After struggling to come to peace with failed expectations in his basketball career, Kaleb Joseph now dedicates his life to traveling the country and bringing awareness to the realities of mental health in sports. Today, he offers athletes language to express their emotions, teaching them skills to help navigate their athletic career in a healthy way.
We sat down with him to talk about his athletic career and how he became an advocate for the mental side of the game:
I grew up playing basketball at a really young age. I always looked to basketball as a way to create opportunities for myself and make my own way. I saw that basketball gave kids opportunities and, with my family dynamic, I was aware that this is one of the few options I had available to me. As early as eighth grade, I received my first Division 1 scholarship offer and by my sophomore year of high school, I was one of the top-50 players in the country. This all confirmed for me that if I just continued to work hard in this area of my life and play basketball, every other area of my life would fall into place.
Going into my freshman year at Syracuse, I was on the National Freshman of the Year Watch List, but this was when everything in my personal life, the lack of security in who I was as a person, started to manifest on the court under college basketball’s brightest spotlight. I wasn’t able to handle playing badly on a national stage because my entire identity was so tightly intertwined with my performance. In a matter of 10 months, I was on Sports Illustrated’s list of Top 10 Most Disappointing Players. I wanted to get as far away as possible, so I transferred to Creighton in Nebraska after my sophomore year. One week before the season started, I tore my hamstring. The extreme high, mixed with the extreme low of this is what gave birth to everything I do now, which is focused on wellness; teaching players the mental health aspect of the game. I went from being on cloud nine to literally riddled with shame because my identity was so tied to my performance at the time. So, now it’s something I share; teaching athletes to alleviate that pressure and help them navigate their career in a healthier way.
When did you begin to discover mindfulness strategies as a tool for your athletic performance?
At Creighton, I started taking these courses; healthy lifestyle management and emotional intelligence. I knew that my mental approach to basketball, my lifestyle habits, weren't in alignment with the person I knew I needed to be in order to reach my dreams. So, these courses were like going to therapy because it was putting language to the feelings I was having. It helped me understand how I became who I am and why; how the brain works, the way we dictate our behaviors, and how our socioeconomic background influences our brain and behavior and how we function. About neuroplasticity: the brain's ability to change – to rewire, relearn and strengthen important connections – all of that. So it was really putting all of these puzzle pieces together. This was everything for me.
So, finally I’m eligible to play. I feel like I’m going into the season at Creighton with a completely clean slate, and that’s when I tore my hamstring during conditioning. So, my entire identity was being tested again but I became more aware that my inability to handle my emotions was holding me back. Not being able to mentally recover quick enough was slowing me down in real time, especially on the court.
There are a lot of tactics in the broader conversation around mental health and athletics, which solutions did you find made a difference for you?
There were breath-work exercises I was learning in my courses, plus mindfulness practices like journaling and visualization. All of these lifestyle habits were so vital for me at that time. If I didn't seize that one opportunity each game, who knew if I was going to get another? So, these tactics allowed me to stay grounded in the current moment, playing the game for what it was and not carry any more weight with me.
The breath-work in particular is what really helped me regulate my adrenaline. The only way I was able to play the game and detach myself from the outcome, was by learning to be present and not latching onto the ‘what ’if’s,’ if I make this shot or miss it. It was about being present and playing free; while I’m on the court I'm on the court. It’s so much easier said than done. But understanding I am so much more than a basketball player and why I was reacting to basketball in this way, it allowed me to let go of my need to prove myself to anyone. I became so much more invested in my own personal development and growth.
What are some of the most common challenges you see athletes facing today?
I find that most athletes, and all of us, struggle with identity. Because, from a young age, when we’re not secure in our identity, we mold ourselves into the people we need to be in order to be seen, heard and loved. For athletes, they typically attach their identity to their sport, because that’s what they're getting attention for. So, I bring that awareness to these kids to help them recognize why they're struggling. It’s also about planting seeds so they can become more curious about who they are and what they’re interested in outside of the sport they play. Helping them feel comfortable expressing themselves, whatever they’re feeling or thinking, unapologetically.
