The Q&A: Bob Delaney and Dr. Joel Fish on coping with uncertainty of coronavirus pandemic

Longtime NBA referee, renown sports psychologist outline game plan for navigating crisis

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com

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Apr 8, 2020 10:12 AM ET

Former NBA referee Bob Delaney (right) speaks with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Imagine you’re about to ride on the world’s most amazing roller coaster, and savoring every moment. From the long line that lets you watch as your excitement grows, to getting buckled in, to the slow crawl to the top, finally to the incredible plummet and manic twists and turns.

Now imagine someone jamming an iron bar in the gears.

That’s the metaphor Bob Delaney and Dr. Joel Fish use in a new article that looks at the abrupt halt in our lives due to the coronavirus pandemic. And offers a game plan for getting through it.

Life has its ups and downs but there typically is a rhythm to it, something that can be anticipated and dealt with. But this? All new with little to prepare us, throwing up challenges that don’t play favorites in terms of NBA players, coaches, staff or fans.

If the virus represents a threat to our health and the shuttering of businesses and widespread unemployed represent threats to our wallets and futures, this particular strategy of sheltering-in-place poses some emotional and psychological threats of its own.

Delaney is a former NBA referee of 25 seasons and an officiating supervisor for four more. He bookended his hoops career at the front by working as an undercover New Jersey state trooper and at the back as an expert and consultant in post-traumatic stress disorder. He was the 2020 winner of the NCAA’s President Teddy Roosevelt Award.

Dr. Fish is a psychologist specializing in sports for the past 25 years, working with athletes of all ages and levels of play. Based in Philadelphia, he has consulted with the 76ers, the NHL Flyers, baseball’s Phillies, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and many others. He has consulted with college and university sports programs, and speaks nationally on the topic.

Their piece has appeared in the past two weeks on the TAPS web site (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) focusing on Armed Forces families and on Referee.com. It sprang from a chance meeting early last month in Nashville – both were there for the SEC basketball tournament, until it got cancelled along with the NCAA’s “March Madness.”

As they talked, they came up with the rough outline for the article, “The Game of Life,” designed to help people cope with some sudden and relentless issues stemming from COVID-19 concerns. It delves into the trauma and stresses of this particular crisis, identifying the cumulative effects as the lockdown of commerce and normal daily life heads toward a second month. And it offers a series of steps – A Game Plan – that might help individuals deal with so much upheaval and separation.

Delaney and Fish spoke this week in a three-way call with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner to discuss elements in their analysis and game plan. As NBA stars slip out of shape and fans ache for live sports and a return to normalcy, Delaney and Fish’s article offers some ways to cope, maybe even thrive.

(Editor's Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited).

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NBA.com: Before you lay out your actual game plan for navigating this crisis, you talk about the idea that for many, “we are what we do.” Considering how many people were suddenly sidelined from jobs and roles in society, what might they face along those lines?

Bob Delaney: I first heard those words from [motivational author and corporate coach] Bob Moawad, whom I met courtside at a game in Seattle back in the day. He would whistle, loudly, while the game was going on. I told him, “You have to stop.” And I said, “Rather than you and I going back and forth, why don’t we get together for dinner one time when I’m up here?” I was intrigued by his insights. We developed a friendship.

He underlined the words at that first dinner we had. He said, “You’re not ‘Bob Delaney, NBA referee.’ You’re ‘Bob Delaney who happens to be a referee.’ You’re not ‘Bob Delaney, retired state trooper.’” All of us in our lives put that title next to our names. And while it’s important, we have to remember it’s not who we are, it’s what we do. I think it’s important in so many ways, because when we get stripped of that, whether it’s by retirement or being fired or being sidelined because of the coronavirus, that has a psychological impact.

Joel Fish: It reminds me of dealing with an NBA guy last year who was injured badly enough, it could have been career-ending. He was in his seventh year, I think, and he said, “If you asked me the first day I came into the NBA, ‘Who are you?’ I would have said, ‘I’m John Smith, a basketball player.’ But during the last seven years, I’ve used the NBA as a chance to learn about myself and network and develop other relationships. Now I’d say ‘I’m John Smith, who likes to play basketball.’” You hear the difference. He had grown, he had changed, he had matured. He’s someone who might not be able to play basketball again, but he’s much better positioned to move onto the next phase of his life.

Bob Delaney (left) was an NBA referee for 25 seasons.

How might this apply during the virus crisis to NBA players and coaches, who are sports people and celebrities? Their sport is shut down. And celebrities seem to matter a lot less when everyone is facing this threat.

JF: It’s just that our rhythms have been thrown so out of whack here. You’re going 100 miles per hour in your season and then having the brakes slammed on and you’re going 0 miles per hour.

We’re all experiencing it. We may be used to being home a certain number of hours and then working certain hours. Now we may be with our significant person 24/7. Or an athlete has worked out a relationship in being a parent, being a spouse – all of a sudden that unique rhythm has been thrown upside down. The same thing with a coach. How do we develop positive coping mechanisms to deal with those feelings, as opposed to negative ones?

We’re at a point now in hunkering down where, according to your paper, we’re liable to see or engage in bad behavior, even destructive things that will only make this tougher.  

JF: That’s where I think we all sit now, as we enter Week 3 or 4 of this. When it comes to anxiety, depression, risky behaviors – drinking, drugs, food – it’s like a snowball going downhill. It gets bigger and bigger. So you might be able to tolerate it for one week, two weeks, being home 24/7. But Week 3, Week 4, I think we become more vulnerable to the frustration in our relationships. We can go from frustration to irritation to anger to rage.

