The Athlete’s Mindset for Writers

I’ve never followed any sport and have basically zero physical ability, but as a kid I would play basketball. Endless hours trying to slam dunk the hoop on the side of my parents’ garage and summer evenings with my mates on a local court, where we spent most of our time chatting and trying to bounce the ball through our legs.

Growing up through the 90s, of course I got swept up in Michael Jordan fever, which peaked with the release of Space Jam in 1996.

For me, that movie is ALL about the opening scene.

Young Michael Jordan is up late playing basketball in his backyard. It’s pitch black, lit only by the moon and a single lamp stuck to the top of the hoop. Houselights flick on and his Dad comes out to ask what he’s doing out after midnight. Michael convinces his Dad to let him take just one more shot, which of course he sinks. Impressed, his Dad gets him to carry on, telling him to, “Shoot til you miss“. All of this is soundtracked by R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly before it felt uncomfortable to listen to R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly.

Michael continues to score but now, before every shot, he calls out his ambitions. “I wanna play at North Carolina… I wanna play on the championship team… Then I wanna play in the NBA!” As the ball falls effortless through the net after each statement, you KNOW that this kid is going to achieve every damn thing that he says he will. This builds to his Dad suggesting, “After you’ve finished with all that, I suppose you’re going to fly, huh?

Michael turns, focussed, and in slow motion he runs towards the hoop. As he gets closer, the shot begins to cut back and forth between footage of the child and the adult professional basketball player Michael Jordan, picking up pace until BOOM it cuts into the opening credits with a montage of Jordan’s career. He called it all.

I watched this intro so many times. Along with my VHS copies of Wayne’s World, Bill and Ted, and Clerks, it was one of the key ingredients that wired my brain to believe that I could write and create.

During the first Covid-19 lockdown, I got really into The Last Dance, the Chicago Bulls documentary on Netflix. It took me back to the time as a kid, knowing that the Chicago Bulls were the greatest basketball team in the world, but not really knowing why. I guess the media worked their magic on us. We knew that Zack Morris was cool, Sunny D was refreshing, and The Bulls ruled.

Watching this documentary (and yes, I know there’s controversy around it and doubts about it’s accuracy) I finally understood what went into making this team and Michael Jordan so legendary. Mindset.

Like I said, I’m not sporty or athletic in the slightest. If you had to pick people to play on your team for any sport, I guarantee I’d be one of your last choices. But this documentary and specifically the attitude and mindset of Jordan resonated with me. Not as an athlete but as a writer. That’s when I realised that you can take the athlete’s mindset and apply it to writing.

“I’ve always believed that if you put in the work, the results will come.”

Michael Jordan

It sounds silly, but I started looking at situations I was in and thinking, “I want to be the Michael Jordan of this!

He’s Michael Jordan at the peak of his career but he’s still pushing himself at training, putting in the hours, and doing all he can to stay on top of his game. He’s not settling as a basketball player, he’s retiring and joining a baseball team. He’s creating a worldwide brand, inspiring kids, releasing shoes that would change footwear forever, and yes, he’s making movies with the Looney Tunes!

I can take that mindset and apply it to my work as a writer. I can get up an hour early to write before I start my day job. Instead of writing ten jokes, I can write twenty. I can watch a movie then download and read the screenplay to understand it. I can be emailing people about securing my next job whilst I’m swamped with a current project. I can be looking for new ways to venture out, maybe contacting a radio station to see if they take submissions or entering short story competitions.

I can constantly find new ways to improve what I do and how I do it.

The ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky talks in his Masterclass about how people would be shocked if they turned up to practice and saw that he was one of the first players on the ice. But like with Jordan, that’s why he was at the top. Hard work and success go hand in hand.

Wayne’s father Walter Gretzky taught him that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. This quote may live on as a Michael Scott meme and the closing slide of endless corporate PowerPoint presentations, but honestly, this is what we’re talking about when it comes to mindset. So many writers seem to talk themselves out of entering a competition, or emailing a producer, or even writing a script – so they fail by default.

Of course it isn’t going to happen if you don’t try. You’re blocking yourself. It’s the same when you email someone asking to be considered for their project or requesting them to read your work and you wrap up by saying, “No worries if not.

No worries if not? Huh? Then why are you emailing? There clearly will be worries if not. So don’t say it. Don’t open up weak spots. Don’t talk yourself down. Don’t give people an opportunity to write you off.

It’s not ego. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. It’s not relying on your past success, or reputation, or contacts, it’s pushing yourself to always be the best. It’s giving yourself every possible opportunity to succeed and a willingness to continue to grow. It’s finding wins in everything you do. You might write a script that nobody is interested in (in fact, you almost definitely will do this) but there will be wins there. For a lot of people even STARTING something is a win. Learn to recognise the wins and celebrate them. But at the same time, identify the losses and the mistakes, reflect and improve. Keep moving forward.

