NBA Sharpshooter J.J. Redick on Keeping Your Cool Under Pressure

Over a long career, J.J. Redick has proven himself to be one of basketball’s deadliest sharpshooters. For four seasons at Duke, he shot his way to dominance, becoming the best player in college basketball—and probably the most hated, too, with an oncourt personality that drew the worst out of opposing fans. Now after 14 years in the NBA (currently a New Orleans Pelican), he's built a career as a steady role player, always ready to take extremely difficult shots in extremely tense situations. The only way to take that many tough shots, he explains, is to believe that every one of them is going to go in, even when all the evidence suggests they won’t.

He unpacks that unwavering self-belief on the latest episode of Airplane Mode (which we recorded in September before the NBA season started). He talks about the confidence that comes from putting in the work, and the “mini-orgasm” of seeing thousands of shots go in. But he also reflects on times that his confidence has lagged—like the time he almost quit basketball after his sophomore year at Duke—and talks about the daily practices that have helped him become more self-assured in his veteran years.

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Shooting seems like one of those activities that could put you in a really debilitating psychological spiral.
I had a stretch last season [with] four of the worst shooting games I've had in my career. And I remember getting home from this road trip, and I walked in the front door, and [my wife] Chelsea was there, and I just crumbled to the floor and I was like, "I can't make a shot," and I'm crying. And then literally the last four games of the regular season, I hit like seven threes and scored 28 points a game, or whatever it was. Something happens and it clicks. But when you're in the middle of it, you feel like you're never going to get out of it.

So on that night, when you take a shot, are you like, "I suck, and this isn't going in," or do you have irrational confidence? What are you thinking?
I think every shot is going in. I won’t take a shot unless I think it’s going to go in. Generally, in a shooting workout, I'm shooting between 80 and 85 percent, whether it's off the dribble, or off a screen or or spot up threes. But even then, if I miss two or three in a row, it's like, "Wait a minute, I don't understand why it's not going in." You have to take a helicopter view and get up in the clouds a little bit, and look at long-term trends, and you're like, "Oh, yeah, I'm a good shooter, it's going to start going in again."

Has the confidence that you have in shooting informed life off the court?
Sure. I always talk about shooting being broken down into three things. You have to have some semblance of good form. The second part is repetition: doing things over and over again until you really develop a skillset. And then the third part is confidence. But for me, you can't have confidence without having that second part. Repetition and work and practice, over and over again, that's ultimately what gives you confidence. And it's no different in anything else in my life.

Did your parents teach you that, or is that something you learned from the shooting?
Probably both. I think my confidence and competitiveness—that will—comes from my mother. I always knew my mom loved me, and she always made me feel like I was—I don't want to say "special"—but that I was capable of doing things. Before I ever shot a basketball or before I ever threw a baseball, I had confidence, and that was from my mother.

The feeling of safety can sometimes stimulate the urge to take a risk. As we grow up and we're developing, our ego needs to be contained, otherwise we'd all be selfish two- and three-year-olds, screaming every time we didn't get our way.

But once you have that safety net to fall back on, and that ego structure—”I'm confident in who I am”—then you can go out and take those risks. And, whether you fail or succeed, you ultimately gain confidence just by taking those risks.

GQ's podcast is coming back, with 10 episodes all about confidence: how to get it, how to keep it, and what to do if you lose it.

How was your confidence rattled at Duke? I don’t think it’s unfair to say you might have been the most hated man in college basketball, and people were horrible to you on and off the court. That’s a lot to deal with when you’re 20 years old.
Nothing could have prepared me for those first couple years at Duke. First of all, playing at Duke was way harder than I ever could have anticipated, just in the day-to-day pressure, and living in a fish bowl. Then, on top of that, there was this general animosity towards me.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation. I remember our first road game my freshman year at Clemson, just feeling this wave of hatred coming directly at me. And there's this sense of fight-or-flight: I can cower in the corner and not really go after it, or I can fight back. I had a great game that day, probably talked a ton of shit, and then the next game it got a little worse, the next road game it got a little worse after that, and all of a sudden I had created, on-court, this very brash persona.

You may have perceived that as being self-assured. Some people perceive that as arrogance or cockiness. There's a difference between being confident and being secure in who you are—both as a person and as a player—and being someone you're not, kind of like a WWE wrestler in the ring. That's kind of what I was, and there was this snowball effect.

But I wouldn't say my confidence was affected by having gone through that. What affected my confidence was, in my freshman and sophomore year, failing. Our last game, my freshman year, I shot 2-for-16 in a Sweet 16 game against Kansas. And my sophomore year was the best team I played on at Duke, and we lost to UConn in the semifinals—the only time I played in the Final Four. I had the ball in my hands twice in the last 20 seconds, got stripped one time and missed a three another time, and we lost by one. It was the first time in my life where I had really tried to do something, and didn't do it, and had to process failure for the first time. And it took me to a really dark place.

I had a conversation with my sisters my sophomore year. I was just like, "I don't want to do this anymore. I just want to be normal." I wanted to do creative writing and join a frat. They talked me out of it, obviously. Thank God. But then at the end of my sophomore year, after this UConn thing, I went off the map. I was getting rides on Craigslist in Northern California.

How long did you go in that stretch without playing ball?
April 1st was the UConn game, and Duke tracked me down on, like, May 21st. I think I played once during that period of time. Now, I've learned that it's healthy for me [to take a break]. Whenever the season ends, I take a month or two off from basketball. I don't do anything on the court until after July 4th.

