The Power Of Being “A Little Naive”

Watching the NBA Playoffs Through The Lens Of Juilliard Performance Psychologist Noa Kageyama — AKA The Bulletproof Musician

After the underdog Atlanta Hawks beat the Philadelphia 76ers last week in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals — in Philly — the game’s unexpected star, 22-year-old Kevin Huerter, was asked what makes the Hawks special.

We got a young locker room. We’re a little naive. We’re always believing. We always know we can win.

Could it be that a somewhat naive optimism gives a team a competitive edge?

With that question as a starting point, I called performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama — AKA The Bulletproof Musician.

Kageyama spent more than 20 years battling performance anxiety and “wondering why I couldn’t play on stage like I did in the practice room.”

Then he discovered sport psychology, received a Ph.D. in counseling psych, and is now on the faculty at his alma mater — The Juilliard School — where he teaches musicians “how to utilize the same skills and techniques that elite athletes have used for decades.”

Kageyama told me that Huerter’s line reminds him of the many young student musicians he’s spoken with who have gone on professional auditions where they were considered long-shots against far more experienced candidates — and made it to the final two or three left standing.

Something about competing when you don’t feel you have much to lose can get you far.

Playing Scared

The flip side of Kevin Huerter and the Hawks’ naive optimism, is the story of Ben Simmons, the 76ers point guard who took most of the heat for his team’s loss to the Hawks.

Simmons is considered an unusually gifted player in almost every respect — except for his shooting. And that seemed to mess with his head in the big game — taking only four shots — treating the ball like a hot potato.

Charles Barkley called Simmons “terrified….this dude is scared to death.”

Shaquille O’Neal agreed: “He’s scared to shoot.”

The sports columnist Stephen A. Smith, who worked in Philadelphia for 17 years, said that city “ain’t gonna ever forgive him for what they have seen here, and here’s why. [It’s] not just that he missed shots. He didn’t take ‘em. Ben Simmons is literally scared to shoot the basketball.”

I felt badly for Simmons — I hate to see anyone embarrassed.

When I told Kageyama about the rap on Simmons, it got him thinking about an analogue in music — when performance anxiety is on display.

When a musician tries out for a job in an orchestra, the auditions are often “blind” — to ensure that race, gender, and other factors outside of the quality of playing don’t influence the judges. Even in this context, where the musician can’t be seen, fear can often be heard.

[The judges] will often be able to tell if someone is playing scared or not. Like they’ll hear little bits of hesitation … you can tell when someone is placing notes and they’re not trying to screw up, as opposed to just trying to do something that’s beautiful or compelling.

The “fear of not messing up” would impact the members of the orchestra — the team — that the player wants to join.

They want somebody in the orchestra who they can trust to sit next to for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. They don’t want somebody who’s afraid to make mistakes and take those risks that oftentimes are the most inspiring things that can happen in live performance.

Bulletproof Tips

For all of us who want to play without fear — who want to inspire with our performances — Kageyama shares a range of stories and practical advise in our Wavemaker Conversation including:

  • How to use practice sessions to acclimate to what we’ll face on game day, or performance night.

  • How to develop risk tolerance over time — so that you can execute when the pressure is on.

  • How the percussionist for the Metropolitan Opera practiced sitting around and waiting, to prepare for his big audition.

  • How a coach named Roger Reid transformed one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in college basketball into one of the best — by having his players take fewer foul shots in practice.

To watch the highlights of our conversation, along with subtitles, please click play.

Postscript: Hawks vs Bucks

At the risk of bursting my Hawks fandom bubble, Kageyama added one last cautionary note — about the many musicians who have told him stories about how, very early in their audition careers, they advanced to the finals.

A lot of times they did well, but they didn't win. And so it's very possible that Atlanta might experience this as well, where at a certain point you get far enough along and you get so close to winning that you realize that this is real … you can see it, you can taste it, and that starts to create a whole different kind of pressure because it's like, “Well, how did we even do this? No one expected this of us. What are the chances that we would be here? And now we're just five minutes away or one game away and how much would it suck for all of this to have gotten us this close and for us not to have won the prize.” 

Since I spoke with Noa Kageyama, the Atlanta Hawks — underdogs again — this time in the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks — upset the Bucks in game one in Milwaukee. 

But in Game 2, the Bucks found their rhythm, and blew the Hawks away.

Some Hawks fans may be discouraged.

I’m not. 

Maybe I’m a little naive.

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To learn more about the work of Noa Kageyama check out his website — The Bulletproof Musician.