The Last, Last Dance: How to Motivate Isolated Athletes

NBA teams inside the Disney bubble will need a multi-thematic season.

Posted May 28, 2020

The legendary coach of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson, would choose a theme for every basketball season, perhaps to help the team focus on particular efforts or nuances for each unique composition of players and challenges. The behaviors, actions, and messages from coaches create enduring impressions on their team’s culture and environment, and can ultimately affect the team’s overall performance [1]. Jackson’s theme for the '97-'98 season, “The Last Dance,” now a wildly popular biopic focusing on Michael Jordan, is the golden exemplar of thematic success — maybe there’s something to these themes? 

Whether current teams are as thematic as the Zenmaster or not, behavior matters. As part of a much larger issue, how a coach is planning on leading his or her team during the currently proposed bubble city solution for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) will be an added wrinkle for this year’s COVID-19 sports seasons. 

How will these isolated bubble cities affect the players? Can effective coaching make the assist?

Sports in a bubble

Bubble ball is a go, at least on paper. In a joint-venture, the NBA and The Walt Disney Company have announced plans to play the remainder of the NBA season within the confines of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. In similar iterations, MLB has been kicking around combinations of multiple players-only cities. Current plans to kick off a belated season include some combination of isolated “hub plans” or makeshift bubble cities that operate solely for the purposes of baseball activities. 

On paper is a key term here, because while these bubble cities might sound like solutions for professional sports within a pandemic, the social psychological effects of confining players within these bubbles is a serious conversation worth having. It’s even worth hashtagging at this point: professional athletes are people too (#athletesarepeople). 

Baseball players, in conjunction with their union (the MLBPA) have put some thought into this arrangement. The players agreed to the bubble city concept with the guarantee that they’d be able to bring their families along with them. Suddenly, every MLB player is spoken for, with the hope of bringing a significant other into the lonely bubble city for what might be up to five months; again, #athletesarepeople.

With all this in mind, two research-backed suggestions for not only maintaining but perhaps cultivating players’ mental health come to mind. 

Create a schedule 

Astronaut Scott Kelly didn’t get to bring his significant other into space during nearly a year and a half that he spent in outer space. His advice: stay busy. Follow a schedule and make sure to go outside, which for outer space must have meant “go on a space walk.” A schedule, to his point, is key in fending off the boredom but also serves as a guardrail against being consumed by your work. 

With no extracurricular activities for distraction, it makes sense that work can slowly start to creep into more and more of an isolated person’s free time. Picture NBA players stuck inside of the gym shooting endless free throws to pass the time or MLB players parked inside of batting cages because there’s nothing else to do inside of their bubble cities. The blisters would be gnarly.

Research backs up Kelly’s experience: Particularly in times of great uncertainty, people seek out structure as a way to bring some predictability to their lives and reduce their uncertainty [2]. So, when faced with threatening or uncertain situations, like the one we are in currently, creating a schedule can bring some semblance of order to people’s lives. As long as the activities that fill up players’ schedules are relatively healthy and varied, they can be a great coping tool [3]. But self-governance might not be enough.

Pick two themes

In an experiment to test perhaps the longest possible iterations of social isolation, four people were locked inside of a 4,000 square-foot space for 180 days to simulate what life would be like on Mars — social isolation for the rest of people’s lives. The physical space or “cabins” were subdivided along with the roles for the four inhabitants: biologist, doctor, mechanic, and “leader.” The experimenters periodically measured the social and psychological well being of the four participants across a slate of have-you-lost-your-mind-yet types of measures. 

Of particular note was the feedback on the leader’s performance, namely the “leader support” measure that captured the “amount of help, concern and friendship the leader shows for the members.” The other crew members felt that, as the experiment waned, so did their perception of the leader’s support. Either the leader began to feel the effects of the isolation, or their message to their crew began to grow stale. 

The latter possibility is supported by a similar study that measured isolation for 235 days within McMurdo station in Antarctica. At the end of the study, participants’ reported that satisfaction in the level of support eroded as time in isolation went on.

What does this mean for bubble city basketball and baseball teams? Before you head into isolation: pick two themes. 

As we can all attest, social isolation can really begin to wane on a person’s psyche. Even constructive coping mechanisms like keeping a schedule can become toxic. More support is always welcome. If modern coaches use similar Jackson-style thematic techniques, the Mars and Antarctic isolation studies are evidence that one theme won’t be enough — the message will eventually go stale. The messages, thematic innuendos, and systems of support might work early on, but inevitably the cheerleading will begin to wear. Without the everyday escapes from the athletic labor, players can become consumed with their work, bored with the monotony of life in the bubble, and yearn for the social relationships that they maintained outside of the bubble. 

Athletes are people too and they’ll need creative mechanisms to draw energy from inside of these proposed hermetic cities.


[1] Cumming, S.P., Smith, R.E., & Smoll, F.L. (2006). Athlete-Perceived Coaching Behaviors: Relating Two Measurement Traditions. Journal of sport and exercise psychology, 28, 205-213.

[2] Hogg, M. A. (2007). Uncertainty identity theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 69-126.

[3] Becker, M. C., Knudsen, T. The role of routines in reducing pervasive uncertainty. Journal of Business Research, 58, 467-757.