As a way to cope with our free time, two cans of beer can become a six-pack. A six-pack can become six beers and hard liquor. A neighbor as I walked by said, “We’ve gained 20 pounds in the last three weeks because we’re just home eating.” … We have to be mindful that there is a cumulative effect of the emotions I’ve talked about. This is a time we need self-awareness and conversations.

You’ve noted how different this is from something like a storm or natural disaster, where the threat comes and goes in relatively short period of time. This is open-ended and “out there” somewhere. What effect does that have on people?

BD: When there’s no time frame. If we prepare for a hurricane that’s coming or fires in California, there’s a feeling of containment at some point and then 48 to 72 hours later, the sun’s out and people are reconstructing their lives. Without that, there’s the feeling of “I’ve lost control.”

JF: I think we’re wired where if we’re told, “It’s going to be four weeks, then there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” we can hang in there and do the right things for ourselves. But when there’s uncertainty, limbo, a lack of clarity, we’re not wired to respond to that.

The game plan that you two came up with, was that something generic one of you pulled out of a file drawer. Or did you brainstorm specifically for this?

JF: Bob and I had been friends for a long time. What emerged from our conversation [in Nashville] was the idea for our article. That we were entering uncharted territory. Based on our experiences, what could we offer people that would help them develop some certainty? We both were drawing from our experience in sports, where the goal is always to control what you can and let go what you can’t. What does it look like to be a great teammate in this time of uncertainty?

BD: I couldn’t imagine working undercover without knowing who the targets of the investigation were. Knowing the bad guys from the good guys. With this, we’re flying under the hood. We don’t see where the enemy is, but we know it’s there.

A Game Plan During The Global Pandemic
Develop a daily plan
Address emotional needs in a positive way
Recognize that change is difficult
Limit social media
Be open to trying new leisure time activities
Respect individual differences
Within a crisis there can be opportunity

In the steps you suggest, you have some fundamental stuff. Like developing a daily plan, to bring certainty into some part of your life.

BD: The daily plan was a conversation we had early, about actually writing down what you plan to do the next day. Maybe you don’t do it, but at least you had a plan. I even got to the point where I planned out what clothes I was going to wear, because I didn’t want to be in my pajamas at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

JF: To go back to sports, if you have a game plan, you’re going to feel more in control. If you feel more in control, you’re going to be more confident. If you’re more confident, you’re going to make better decisions.

You must be able to relate to that, Bob, from your officiating career.

BD: Calm confidence, in speaking with referees, allows for better decision-making. When a referee is excited or gets caught up in the intensity of the game, they need to push themselves below that to maintain a calm confidence. To me, Danny Crawford and Steve Javie were the two who were the best at that.

One decision you recommend is to limit our time on social media. Some of us live these days on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Can too much information be bad?

BD: What we’re interacting with is the virus, the market and the politics, to be honest. Because that’s what’s being pushed out by all media. No matter what channel we turn to, we’ve all become either the Yankees or the Mets. You root for one team or the other, but right now, this is about all of us. We know from being involved in sports, the teams that are great have that “we” attitude. 

Dr. Joel Fish has been a sport psychology consultant for the USA Women’s National Field Hockey and Soccer Team.

Finding that “we” on social media is a lot more rare than finding it in real relationships you have with family and friends. How do those help?

BD: You need a space of trust with another person to speak about your true feelings. With our families, though, you might put on even a stronger face. I heard this all the time from firefighters after 9/11 – they’d be on the pile for 12 hours a day, they’d get in the car and cry the entire way home, but when they walked in the house they’d put the face on to show strength because they didn’t want their families to be afraid. I think there’s a level of that that takes place in all our lives.

It’s OK to be vulnerable. We all like to think we can leap tall building in a single bound. I can handle this. And by having this game plan when the rhythm of life has been disrupted, we can create another rhythm that gives us discipline.

Some of the steps are skills to use today. Others – like “Be open to trying new leisure time activities” or “Recognize that change is difficult” – sound like things we can take with us into tomorrow.

JF: I believe at the interpersonal level, there is opportunity to learn more about ourselves and more about somebody else. Set goals for certain skills we can improve, especially things like patience, listening, empathy, compassion. Or even to be more assertive, to advocate more for ourselves in certain situations.

BD: I read a book many years ago called “Transitions: Making the Most of Life’s Changes” by William Bridges. A part I highlighted and read to myself quite often says, “Change is situational. Transition is psychological.” Understanding change is moving the furniture around. The actual transition is embracing the new look that has taken place.

Another 9/11 parallel.  

BD: We are not going to flip a switch after this and go back to what we were. This is changing us fundamentally. Embrace it. I said the same things to referees when the Replay Center was being put in: “Embrace the technology. It’s not going away.” If you fight it, you’re going to be left behind. So become knowledgeable about it and become welcoming to it.

We’re learning about some friends and family members on several new scales now, such as fear to bravado, risk aversion to risk tolerance, pessimism to optimism.

JF: I think positive thinking is a skill. You can either see that cup as half full or half empty. Many of us are worried, what if things get worse? But let’s take a chance to think, what if something good happens today? What if you were pleasantly surprised tomorrow, what might that be?

That fits with your suggestion to find opportunities during this shutdown, and carry them forward when we come out of it.

JF: I hope we’re able to hold onto some of the clarity we have now, so we don’t fall back into habits where we’re thinking “me vs. we” or taking things for granted and losing perspective on things.

We all have heard about the retired or injured player who says, “If I could play just one more game.” Or a fan who says, “If I could go to just one more game.” I just hope the leagues and the players and the fans are able to hold onto the perspective of how much sports means to our lives when it’s back.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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