice. That was really the only way I was able to get through all of the withdrawal symptoms and all the experiences I had going through it. It was, above and beyond, the hardest experience of my life, but it's taken me down a different road that I'm going to be able to make a much bigger impact on people. Shifting gears here, this is new, that I'm going down this other road, but that's probably more of what my profile reflects is that story and that piece of it.
CL: You've written a book about that too, right? The Untrain Your Brain book.
ML: Yeah, so Untrain... really came about from the meditation practice. Basically what happened was I started meditating and implementing a mindfulness practice, and what I realized was all of these principles that I've used to build businesses, develop relationships, lead people, influence people, to help people reach a state of peak performance or "flow state," all were amplified when you had a mindfulness practice. I tied those two together, and that's when I decided to write a book.
I wanted to share some of the story. When we are vulnerable ourselves, we can shed a light on certain things that are universal truths and universal suffering that everybody's going through, but it allows other people to step into their own self, into their own suffering, and share that. And sharing is a big part of the healing process. It's the first step of the healing process. I was hoping that writing the book would be able to reach people on that level, share some of that story, and just open a dialogue around it. That was a part of it.
Then how these mindfulness principles can really take your business to another level, your leadership to another level, your performance in sports and business and life to another level, and overall create a better quality of life. That's where Untrained... came into this, and I started writing that about two years ago.
CL: I'm a writer myself, and I know that just to have something finished, just to get the book sent off; it must've been a cathartic experience.
ML: It wasn't as much work, because I basically pulled research from things that I was already doing and I had some other people that helped me out with it. A lot of it is just stories; the principles, the stories, and the mindfulness application. Every chapter in the book is laid out in that sequence. It's really just pulling stories from my life or from other people that were applicable and that would resonate with people.
CL: Do you feel like the mindfulness, the adoption of that and being so committed to it, was that triggered through basketball and sports or was it the medication thing that amplified it? How would you map it back? Where do you feel like it came from?
ML: The real background is I was building a non-profit for inner city at risk kids with a girl that I used to date, and it was an insanely stressful thing to do for a ton of reasons, as I'm sure you can imagine. I got to a point during that where exercise just wasn't cutting it for me anymore. I was listening to a podcast, I think it was The Good Life Project with Jonathan Fields, and he was talking about the benefits of hot yoga, detox, and all that. I was just like "Alright, I need to try something else." It was 15 degrees in the middle of January in Milwaukee, and I found a hot yoga studio that was a few blocks from my condo. I went to the class and I was addicted. It was 100% what I needed.
It started with yoga, and then, like a lot of people, they use meditation as a reactive tool to combat stress, versus using it as a proactive practice that grounds you as you start your day versus using it as something to calm you down once something that shows up in your day. I think those are two very different approaches. I think to get the most out of it you need a consistent practice that grounds you for the day, and it helps you be more fully engaged in whatever you're doing.
Going back to your question about how it started, it basically went yoga, which led me to meditating when I would get stressed out, which led to anti-depressant medication withdrawal - which was on a whole 'nother level. To put it into context: one time I was at my parent's house and my dad would ask me "What time are you leaving in the morning?" , and, for whatever reason, I was triggered. The episodes that you go through, you feel the fear as if you were in the woods, surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves, with nothing to defend yourself, and you have that adrenaline rush and that fear. Then the rage that you would feel if you've seen somebody you love murdered in front of you in cold blood, and then you combine those two things at the same time. That's the experience I had trying to get off this medication. It was brutal.
The only way I could stay present, and feel like I had any control in my life - which I've learned through this process that control is an illusion - to have some sense of groundedness was through a consistent meditation and yoga practice. I thought I was gonna lose my business, I thought I was gonna have to move out of Los Angeles, I thought I was gonna have to move back in with my parents. It was the only thing that kept me sane for those couple years.
CL: I love what you said about reactive versus proactive. You don't want to take a vitamin as a painkiller, you don't want to only get a massage when your back hurts. I never even thought about yoga in that way, I think that's such a great point.
ML: Yeah, but you have to value it though. If you don't value it, you're not going to do it. You gotta be pulled by a vision or a goal that you know that this is going to be a practice that is going to be able to help you achieve that, or you have to be pulled by pain so deep that it makes you want to change. If you don't have either of those two things, it's really tough to have a consistent practice. When I first started I was like "This is a waste of time. I could be doing A, B, or C. I could get on this phone call. I could be working on this project. I could be editing this video." What I realized is that meditation does not take time, it actually gives you time because you are way more engaged with the tasks at hand and fully present with the people in your life throughout the rest of your day when you start with meditation.
CL: I want to ask you about that camp. What was the impetus to start the camp?
ML: I grew up in a super small town. We just wanted to provide kids the area the opportunity to have a great basketball experience. Where I grew up was like 3 or 4 hours from Milwaukee and Minneapolis, to be able to get any kind of quality basketball instruction. We wanted to bring an experience to my hometown. I did it with a couple of the people there. We modeled our camp after a mentor of mine. We really just wanted to do it. We thought it would be fun. We wanted to create something, and we just wanted to do it. I really wasn't anything more than that.
