Your actions make or break you. The idea is that if you do anything repeatedly for a long enough period of time, it becomes a habit. That habit, good or bad, plays a role in moving you towards your goals or away from them. I made it a habit to pay attention to details, work hard and give my all in whatever situations I found myself in (be it favorable or unfavorable). I believed and still believe that the harder I work, the higher my chances of success as opposed to my chances if I cut corners.
As part of our series about the work ethic lessons we can learn from professional athletes, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndulue, a professional basketball player who has played five seasons in the National Basketball Association. He played college basketball for Vanderbilt before being selected with the 30th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Festus! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Iwas raised in Nigeria until the age of 14 with two very supportive parents that sacrificed a lot to make sure myself and my siblings got the very best education. That education enabled me to see myself beyond the borders of Nigeria. So when my family decided to send me to America at a young age in search of more education and better opportunities, I was excited for the challenge. It wasn’t until I got here (to the USA), that I discovered the game of basketball. Initially, basketball was a tool for me to pay for college on my way to medical school, but I fell in love with the game and pursued that passion into the NBA.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
There were a couple of people I’d say who inspired me. My uncle took me in as a teenager and introduced me to the game of basketball. He took me to my first NBA game and essentially put the dream of playing basketball in my head. He enrolled me in high school to encourage me to learn to play ball with the school team. However, when I got cut from the team I felt like that dream was shattered. Then, Keith Odister came into my life. He became a mentor and father figure for me. He encouraged me to keep working hard and to never quit on myself even when everyone else does. He pushed me to play more, signed me up for AAU teams, got me a basketball trainer and treated me like a son. At that time, I really needed someone like Keith to believe in me. It really inspired me to have that father figure by my side. I worked myself to the bone with the vision of earning a full-ride scholarship to go to college. I ended up working my way into almost 40 different college scholarships! In addition to having the support of my parents, my uncle and Keith, I also had my college coaches Kevin Stallings, Dan Muller, King Rice, Thomas Richardson and college teammates. They all contributed to being very instrumental in helping me believe in my abilities. For example, my college coaches put me through so many tests and pushed me everyday to continually strive to improve. Similarly, my college teammates held me accountable everyday and made me want to more than anything contribute to the success of our team because of the love I had for them. Our success led to my success. So as you see, I am a true testament to the saying “it takes a village.” So many people played key roles in my journey to becoming a professional athlete.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many! However, I remember my mentor Keith Odister signing me up with my first basketball trainer in Reno, Nevada. His son Kyle and I were about the same age. Keith would drive us both from Sacramento, California to Reno, Nevada to workout with a professional basketball skills trainer. After the first workout, just 20 minutes in, I laid down on the floor and quit. Kyle tried to convince me to keep going with him but I didn’t feel like I could, I was exhausted. I still remember how tired Kyle looked but he kept going. I was looking at him thinking “he’s tired too but he’s still going… why am I so lazy?”. That was a terrible feeling but not as bad as how I felt on the drive back to Sacramento where I got chewed out by Keith. He reminded me about everything my former high school coach said about me when he cut me from the team. It stung to hear how lowly and comical he thought my trying out for the high school team was, given my lack of skill and knowledge of the game. On the other hand, as Keith was telling me this he reminded me how hard I would have to work to not let someone like that win or be proven right in their analysis of me. Since then, I have not given up or quit a workout.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
The mistake that I made and the mistake that a lot of people continue to make, is that they look to other people to help them make their dreams come true. I thought my high school coach would help me become a basketball player and so when I didn’t make the team, I thought it was a sign to give up on that dream. The truth is, your dream is very realistic and very possible but no one is going to bring it to you on a silver platter to help you manifest it. You have to realize that if it’s going to happen, you’re going to have to work on it. It’s on you.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
When you read about successful people, don’t just read the best parts of their story and their achievements. I think the part that’s most important to read about is what those people had to overcome to become successful. The tough times, perseverance and grit they endured to deal with those obstacles are really what make their stories great and are the values you should emulate.
