By Ellie Lieberman
In our next set of blog posts, Ellie Lieberman will recap the highlights from each of our guests on our first season of Mental Buckets. Here’s what you missed in Episode 3: Mental Toughness Matters and Here’s Why featuring Dallas Mavericks’ Mental Skills Trainer, Don Kalkstein.
For those who are interested in career paths that combine psychology and sport, those who wonder what makes the great greats, and those just interested in the mental side of basketball.
Our third Mental Buckets episode features Dallas Mavericks Director of Mental Skills, Don Kalkstein. He is one of the first ever to break into the “mental training,” or sports psychology world of basketball, and utilize his knowledge to help athletes on and off the court. Kalkstein came to UPB via his co-worker Mike Franco, who is the lead mental skills trainer for the Mavericks’ G-League affiliate in the Texas Legends, and we can’t think of a better veteran in the industry than Kalkstein.
Kalkstein has a storied career in sport psychology, starting in 1995 with the Texas Rangers. He came to the Rangers after working as a baseball scout for the Houston Astros. Coaching was always Kalkstein’s passion, but making under $30k yearly as a scout made the offer to become Texas Rangers’ Director of Performance Enhancement easy. At the time, Kalkstein was one of the first to enter the space, and after working 22 years for the Rangers and seven for the Red Sox, Kalkstein made the switch over to the basketball world. That doesn’t mean it was an easy road to making a name, not only in pro sports, but specifically in the mental health side of the games.
“When I first started, I felt like a salesman all the time, that I was continuously trying to give them a product that they really didn’t want because of the ideas in their minds where the labeling was given… “You’re a shrink or you’re a psychologist,” Kalkstein said on Mental Buckets. “I had to change gears and really have them come to me more… Now athletes are more ready and willing to do whatever it takes.”
Throughout his career, and especially in his 20 years with the Dallas Mavericks, Kalkstein witnessed a major shift in athletes’ willingness to seek mental health support - whether that be performance centric or otherwise. In recent years, NBA players such as Kevin Love and DeMar Derozan have been open about mental health struggles, and those like Markelle Fultz have been open about psyching themselves out in the arena of performance. Seeking mental support in addition to on-the-court coaching has become such a staple in the NBA that Mark Cuban said one of his greatest regrets in his Mavericks’ ownership career was letting Kalkstein go (before hiring him again).
In his time with the Mavericks, Kalkstein has learned how different NBA players lead and off the court, and he believes the first step is mental fortitude. Winning a championship takes a variety of ingredients, of course on-court success, but also the ability to overcome physical and mental roadblocks.
“There’s a reason why, when we talk about Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion… There’s a reason why they’ve been in winning programs,” Kalkstein said. “There’s a reason why they’re winners and there’s a reason why people want to be around them.”
In his 20 years with the Mavericks, Kalkstein has compared and contrasted leadership styles, and it remains clear whose leadership is always about what they can do for the team. Leaders are there to help the team first and foremost.
“Nothing is more important than when Shawn Marion walks into our locker room and touches everybody and says, “Hey, what’s up? Hey, good to see you. How’s it going?” Kalkstein said. “He doesn’t have to do that.”
Kalkstein’s stories with Mavericks legends only illustrate that success in the basketball world is multi-pronged, and about becoming better everyday mentally and physically.