Because of the advancements in technology and social media, kids are growing up in an instant gratification, viral world. All they see is everyone’s highlight reel. They’re putting out the best version of themselves that they feel people will value them for. Being exposed to so much constantly puts them in this state of comparison. These kids are 10, 12, 15, 18 – all they know is comparison and it can be challenging. It puts so much pressure on them to be perfect, but it’s not real.
How does that translate into the mentoring work you do for athletes today?
That’s where I come into the equation: to teach young athletes that every single person has their own journey. So, we teach them that through vulnerability and self-expression, you can better express how you’re feeling and you’ll be a lot more connected to yourself and others than you will by pretending you like what everyone else does.
The first two things I often suggest for these athletes is to figure out, one, who they are, and two, what they really want out of life. Versus living life passively. When you think about it, we know everything we know because of the way we were raised. But it's a liberating process to see that I can actually mold myself into whoever I want to be. And that’s when we get into finding our core values. When we’re anchored by our core values, it guides us to react accordingly instead irrationally. We go through that filtering process to find out what it is that you personally value and why, and having a real deep understanding of why. From there, we allow that to be our internal navigating system when we have decisions to make. Is everything you’re doing day-to-day in alignment with those core values, and if not, how do we actively move toward that? As we actively move toward that, we will be more open to whatever signals, or good omens the world is giving us, to help us mold into the people we’re supposed to be. So, we go through these exercises together.
There is a generational gap. Mental health is a much bigger conversation today than it was 15-20 years ago. Why do you think that awareness has increased?
Prior generations didn’t have access to the information we do today. I really believe it's this access we have to information that allows us to see the effects of our lifestyle. Mental health has always been important and heavily influencing our society. We just lacked the language, information and resources.
But lack of access and technological advancement had advantages too. Older generations didn't know what that kid on the other side of the country was doing, so they couldn't compare themselves. They were naturally able to be a lot more present. Kids today are exposed to so much and there are a lot more distractions. They need to work harder to stay present.
Why do you think there is still a stigma around mental health and mindfulness?
Older generations are a little put off. They think of it as soft, or weak. Initially, when some folks hear mental health or vulnerability, there's hesitation. It used to not be the norm to talk your feelings. It was “toughen up," "work hard and bully your way through any situation." "Hard work could heal all things, and if it’s not healed you’re not working hard enough," etc.; almost wishing it away.
They can still have that message, but it is important to help kids learn how to identify, process and manage what is actually going on. To put language to the feelings. If you don’t know how to genuinely articulate and express yourself you stand no chance of truly being heard. In sports and in life.
What you said about putting language to feelings is really interesting – how do you teach this and what are the benefits?
It’s so important because it allows you to better understand yourself. Which allows you to form and maintain deeper connections with everything and everyone around you and increase your quality of life.
I teach kids how to reflect on their own. Asking themselves – why am I feeling this way, what is the root of what I’m feeling. Does this belief system serve me? This person pissed me off, but why did they hurt me? Is it because they called me out in front of other people and I'm trying to manage how other people perceive me? Is that something I really want to invest time and energy into? Am I going to carry this or let it go.
Holding themselves accountable to why they feel how they feel, and teaching them how to challenge those thoughts. Not settling for the initial surface level reaction – that is all part of the reflecting process. Being intentional about what they’re doing and why, so they can actively pursue the goals and dreams they have for themselves.
The biggest thing is self-awareness. You need to have a certain baseline level of self-awareness in order to do any of this work. We can both have the same experiences but walk away feeling completely different based on our level of self-awareness. And that’s the root of everything.
How would you say overall sports help us develop personally?
I think children who play sports have an advantage. They’re exposed to things that make life hard; showing up and being undervalued, working hard but not getting rewarded, not getting picked, feeling excluded or unseen. You will be exposed to all of these things that make life hard, every day of your athletic career.
The core of my work is helping them to identify, process, and manage that. It’s not that you're never going to feel anxious or afraid or triggered, it’s being able to manage it and have a quicker recovery rate than you would have in the past. We see this in real time with sports. You’re not always going to play well, but if you can have better recovery time and access that next play mentality quicker, you’re going to be better off.
All sports are a microcosm of life. So if you can start using whatever season you’re in as a mirror to reflect on who you are as a person, by the end of your career, whenever that is, you are going to be a much more full, whole person who is equipped with the skills to handle life.