CL: So it seems like it worked out different than you originally thought. Was there any kind of surprising or funny things that happened as you assembled the event?
ML: I think we got lucky. I think we had some really good people, and I think it was great timing. We had over 100 kids at the first camp that we ran. That was in a town of 15,000 people. By the third year we had over 300 kids there.
People ask me that sometimes, and I'm just like "Not really." I don't know if I just got lucky or, for whatever reason, did all the right stuff, had the right people involved. There just wasn't any issues like that that we had to deal with in the beginning. There's definitely different challenges with growing, but, when we first started, not really. The barrier to entry was so low: there was nobody else doing anything, it was a small town, we created a great experience, and I think it was just that there was nobody else doing it.
CL: So how did that scale out? You said you went from that camp all the way up to the pro levels. Was that a pretty rapid transition? How did that all transpire?
ML: Our philosophy is to treat every player you're working with as if they're the only client that you have. I think we did that, and we tried to scale it. We tried to do the best that we could with every kid that we had and and with every player that we we worked with, and it just kind of grew from there. The more you do, the more people you meet. The biggest thing that we did was we were first movers on Twitter and YouTube. Those things definitely helped us out tremendously when we first started. It wasn't because our content was that great, it was because nobody else was doing it. If you really want to build a business, one of the things to set you apart is to somehow, whenever a new platform come out, is to figure out a way to jump on it. One mistake is that I have definitely have is not that we weren't on Instagram, but that we weren't active or using it in the right way when it first came out. Definitely dropped the ball on that.
And it's learning how it works. I think one huge mistake that a lot of people make, and that I'm still trying to figure out, is that you can't treat every platform the same way. I think we tried to treat Instagram like Twitter. They're just not the same platform, there are just different things you have to do to grow a following on Instagram versus Twitter versus YouTube or Facebook. Figure out exactly what that is, and follow that model.
CL: So, from an NBA standpoint, are you a Bucks fan or a Timberwolves guy? Who do you follow?
ML: When I was growing up I was definitely a Bulls fan. Bucks were awful. I fell in love with the Bulls during the '91 Finals with the Lakers. We didn't have cable growing up until I was freshman in high school, so ironically the only games I would watch, outside of Saturdays and Sundays, would be the Bulls all the time because my grandparents had WGN, that's a Chicago station and they used to broadcast all the Bulls games. That was kind of a thing, to go watch the Bulls and Jordan with my grandpa back in the day.
I fell in love with the Bulls, then it was the Fab Five from Michigan. Those are my two teams, mainly when I was younger. No doubt about it.
CL: What a great team at Michigan, that was just on rockstar status for those guys.
ML: That was really a catalyst for me falling in love with the game. It attracted me to it. Looking back it's kind of funny because I used to fit in way more when I was in middle school and high school with the skaters and the kids in art class. I just felt more comfortable there. I look back on it, and it makes a lot of sense 'cause playing basketball is the most creative sport that there is. Of all the major sports - football, baseball, hockey, soccer - I definitely think it's the most creative. It's probably why I fell in love with it and probably part of the reason why that vibe appealed to me so much.
CL: So did you play a lot growing up? Did you play in high school or college or stuff like that?
ML: High school and a little bit in college, but that was when all of the mental health stuff really started to come to the surface, in college. I played my first two-and-a-half years, and then left. It's a long story. I left the team after the middle of my junior year, then I came back and I was coaching. I was coaching the last year of school, and then I started the basketball club at the same time.
CL: Isn't it amazing what you can see when you don't have the pressure of actually playing? Don't you feel so much smarter when you're on the other end of it, and you're not out there?
ML: I think it gives you a different perspective. It creates a different level of awareness. I think that's why for anyone in any sort of high-performance field, whether it's sports or any sort of performance-based practice like dance or art or music or anything like that, having a mindfulness practice can be such a benefit to that because it creates such a higher level of self-awareness and social-awareness. Combining those two things really helps with performance. Having those things is such an asset, and it can create that ability to go outside of the actual situation and get perspective on it.
CL: What do you think could be a good entry point, real basic things, some small things that might just start the ball rolling for them?
ML: Are you asking for like during a competition, or in general?
CL: Yeah, like they're in preparation to. They're going out and gonna dance in front of group of people for an extended period of time. A lot of people get a little scared, lose their momentum, doubt themselves, and some people will come up with last minute injuries, things like that. What would be something you'd do mentally to prepare for an event like that?