“Walk the walk. Be at practice early. Be prepared to practise hard. Practise hard. Prepare to get ready to play. Play hard.”

Wayne Gretzky

Last autumn, after years of submitting as a member of the public, I was invited to join the BBC Newsjack writers room (as well as public submissions, each episode has a backup crew of commissioned writers). Since Covid-19, it had moved from a physical room in London to a Zoom meeting. We were all required to read the news over the weekend and join the Monday morning session with 2-3 pitches for sketches. For those who don’t know the format, essentially this needs to be a 2-minute sketch inspired by current events but that is more that just a reporter on the scene piece. The news can simply be the jumping off point for a sketch that bears little resemblance to the story that inspired it.

This was going to be my first time in the “room” and although I knew that I’d earned my place on the team and had evidence to back up that I can write a decent Newsjack sketch, I didn’t want to mess up my shot. The Newsjack room is unique. I’m not sure there are any others like it in the world. Not only are you pitching against the other writers in the room (some of whom also came up through the open submission ranks as well as established comedy writers, including the current BBC staff writers) but you’re up against maybe 500 members of the public. It’s impossible not to feel the pressure of that.

So instead of bringing 2-3 pitches, I brought 6. This way I had some flexibility. Another writer could pitch a similar story or concept and then I’d be down a sketch. The producers might show that they weren’t interested in a certain format (overplayed stuff like a movie trailer or anything to do with James Bond), or the week’s cast may not include anyone capable of impersonating a particular celebrity. Plus the news moves fast and a story I’d selected may vanish or change moments before I joined the session. I had to be covered for any possibility.

I worked ALL weekend on the pitches. I spent more time sourcing stories and developing pitches than I usually do writing three drafts of a sketch. I went through every possible news source. I even took out a free trial of The Telegraph online just so I might have access to stories that other writers wouldn’t (don’t worry, I cancelled before they received a single penny from me).

On Sunday night, I had my stories and ideas, including a rough structure, sample jokes, and a clearly defined purpose. But I didn’t sit back and watch TV. I kept going through the news looking for more stories and refining my notes to make sure that I not only had my best possible sketches but I knew them well enough that I could clearly describe them to a group of people I’d never met over a Zoom call with an unreliable Wi-Fi connection.

I went to bed early and got up early, then went straight back to work. I dropped my kids at school then walked home with my face in my News app, where I found a new story about half an hour before the call started. That story inspired a sketch which ultimately made it into the episode and was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra a few days later.

Full credits for this episode here.

I didn’t sit back. I didn’t assume that because I was in the room, I automatically would have material used. I didn’t rely on my previous credits or the fact that I was being paid regardless of whether or not anything I wrote made the broadcast. I put the work in, focussed, and prepared as much as possible. You’re probably thinking, “Well, obviously! Of course you’re going to put the effort in if you get an opportunity like that!” But honestly, I’ve been in a few rooms now and there are sometimes people who have lost that mindset.

Although I was in the room as a commissioned writer, I also submitted a batch of jokes through the general public route as well. I already had a guaranteed credit and would be paid regardless so I didn’t have anything tangible to gain. I wanted to Michael Jordan the hell out of this opportunity. I also submitted to BBC Radio 4’s The Skewer and about half an hour after my silly sketch about yodelling in the office and a dumb cow pun aired on Newsjack, this was broadcast. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever attempted to create before. I’m incredibly proud of it. Don’t stand still.

Production magic by Jon Holmes and his team, full credits can be found here

It all comes down to attitude. Define what you want to achieve, research, practise, and put everything possible into it to achieve results. Reflect. Then do it again but better. Be inspired by others. Pay attention to the people that inspire you. Don’t be afraid to fail because that’s when you’ll learn lessons. Take yourself out of your comfort zone. Show up. Be persistent. Stay positive. Have fun.

Going back to the Space Jam intro, young Michael Jordan was practising his game. He was dedicated, out later than expected for a child, and was putting in the work. You’re not going to become a better writer by thinking about it or talking about it on social media. You need to be writing. Don’t wait for that invitation to write or for an opportunity to open up. Write jokes, sketches, ideas etc down and keep building on it. Reach out to people. Collaborate. Read. You need to be in a position so that when an opportunity does arise, you’re ready.

“Tomorrow’s going to be better and next year’s going to be bigger than this year. I never rested on what I had accomplished.”

Wayne Gretzky

Some points to reflect on:

What do you want to achieve and how are you going to get there?

Why do you want it?

What changes can you make?

Who can help you?

Are you demonstrating the right mindset and behaviours?

Is it still fun?

… Then what?

I encourage you to apply the athlete’s mindset to you work. Live your own Space Jam intro. Play basketball after midnight. Call out your ambitions, follow through, and see what happens. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be on the court with Bugs Bunny… or you’ll at least write the screenplay.

Like Michael’s Dad says, “If you get good enough, you can do anything that you want to.

The Comedy Loser