At Work

How NBA players get big-money employment contracts is a technique any person can use: Chicago Bulls performance guru

Key Points
  • Wendy Borlabi, the performance coach for the Chicago Bulls and an NBA consultant, says that elite athletes use a mental process for success that starts with their values, not a desired outcome that can be measured in money.
  • Borlabi also has worked with Olympic athletes on goal-setting and peak performance and says a few key psychological steps for success are universal.
The self-awareness psychology that helps elite athletes succeed

The NBA off-season has been marked by a stunning, swift rearrangement of the championship contender map as players have asserted their talent off the court as strategic thinkers and masters of their own destiny. There have been some big dollar signs attached to the free agent and sign-and-trade frenzy, with multiple deals reaching above $150 million.

But the goal is never just the money, according to a top NBA performance coach. If players were attached to a number as their goal, they would more likely fail than succeed. That's a lesson — and a mental approach — that can be adopted by any individual.

Wendy Borlabi, the Chicago Bulls' performance coach and a Ph.D. in clinical and sports psychology, pointed to the case of Jimmy Butler. The Bulls drafted Butler — who recently left the Philadelphia 76-ers to join the Miami Heat on a four-year, $142 million contract — in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft. His first contract was for roughly $1 million a year.

Jimmy Butler #23 of the Philadelphia 76ers shoots the ball over Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on May 12, 2019 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Mark Blinch | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

"People think when you're drafted you've made it, but it's not true. You need to have a really great second contract. All players after being drafted are looking for the second contract," Borlabi said at the recent CNBC @Work Human Capital + Finance conference in Chicago. To make that happen, a player's thought process starts with something other than money.

"He thought about what his values were and a process to get there, and the choices needed to influence the outcome."

Butler turned down the Bulls' first offer when his second contract talks came, of $40 million over four years. He eventually signed for $95 million.

A focus on values

Borlabi said approaching a goal with a number in mind is not likely to result in success. As an example that most people can understand, she mentioned weight loss. If a person says their goal is to lose 20 lbs. they are less likely to be successful than if they say their goal is to lead a healthier life.

"You wanted to lose the weight because you wanted a better lifestyle, to reduce high-blood-pressure risk. You are looking to be healthy, not lose 20 lbs. Values lead to choices, and that leads to a process, and that leads to outcomes, but often we start with choices."

After signing his deal with the Heat, Butler said, "I think the culture that this organization is about, obviously the players that they have, the players they have had in the past, it fits who I am, what I'm about, how I think, how I go about what I go about every day."

According to some press reports, Butler had been offered a five-year, $190 max contract by the 76-ers, but still preferred Miami.

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Another example from Borlabi's work with Bulls' players that dispels myths about what motivates elite athletes: Former Bull Rajon Rondo, now a member of the Lakers. She says Rondo sometimes has received negative press for not being the best teammate. She never saw that. In fact, she saw the opposite.

"Somewhere in the middle of the season [after a game], Rajon says to two young players, 'Let's go lift weights.' And they said, 'We already did before the game.'"

"'So did I,'" Borlabi quoted Rondo as saying. "And he had played 42 minutes. You need a value of fitness."

Changing the way we think

This is exactly what Borlabi says she talks about when she advises pro athletes on peak performance. "We talk about what you are going to do and how you make these decisions."

There is no substitute for athletic talent. "Physical talent is the start. I will say in my experience with the Bulls and Olympians, these athletes are not afraid to try and push limits," Borlabi said. Many individuals reach a point in life when they stop and say, "I've done enough." But Borlabi said of top athletes, "They never think that. There is always more to do and face. Almost every athlete I talk to at a high level is always reading about others and what they do. We tend to stop learning, exploring; they are always doing that."

Borlabi said it takes a significant amount of effort to change the way we think and approach things, and get away from developed habits. Her basis for working with players — and ultimately to come to the mental process that uncovers key values and the choices that will result in desired outcomes — starts with these two themes.

1. Look at your strengths. What is it you do well?

"There is something we all do well with little to know effort. Figure out what it is," she said, and what it isn't. "If you compartmentalize well, you are probably bad at relationships."

2. You need to think about self-awareness.

People may not like the way Borlabi explains this, but she said body odor is a relevant example. "The thing with BO is, when you smell really bad, how do you know you smell really bad? Someone can tell you, but when you can smell yourself, you've gone to a whole 'nother level."

Another way to think about this is the reference to her "losing 20 lbs." example: How many people are aware of the weight they are gaining until someone mentions it to them?

Borlabi says you need to always take the time to "check in with yourself," and when you do that, you begin to figure out your values.