What got you back into basketball, into wanting to play?
It was a specific conversation when I was back at Duke. On May 20th or May 21st of my sophomore year, I was waking up a little hungover, and I got a "bang, bang, bang” on this apartment door where I was staying. My buddy ran upstairs, he's like, "Yo, [Duke assistant coaches] Collins and Wojo are at the door." I hadn't shaved in probably like three or four weeks, and I weighed like 220 pounds—I weigh 195 now, so I was overweight. So, they don't really say anything, I come to the door and they're just like, "Come outside."

I've got that Eeyore body language, slouched shoulders. They don't really say anything. We get in the car, they still haven't said anything. I don't know that they're taking me to the [Duke basketball] office, I just figured it out along the way. Wojo's got his left-turn signal on, and all of a sudden he looks in the rearview and goes, "So, what have you been doing?" And I don't know why I said this, but I go, "Just watching movies." I had been doing other things.

They dragged me through the coaches' offices. They basically said to me, "We're disappointed, but we love you. You can keep doing what you're doing, and we're not going to give you much responsibility as a leader and as a player. The truth of the matter is, you'll probably end up scoring 2,000 points." And then Coach Collins said, "The really sad part is we'll never know how good you can be."

And that crushed me. I left that office that day with a resolve to figure my own shit out, to be a better person, player, teammate, son, brother. I was First-Team All-American and won National Player of the Year that year. And senior year the same thing.

How did you rediscover the joy?
That's the hard part for me, even to this day. The joy part of it is easy if all we're talking about is a basketball and a hoop. The stuff that goes with that—team dynamics, making and missing shots in games, media scrutiny, fan scrutiny, your own expectations of yourself, when you do have a little dip in your confidence and you can't figure out why you're missing shots—those directly affect your level of joy.

For me, the rediscovering of joy was getting back to what made me want to go to Duke in the first place. I realized that there was a standard that had been established by dozens of Duke players that had built this program and by Coach K, and it was time for me to have my own standard for myself. There's a joy that I get in being, like, "Some days I don't really want to go to the gym, but I'm going to go do my work and I'm going to do it at the highest level that I can."

Which is more meaningful to you: being the guy at Duke, or carving out a career in the NBA as a productive role player?
It goes back to my own expectations. Beyond winning an NBA championship, which I haven't done yet, my career has far exceeded anything that I expected. I don't think pride is a good thing, but I am very proud of the career that I've had. I’ll say this about the Duke part: I'm also very proud about that—it was such a special time in my life—but I'm not a nostalgic person, and it's very hard for me to really think about those times. I think mostly about my sophomore year and how impactful that was for the rest of my life, and how meaningful those moments were. I don't think at all, really, about the awards or the records. Part of that is because I don't want to feel comfortable.

Do you have routines or habits or ways you work discomfort into your life intentionally?
I think that I do it subconsciously. How I train is a very physical example of being uncomfortable. But I think challenging yourself to be better at your craft, and really addressing weaknesses, that's uncomfortable.

The thing that I wish I was better about was my mental health, because I'm uncomfortable really addressing it. I'm at the stage in my career where I'm so habitualized with training my body and my skills, and I need to get the same way with training my mind. As I get older, that's got to be the advantage. I'm losing it athletically—I mean, these young guys have had personal trainers since they were 12 or 13, and they're coming into the league able to do everything.

How do I train my mind so that when I'm having those inevitable downs, the valleys of the season, how do I make them short-lived? How do I not get on that downward spiral that lasts two or three weeks? Maybe it's out of my control and I just have a shooting slump, but how do I maintain that joy and how do I maintain my sanity?

Have you found any answers?
I started meditating recently. I'm learning how to be more mindful, and I've noticed that when I have multiple days in a row that I meditate, I find that I'm more patient with people, and I'm more patient with myself, and I'm more patient with Chelsea, my wife, and my two boys, Knox and Kai. There has been a tangible benefit. I started this a couple months ago, but I want to continue it during the season, and I'm hoping that I see that during the season.

[Also] when you have a kid, your perspective on literally everything changes. I would say it's not a coincidence that my best years in the NBA have been since I had children. I had Knox right after I turned 30, and my best years have been in my 30s. And now I have Kai, who's three. There's a certain level of confidence that I have because of them, because there's no substitute for that feeling when you walk in the door after a road trip, and it's 1:00 A.M, and you wake up the next day and you see the look in their eyes. You're like, "Maybe it doesn't matter as much as I think it matters."

The last question we ask on the podcast is for a favorite fuck up.
It's not my favorite because it was the worst night of my life, but I'm so glad that I got arrested for a DUI [in 2006]. We all live in this illusion that we're immortal, and when you're that age, you really believe that. I'd be lying if I said it was the first time that I had ever driven drunk. It was 12 or 13 days before the NBA Draft, and I had come back to Durham to get an epidural because I'd had a pretty significant herniated disk in my back.

My buddies wanted to go to a bar, and I was like, "I'll drive." I didn't feel like I was that drunk, and I blew a .11. It was the best thing to ever happen to me because I had driven drunk before—and I'm not saying .11 isn't drunk; .11 is drunk—but I had driven drunk before, and I'm so glad that happened because if I had hurt someone, or myself, God forbid. So I'm glad that happened.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The ESPN host and retired hooper talks to Clay Skipper about how he's always maintained his self-trust, leaving behind NBA money, and his biggest regret after that 1993 NCAA championship loss. 

GQ's podcast is coming back, with 10 episodes all about confidence: how to get it, how to keep it, and what to do if you lose it.

Originally Appeared on GQ