Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love
Photo cred: Alexandra Martin
Top of the Game

NBA star Kevin Love on finding success while struggling with mental health: 'You can't achieve yourself out of depression'


This story is part of the Top of the Game series, where CNBC Make It delves into the habits, routines and mindsets that top athletes use to achieve peak performance and success.

At the beginning of November, Kevin Love tested positive for Covid. The star basketball player for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers had to stay away from the court indefinitely.

Conscious of his mental health, the 33-year-old turned to coping mechanisms like therapy, journaling and a daily check-in to help "protect your energy." The strategies aren't necessarily groundbreaking — but Love's recent openness about them has been.

In 2018, Love wrote about his decades-long fight with depression and anxiety in a Player's Tribune essay titled "Everyone is Going Through Something." The essay launched a movement among high-profile athletes to destigmatize mental illness. Since then, he says, more people approach him about mental health than basketball.

"If I didn't have the tools or had not worked with a therapist the last four years, I don't know if I would have been able to deal with people sharing their stories," Love tells CNBC Make It.

Love calls his struggles "a gift and a curse." As early as high school, he says, he used periods of depression as fuel to win basketball games. His entire identity became wrapped around his on-court performance. And that only brought him to darker places.

"You can't achieve yourself out of depression," Love says. "You can't achieve yourself out of that high-level of anxiety."

Today, Love says he's on a mission to help support others struggling with mental illness — primarily through the Kevin Love Fund, a charity that provides mental health-focused education, research and grants. And his Covid quarantine is over: He returned to the court on Wednesday.

Here, he discusses managing his depression and anxiety, why he appreciates Apple TV's "Ted Lasso" and what he wishes he could tell his younger self about mental health.

The four tools Love uses to stay mentally healthy

[Therapy] is the best gift that you can give yourself. It's a safe place, and you get to know yourself a little bit more every session.

I also think gratitude is big. Being grateful reinforces perspective. It's helped me understand what's really important. Often, these things don't cost anything.

I channel my grandma. I was just talking about her with my brother: She lived vicariously through her family. She was a simple woman, and I mean that in the best way — she was just so grateful for everything that came her way, no matter how small. I try to really channel that.

And I mix gratitude with journaling. I think journaling fosters awareness. We get to write down our stories, no matter what they are. It's almost childlike in that way.

As adults, I feel like we've become very good liars. Your inner child will, more often than not, tell the truth and just be unapologetically honest.

Why his daily routine includes both sweat and meditation

The best way to protect your time and stress is to train, refuel, recover and repeat. It feels good to sweat — and for me, it's like killing two birds with one stone, because it's helping me play basketball.

You've also got to eat well, sleep well and meditate. [My recent Covid] quarantine has been a good time for meditation, especially the first few days.

I couldn't really work out, and was basically laying out on the couch. My appetite was suppressed. My energy wasn't there. So before bed, I would get into a routine including breath work and meditation on Headspace.

Burnout is an accumulation. You need to factor strategic rest and recovery into your routine.

What Love would tell his younger self about mental health

It's all about protecting your energy at all costs. Be wary of instant gratification — I've always thought of discipline as deciding between what you want now and what you want most.

Part of protecting your energy is just deciding, "OK, what do I want the most?" Should I eat this when I know it'll be bad for me? Should I have that late coffee and stay out those extra couple of hours?

You have to be selfish, and I think that's being selfish in the best way. Speak your truth. You'd be amazed how freeing that is.

Why he appreciates the depiction of mental health in Apple TV's "Ted Lasso"

My therapist told me to watch "Ted Lasso." I'm about halfway through — I ran through the episodes very fast during [my Covid quarantine].

In the second season, they bring in a therapist that works with every player on the team. They each have their own struggles. It's been cool to see that placed into pop culture in a really popular way.

This has been top of mind, seeing our very young Cavaliers team using our designated therapists. These guys are buying in and understanding the mental side and these micro-gains. Whether it's something at home or within your personal life, there's stuff to work on.

The better you understand yourself and who you are, you're going to feel more comfortable in your own skin — and therefore better equipped to perform out there on the floor. It's been a really cool thing to see firsthand with our team.

It's important to continue to ask everybody, "What's next?" and "How do we keep pushing forward?"

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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