In this podcast (episode #511) and blog, I talk to author Eli Ihej about his new book, What Kobe Left Behind: The Playbook from an Extraordinary Life, what Kobe Bryant’s legacy can teach you about mental health and pursuing your purpose, how to become a champion in every area of your life, triumphing over adversity, and so much more!
Even if you are not a basketball or sports fan, the story of Kobe has so much to offer. Over his lifetime, he learned techniques, skills and habits that allowed him to transcend his past and become victorious inside and outside the sports world. These skills can help anyone become their best selves—they can help us do so much more with what we are given and enhance our lives in so many ways.
One major skill Kobe learned to master in his life was what I call the power of reconceptualization. If you have been following me for a while now, you know I speak about this mind management technique a lot—it is integral to the process of overcoming negative thinking patterns that impact our lives. At its core, reconceptualization means to rethink about something that is affecting us, or to think about it in a different way.
After someone has had an emotional experience and its intensity has dissipated, there is still energy associated with that experience that can do good or harm to them, depending on how they perceive the experience. If they try to think about the experience from a different perspective – like the viewpoint of a third party – they can change the emotional energy associated with that experience so that it can drive them in the right direction instead of the wrong one.
This is similar to speaking to a close friend or family member who you want to help recover from a traumatic event. While trying to understand their pain, you might guide them to approach the situation from a different perspective, allowing them to process their pain effectively. But what if you are the person who has experienced trauma, and you need help processing the pain? You can apply the same technique reflectively. First, you take the time to understand your feelings. Then, you try to view the situation from multiple perspectives to find a viewpoint that allows you to process the experience in a meaningful and productive way. This is the core of my Neurocycle mind-management process, and it was also the core of Kobe Bryant’s success recipe for decades.
Kobe learned that all his experiences, both good and bad, were energy that he could use to his advantage by shifting his thinking. He figured out that looking at things from a different perspective allowed him to process what happened in a way that could fuel his success in life. Then nothing could hold him back—when bad things happened to him, he could use them as stepping stones to his next victory.
The key thing here is to be confident in your own abilities. From childhood, Kobe took what people said about him and used that energy to motivate him. He knew that the more successful you are, the more hate you are going to get—and you can use this negative energy to inspire and motivate you to be better through reconceptualizing what people say about you. At the end of the day, Kobe understood that people do not know how much effort you have put in to building up your skill set and how hard you have been working to succeed in life, and they will judge you by the small slice of your life they do see. Rather than letting that bring him down, he took those experiences as opportunities to prove his detractors wrong and transformed them into fuel to drive his life in the direction he wanted it to go, because he believed in himself—he knew that he could be great one day.
That is not to say Kobe was without his faults. Every basketball fan will tell you that Kobe was known as a selfish player for a large part of his career, which was largely based on the way he was raised. Isolated and without a stable community for much of his younger years, basketball became his identity, and anyone who challenged that became the “enemy”. This often put Kobe at odds with his teammates in his early days as a professional player, and he had to learn the hard way that just focusing on his own success wasn’t helping him or his fellow players be as successful as they could be.
This was when Kobe discovered the power of empathy, and how it was another tool in his life he could harness for success. He recognized that empathy did not mean just lying down and letting other people walk all over you or giving people what they want when they throw a tantrum. Rather, it is understanding other people’s feelings and what they are going through. Empathy taught Kobe that he needed to look at each person as an individual, and not take a one-size-fits-all approach to his teammates if he wanted them to truly succeed in the NBA. By doing this, he was able to elevate all of them, helping them become the best versions of themselves and leading them to higher levels of success.
But this was a skill Kobe used off the court as well. He understood that empathy was an intrinsic part of life—it was about learning to trust others and build a community. He learned that opening up about his own struggles while acknowledging that other people have their burdens and scars as well helped him be a better team player and a bigger part of his community outside of his professional life. Empathy was not a weakness—it was a strength.
Another life lesson that played a huge role in Kobe’s success was learning early on that, regardless of what happens to you, you can and rewrite your own narrative. A major part of this was learning how to respond instead of just reacting to what life throws your way, and not allowing the label of “victim” to disempower you from taking back control over your life.
Of course, people do hurt other people, and it’s important to acknowledge when that happens to us and not suppress our pain. But it is equally important to recognize that what happened in the past doesn’t have to govern our future. How we choose to respond to what happens to us can change the way our past plays out in our present and future.
Empathy also helped Kobe recover from one of the darkest periods of his life. His humility and willingness to publicly apologize to people he wronged – both inside and outside of his family – gave him the opportunity for redemption after sexual assault charges against him were withdrawn in 2004. By focusing on the emotional pain of those around him, he understood the value of making amends, and it allowed him to rise above his worst mistakes instead of being defined by them. His example is a reminder to us that sometimes the best thing we can do for our mental health is to say, “I’m sorry.”
Another key aspect of Kobe’s career as a player and after he retired was harnessing the power of meditation to focus his mind. Like exercising the body, Kobe found that exercising his mind made it a lot easier to center his attention when needed, which turned him into a better player and teammate.
Kobe’s work with kids’ sports and his role as a father also revealed a mental technique everyone should use: visualization. He realized that children do so much better in sports (and in life) when encouraged to use their imagination and creativity to play; from his perspective, we need to let children be themselves and have fun instead of forcing them to do things perfectly. As Kobe noted when coaching his daughter Gianna’s basketball team,
“I encourage my players to focus on visualization just as much as athleticism. Visualization combines concentration, imagination and belief. Concentration is the ability to think about a single thing or task without internal or external interruption; imagination is the creative ability to see yourself in a wide range of situations and envision how you’d navigate them; belief is unshakable confidence in your own abilities. These qualities are crucial to success in sports.”
Visualization for Kobe was about so much more than just imagining what you wanted to happen; it was about believing that it could happen and pouring your mental energy into the task at hand—an invaluable skill for people of all ages, in every area of life.
Kobe also found that having a visual or musical cue to help stimulate his mind and help him visualize what he wanted to accomplish was key to his success on and off the court. Whether it was his “Black Mamba” mentality inspired by the Kill Bill films or using movie theme songs to “get in the zone,” Kobe was able to harness these cues and use his mental and physical energy to visualize his success, combining the skills of concentration, imagination and belief that he used to later coach children’s sports.
As many basketball fans remember his extraordinary life and untimely death, Kobe Bryant’s legacy is about so much more than how great a basketball player he was. We should use the life lessons he experienced and shared to unlock our own potential and write our own stories of greatness.
For more on becoming a champion on and off the court, listen to my podcast with Eli (episode #511) and check out his amazing book. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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1:00 Eli’s new book What Kobe Left Behind
4:00, 35:00 The power of reconceptualization & how to use it to succeed in life
10:14 The importance of being confident in your own abilities
16:00 Kobe’s early days & what he learned about empathy
28:38 Moving beyond being a victim & taking responsibility for your life
31:10 Kobe’s incredible impact on women’s sports
39:30 Why it is important to understand that we are all different
42:00 The power of meditation
45:00, 50:50 Kobe’s passion for helping children succeed & the importance of visualization
56:00 Why Eli wrote his book
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