ML: Well, I'd definitely never be in a dance competition 'cause I'd get destroyed. [laughs]
A couple things. Number one, there's no fits-all answer. It has to be really personalized to what you're experiencing. Everybody has their different life experiences that have led them up to that point in their life, and those experiences are gonna affect the one that they're in right now. Being able to really create a level awareness to know that, and to know what works for you and what doesn't work for you. For example, this is a huge challenge in the sports industry, this pre-game preparation. It's customary to try and get hyped-up for every game. You should be listening to music that's going to get you hyped up. Whatever it is, whether it's hip hop or whatever kind of music you're going to listen to before a game. When in reality it's like, if you're going to play in the Super Bowl, or your high school state championship, or you're going to compete at some national competition, your nerves are probably way higher than you want them to be to perform at your peak level anyways. You need to know yourself, you need to have an awareness of what you're going through. So if you need to get up for something, maybe you do listen to music and have a different routine to get up for that, but a lot of times people make the mistake that they need to get hyped up for every performance and competition. If you're going into a big meeting, or you're an entrepreneur going to pitch to a VC firm to get funding for your start-up. You're not going into that meeting listening to whatever you're listening to, and try get all hyped up for the meeting. You needed to grounded and calmed and centered, so I don't know why in sports, and I'm assuming it's like this in other industries, that people have that perception.
Going back to your original question: #1, self-awareness. Know yourself. I think two things that help with that are #1, having a daily meditation practice and another thing is journaling. Those are two simple things that you can do. I think just a simple practice, even just five minutes before an event or before you're going to step on to the floor or stage or whatever, just go through a simple practice where you start out with you sit, get comfortable, get to a position where you're relaxed yet alert. Start with just a minute or two of focusing on what you're feeling in your body, or a minute or two of focusing on anything that you're hearing, any sounds. Then spend a couple minutes focusing on your breath - feeling it in, feeling it out.
The bottom line is that you can't think your way into "flow state." The flow state is a natural byproduct of doing something to get out of your head and into the experience that's right in front of you. Whether that's through any of those three practices - focusing on sound, or breath, or your body - whatever works. One of Tony Robbins' things is changing your state through changing your physiology. Whatever you can do to get out of your head and into the present moment is what you need to be doing. You can't think your way into it. In sports, coaches are always, and this drives me crazy, they're yelling at kids to focus. How does that actually help? You have to be locked in on a process, on the task at hand. Focus is such a general term, it's like "what does that even mean?" It's like telling someone in your world "Dance!"
At the end of the day you've gotta trust your training. The Navy Seals have this saying, "You never rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training." That's what's gonna happen when you get into the present moment. Whatever you can do to get there is what's gonna get you to perform at your highest level.
CL: Okay, a couple rapid fire questions and then we'll wrap it up! What is your comfort food?
ML: Vegan ice cream.
CL: Give me a player or two in NBA that you feel like have a great regimen.
ML: He doesn't play anymore, but Kobe Bryant was one of them. Big shocker, but he's had a meditation practice for like 20 years, and still does. The thing about Kobe is that nobody could speed him up, he always played at his own pace. He was so in the moment, so locked in, and so present. Nobody sped him 'cause nobody sped his thoughts up, and that helped him be one of the greatest basketball players ever. Definitely Kobe.
The other one, right now, and I don't know the actual routine of some of these guys, but I know some of their general practices. Steph Curry, people look at his skill set, look at the plays that he makes on SportCenter and stuff, and there's two things that Steph does that give him the ability to play like are #1: he does have a mindfulness practice, but the biggest thing is that Steph plays with a tremendous amount of gratitude. That gratitude in a state of joy and in a state of happiness. He loves playing the game, and when you love playing something, when you love doing something, being present is a byproduct of that. The thing that enables him to perform at the level that he does and take some of the crazy shots that he takes is that he doesn't define his self worth by his basketball performance. When he walks off the court, whether he shoots 9-for-10 from the 3-point line or 1-for-10, he always feels the same way about himself. That, in and of itself, take so much of the pressure off him to perform that he just goes out and he plays. Not a lot of guys are able to do that.
One of the #1 challenges with peak performers in any industry is they attached their self-worth and how they feel about themselves to their performance on the dance floor, on the basketball court, on the stage, and that can be so crippling because you can't be at your best all the time. You're always chasing the next thing. And that gives Steph perform at this highest level above anything else.
CL: Who would be somebody, maybe somebody in the NBA right now, you'd really want to work with 'cause you feel like you could make a really positive change?
ML: Actually a guy from the Bucks, Giannis. We've actually tried to work with him since he's been there. His potential is through the roof, and I don't think he's getting even close to where it is. He's obviously playing extremely well, but he could be one of the best players of all time. That would be one of them.
It's funny that you ask that because I'm definitely stepping out of the basketball world and focusing on my speaking about mindfulness, emotional intelligence, leadership, and peak performance. The basketball games have been replaced by a lot of yoga classes.
CL: So what's next for you? What're you prepping for?
ML: Right now I am just building out content on Instagram, and definitely more on LinkedIn. Being more intentional about that in 2018. Really it's nothing sexy, it's just putting in the work, and putting in the work, and putting in the work. I'm trying to speak at as many places as I can in the next 12 months and let the chips fall where they will. That's where I'm at. Just trying get out there and my 10,000 hours in, and go from there.
CL: Mike, it's been a pleasure getting a chance to chat and know your story.
ML: Awesome! Thanks for doing this.
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