Exciting projects I’m working on My main project is my rehabilitation back from an injury and returning to play basketball. I share my journey on Instagram with the handle “Rebuilding the beast”. I think the grit that people show when they face adversity can be inspiring for everyone. When we chase our dreams, there is usually a part of the journey where we stumble and fall but that is still exactly what it is, a part of the journey. When you fall and get up and continue to chase your dreams again and again, no matter the circumstances, that’s a story that everyone can relate with. I’m telling my story of recovering from an unprecedented injury to going back to play in the NBA but it could just as easily be recovering from the loss of a loved one or coming back from being sick, or losing your job. The idea is that we all face adversity at some point and are forced to begin a new journey to reinvent ourselves. There are so many people who are working through those rough patches and continuing to be resilient despite whatever they may be going through. My goal is to share my story and stories of others who are #RebuildingTheBeast in hopes of inspiring others on the same journey.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
I learned this three minute breathing technique from a breath specialist. First, you sit in a chair with your back straight. Focus on taking deep long breaths in and out, and let the breaths move your stomach up and down. It only takes three minutes for your body to relax and it even works in a high intense environment.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I started practicing meditation last year. The ability to control distractions and emotions, and not be affected by outside noises are very powerful tools you gain with consistent practice.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
Our diet is important in sports. What you put in, you usually get out. I try to consult with a nutritionist from time to time to make sure to test my vitamin and nutrient levels. Then, they adjust my diet based on whatever my goals are. Yoga has also become an important part of my routine. Stretching helps to loosen up our tight muscles, optimize our movements and contributes to preventing injuries.
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
Your actions make or break you. The idea is that if you do anything repeatedly for a long enough period of time, it becomes a habit. That habit, good or bad, plays a role in moving you towards your goals or away from them. I made it a habit to pay attention to details, work hard and give my all in whatever situations I found myself in (be it favorable or unfavorable). I believed and still believe that the harder I work, the higher my chances of success as opposed to my chances if I cut corners. I made remarkable improvements with my skills and because coaches and teammates could tell I was giving my all, they were also inclined to help me on my path as well. So yes, habits are really important, you should make sure you’re leaning on the right habits that will lead you to your goals.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
“Success leaves clues” They say the best way to form great habits is by watching and learning from successful people. After you find a list of things that work for them that you’d like to emulate, you have to understand it takes 21 days to form a habit. Taking that into consideration, my best advice is to start small. I think a lot of people are over ambitious and try to do a lot of things at once and this can easily be overwhelming. I’ve found that it’s best to start with one or two actions that you can be consistent with everyday. For example, I always say after every good workout or session, “another day, another dollar” because the idea is you add little by little and if you’re consistent with your deposit everyday, pretty soon you’ll have a lot of money saved. The approach goes for the little habits as they do for your game and if you focus this way, success is almost imminent. Pick a certain time of the day that you always do that thing and make sure it’s a time that’s not conflicting with anything else in your schedule. If you can add it to your routine, eventually it becomes a habit. As for bad habits, I think it’s best to replace them with new healthier ones. For example, I used to love cookies as a college athlete. However, after being drafted in the NBA the nutritionist pulled me away from that habit by helping me replace that craving with nuts (a healthier alternative). It’s not the same and it’s a choice I had to consciously make, but eventually I kicked those sugar cravings.
As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
Flow for an athlete can occur in the middle of the game. There’s no thinking, the athlete is able to operate at a high level based on instinct. My view on flow is that you can attain that state through hard work, repetition of game moves, watching film on games and through visualization of game scenarios. If you work hard and consistently enough, the game becomes second nature and you act more instinctively during it — as if without thinking.
Meditation practices? I meditate every morning for 10 minutes. I do it first thing in the morning to ground myself and take control of my thoughts for the day. I find that starting the day like this causes me to be more present throughout and in turn leads to a more positive and gratitude-filled day.
Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
I find positive affirmations to be a very effective tool in controlling your self talk. The human psyche is wired to find problems and innately moves towards the negative. Our job is to take control of our minds by pouring in positive thoughts and acting our way into feeling good. An example of this is smiling when you’re in a bad mood. Automatically you feel your way into a better state of mind just by doing that because you’re acting like you’re happy, so your mind adapts to that feeling.
Ok, we are nearly done. Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“You’ve been given this mountain to show others it can be moved” My father said this to me when I was struggling with some life events. It was a time when I felt overwhelmed and was beginning to feel sorry for myself. This quote gave me a feeling of responsibility to the problem. My mindset switched from “why me?” To “Try me!” It says you are chosen to deal with this problem because you are strong enough to deal with it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Barack Obama or Oprah.I think their journey and the obstacles they overcame to become successful are very inspiring. As African Americans they both continue to push the needle forward for Blacks in America. The grit and mental fortitude they’ve shown along with the class with which they carry themselves is something I would love to replicate.