Hey, NYC, I Love It When You Turn On Your Lights

When the white Bronco chase interrupted the playoff game I think I was the only TV viewer in America who was more concerned with the final score than the fates of AC and OJ.

When Michael Jordan – an absolute hero to me – buried us year after year after year, shutting down our chances to even make the Finals, I could barely eat for a week.

You see, in the early-90s there was no bigger New York Knicks fan than me.

Ewing. Oakley. Starks. Mason. I loved them all.

Those teams were run by a NY-bred point guard named Mark Jackson.

Jackson was an unremarkable player who did remarkable things. He wasn’t a particularly great ball handler or passer yet he sits 4th on the current all-time assists list. He wasn’t a physical specimen yet he was the perfect leader on a team full of tough guys. He wasn’t a great jump shooter yet he made 734 career 3-pointers. He wasn’t a lottery pick yet managed to win the rookie of the year award.

He was the perfect guy at the perfect time. After his tenure with the Knicks he had an equally successful run with the Pacers before becoming a journeyman spending a year with this team, two years with that team until he retired in the mid-2000s to become a broadcaster and coach.

Jackson was never ‘my guy’ when he was with the Knicks (that is a privilege that was and always will be reserved for Charles Oakley) but there’s a story he told in an interview once that always stuck with me.

The interviewer was asking Jackson about his pre-game ritual.

“I always take a cab about halfway down,” Jackson said, referring to his trip from his apartment on the upper east side to Madison Square Garden in midtown.

“Then I tell the cabbie to stop and I get out and walk, maybe 15, 20 blocks,” Jackson continued.

“Why? Do you get tired of sitting in Manhattan traffic?” the interviewer joked.

But Jackson wasn’t joking.

“Nah, I like to get out and walk. No music. No headphones. I like to feel the energy of the city. Of the people. The sounds. The lights. It gets me excited to play.”

I always pictured Jackson walking the streets at dusk just as the City lights turned on. Getting high fives and head nods from the fans who were probably caught off-guard seeing a starter walking the streets on game night but mostly going unrecognized. Just another guy walking the streets. One of the true joys of New York. It doesn’t matter who you are, at some level you can go relatively unnoticed.

And I envision him arriving at the Garden. Finding his way to some secret entrance that is reserved for players and nodding at the security guard whose sole job is to await Mark’s arrival.

Then, nearly instantaneously, without a trip to the locker room or pregame meetings or meals or pep talks that I’m certain where part of the evening, I see Mark “Action” Jackson in his warm-ups going from citizen prowling the sidewalks of New York to stepping onto the Garden floor to the cheers of 20,000 fans, right before dropping his usual double-double as the Knicks grind out an 86-82 win.

This movie that plays out in my mind still gives me goosebumps.

Which brings me, rather abruptly (sorry!) to the importance of the pre-training ritual. Almost every good athlete I know and training partner I’ve ever had has had specific and reliable behaviors before/at the start of training and, at some point, I’ve adopted them all. Some were pretty simple, some rather involved.

With Big Ed, pulling your socks up past your calves meant it was “go time”. With Jess it’s chugging a Bang, a single shouted “Let’s Go!” accompanied by a hand clap and the music getting turned up loud as the plates get loaded on the bar. With Kyle things get really quiet. Almost no talking. Just a silent understanding that it’s time to go to work. With Jake we are going to do endless warm-ups in hopes that our hips (finally!) open up. With Alec it’s watching weightlifting videos and talking a bunch of shit about how an old man (me!) is about to out lift him.

No one is more effective than the other. One does not make you more of a bad ass. There is no magic formula to the perfect ritual.

But just as a pre-lift ritual can help you make sure that you are in the right position and mindset for the rep you are about to perform (Jackson also had a very specific “pinch the rim” ritual before each free throw attempt) the pre-training ritual can set the tone and help you flip the switch for all that is about to come.

Give it a try. Develop some meaningful, repeatable series of steps before training and keep it up for a few weeks. I’ll go as far as to guarantee that it will help make your training more focused and more enjoyable.
You can’t expect a good outcome by neglecting the process it takes to get you there. And while technical work, mobility drills, thousands of hours of practice, mindset and dozens of other factors are all important pieces of the puzzle to success, so are the seemingly unimportant things – like, say, your pre-training ritual. So figure it out. Hone it. Make it your own. It will pay dividends. It’s also fun.

And if anyone tells you it’s silly, tell them to fuck off.

You can’t disrespect the caterpillar and rave about the butterfly.