Delle Donne’s first coach, her father, approached basketball with a healthy understanding of biochemistry and physics. Why sit by yourself and ruminate when there are analytics available, proven drills to solve whatever ails you on the basketball court? Why empty your mind when there’s always another opponent to scout?
“ ‘Eh, that’s weird,’ ” Delle Donne said, flip as could be, describing her attitude toward the mental exercises the Mystics’ sports psychologist introduced when she first got to Washington. “ ‘That doesn’t sound like me, I don’t do yoga, I don’t think I’d be into it.’ ”
Still, if it could help her basketball, Delle Donne will try anything once. She’s unusually open-minded for an established superstar, her teammates say, so she gave regular meditation an earnest shot starting in the middle of the 2018 season, and eventually, she felt calmer. Then she started feeling more in control on the basketball court. Then she became a devotee, practicing 10 minutes a day, as if she was staying after practice to swish a few free throws.
Of the myriad tiny tweaks Delle Donne makes to continue pushing her game forward in her seventh year in the league, it turns out that tending to the mental side of the game paid the biggest dividends.
This season, Delle Donne is averaging 19.5 points — second in the league, but well below her career high of 23.4 in 2015, when she won her first MVP award with the Chicago Sky — and 8.3 rebounds. But it was how she scored, not necessarily how much, that impressed. At 30 years old, she became the first WNBA player to sustain at least 50 percent shooting from the field (51.5 percent), 40 percent shooting on three-pointers (43 percent) and 90 percent on free throws (97.4 percent) for an entire regular season. This summer, she became the second-fastest player to reach 3,500 career points following Diana Taurasi.
More important, she led the Mystics to the best regular season in franchise history and the top seed in the WNBA playoffs. They hold a 1-0 lead in their best-of-five- semifinal series against the Las Vegas Aces heading into Thursday night’s game in Washington.
“It’s probably the biggest difference this year, my commitment to meditation and mindfulness,” Delle Donne said. “I feel like I’ve just been so much more aware of my emotions and my thoughts. I’ve been able to refocus, re-center, change the story.”
Delle Donne’s commitment to improvement, however, was neither strictly focused on the mental game nor new to Delle Donne.
In the first serious conversation Delle Donne had with the Mystics after she told the Chicago Sky she wanted a trade following the 2016 season, she grilled Washington Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault for 30 minutes about the tools his franchise had to help Delle Donne get better. Never mind that she was already a three-time WNBA all-star game starter, a former MVP and an Olympic gold medalist.
“She asked us questions about all the periphery stuff, about sports psychology and weightlifting and facilities, what the coaching staff was like, individual work in the offseason,” Thibault said. “I think I was really honest with her about what I thought she could get better at and how we could use her in different ways, we could expand the skills she had. We told her we thought she could get a lot better as a defender. If she wanted to be the best player in the game, she had an upside in a lot of different things.”
Delle Donne is the rare player who doesn’t play overseas during the WNBA offseason, in large part to stay close to her family home in Delaware and her older sister Lizzie, who was born blind and deaf, with autism and cerebral palsy and communicates only through touch and scent.
When her Mystics teammates head abroad to supplement their incomes, Delle Donne takes advantage of all Washington has to offer. She starts every offseason by sitting down with Mike Thibault and his son Eric, the Mystics’ associate head coach, to plot ways to get better.
Improving Delle Donne’s defense has been a task that’s spanned multiple offseasons. This year, while rehabbing a bone bruise in her left knee, the 6-foot-4 guard-forward spent all winter watching hours of film with Eric Thibault to develop better defensive timing when guarding smaller players. Two years ago, the focus was more targeted: Delle Donne slouches naturally, so she put in hours in the weight room working on her posture.
“To play good defense, you don’t want to be leaning forward all the time,” Thibault said.
Aside from her mental strength, Delle Donne believes that her defense has probably improved more than any other skill since she joined Washington. This season, she has been put to work defending shooting guards and centers alike. Her 8.3 rebounds per game nearly matches her career-best of 8.4 during her previous MVP season.
“She’s that talented, she came in the league that talented,” Las Vegas Aces Coach Bill Laimbeer said when asked about Delle Donne’s MVP award. “Okay, she’s been that kind of player her whole life, so what changed? She had to learn a little bit more about the WNBA and how big and physical they are, she’s learned to be a better post player than she was in the past. You used to just switch on her and that was the end of it.”
'I'm so much more calm'
Delle Donne was always willing to do the on-court work required to get better, but minding her brain came less naturally.
Stu Singer, the Mystics’ sports psychologist the past five years, leads the team in regular “mind-set workouts” — a term that describes mental exercises designed to help players deal with stress and teach them how to change poor habits. Delle Donne had always found the sessions helpful but wasn’t a believer until the middle of last season, when she dedicated herself to daily meditation and working with Singer more intensely.
She wasn’t trying to fix a problem; she was simply curious about the benefits of trying something new.
“She’s one of those people that’s driven to be great, and when you’re driven to be great, you keep working on things,” Thibault said.
Singer helped Delle Donne learn how to make in-game mental adjustments.
“The overthinking is that voice of perfection, that voice of, ‘I didn’t do it right,’ and then we get stuck in replaying what just happened if it wasn’t good, or we get stuck in predicting, ‘Oh, I missed my first few shots, that means I’m not going to make anymore tonight,’” Singer said. “If you’re in those spaces, that’s where anxiety lives. So what we’re trying to teach is staying present — how do you miss a shot, how do you have a bad foul call on you and regroup, become highly aware of where your emotions and thoughts are right now, and if those aren’t helping you, how do you re-adjust? … The impact that it has is, in the middle of the game, she can recalibrate in different moments.”
Delle Donne has incorporated the basic principles of meditation in that she focuses on her breath to collect herself.
“I’m so much more calm. I don’t let the moment get away from me or something be too big or something bother me for too long,” Delle Donne said. “I was good at hiding it. I’m never one to vocalize things or try to show anybody my emotions, that’s always been something, like, nobody should see how I’m feeling. Especially the opponent, I don’t want them to know if they were getting at me, but mentally, sometimes they were. Now, I truly — you’re going to have moments where there are ups and downs, but I can really stay present. It’s been awesome.”
Having better mastery of her emotions has also helped Delle Donne’s leadership with the Mystics. Every player on the team has mentioned throughout the season how the MVP has become more vocal, although that doesn’t mean she’s screaming in practice. Delle Donne does occasionally raise her voice in the huddle — and when she does, her teammates know to listen — but often, she takes a player aside to dole out a pointer or two in private.
Part of her more noticeable leadership is that she’s simply more comfortable with this close-knit Mystics group than she was when she first entered the locker room in 2017. For her 30th birthday party, she invited the entire team for a boat party, Thibault included. She’s close with Tianna Hawkins’s young son. Reserve guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough calls her (and Kristi Toliver) “my daughters.”
For Delle Donne, a second MVP trophy isn’t just a reward for the work she constantly does to keep improving, it’s meaningful because she won it with a team she loves and a franchise that wanted to help her evolve.
“This is my family; I love it here,” Delle Donne said. “I feel like this [MVP award] would mean even more, because it’s been different. It’s not just scoring a ton of points, I’ve been able to make others better and impact the game in different ways, I feel like I’ve become such a smarter player. And that’s because of being with Coach [Thibault] for three years and learning so much from him, and being on a team that’s so selfless and truly loves each other and has loved this process.”