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Mitchell Creek on stacking the days, consistency and EQ

Mitchell Creek is a professional basketball player for the South East Melbourne Phoenix in the NBL. His basketball journey has taken him all over the world, from the Brooklyn Nets in the US to the Guaynabo Mets in Puerto Rico and everywhere in between. Mitchell shares his stories from this journey and passes on some valuable insights into what it takes to consistently perform at the top level.

Recently you wrapped up a season in Puerto Rico playing for the Mets. Can you talk about what it was like playing over there in Puerto Rico compared to all the different leagues you’ve played in?

It was a very different experience because I was an import, rather than in the NBL in Australia where I’m the local player. It was my first time playing a whole season somewhere outside of Australia and it was definitely a whirlwind experience. I had an amazing time. We had a couple of head coaches. We had one head coach who was fired after about 10 days and another who was fired two weeks later. Then we had our third head coach who ended up being our coach for the whole season, Omar Gonzalez. OG was phenomenal. He ended up getting coach of the year. We got through to a semi-final, game seven, and then lost the game seven. It was just a great season, a beautiful country, the people were lovely, the food, all the sights to see, everything.

You reached the semifinal but actually started one-and-eight in that season. Obviously, you had a choppy start with different head coaches, but I want to know if there were particular strategies that you and the team implemented on and off the court to build that team chemistry and synergy?

It’s hard because a lot of people get it mixed up and think it’s just about talent, but it does come down to chemistry.  It does come down to asking yourself what’s the most important thing for this team at this time to be successful.

If everyone asks that question and genuinely cares about each other, then you have every chance to go and win a championship. But if you don’t have that and you just have talent, you’ll win some games, but you’ll lose a lot more. Playing in a new team on the other side of the world, with a lot of local guys and a lot of international people, it is very hard for people to buy into that team culture – the fact that maybe I have to give up a little bit right now for our team to be more successful. We really struggled with a one-and-eight start obviously, but then we made a few changes and all accepted that if we keep playing the way we are, we’re going to suck, like seriously suck. Then we all did, we gave up a little bit of ourselves for each other, we played a beautiful brand of basketball, and after that, we were absolutely the hottest team in the league for the rest of the season.

It comes down to the quality of people you have, not just skill-wise, but personality-wise. Emotional intelligence. These things as a professional athlete which perhaps don’t seem as important skill sets to have but are actually the most important. They allow you to manage the game, your life, everything, as well as play good basketball and win together.

You have played all over the world in all these different cities, in the US, and in Europe, what’s it like settling into a new city with a new playing group that you’re unfamiliar with? How do you get back into those training and playing routines in a foreign city?

Once you settle into that routine, it becomes home. Like you said, I’ve played for 13 or 14 years professionally all around the world and when you get to that level of experience as a professional, you know what you need. You know what you need to eat, you know how you need to recover, and you know the balance. You can go out and have burgers, you can have a few beers, you can see your mates, you can do different things.

It’s about balance at the end of the day. If you have a good professional balance with a social life and time away from the game, then you’re going to be in a great space to play good basketball and let your body relax when it needs to.

I figured that out really well. Having someone there who understands you and cares for you as well is very important. Sometimes you’re traveling the world by yourself as an import and you may just have FaceTime and family. For some people that’s enough, but you need to figure out what you need. For anyone who is going to a new state, a new team, it’s about not trying to force your way in, but just assessing the situation, having some emotional intelligence to understand how you can create some new friendships, some new bonds, create some chemistry. Then you start to implement your game and some conversations and some feedback. Then it becomes a little more natural and an easier transition.

With so much experience now with new clubs, on an individual level, what are some strategies that you use to fit into a new playing group with a bunch of players that perhaps you don’t know?

Fitting into a new team can be very simple. It might just be grabbing someone before training and sitting next to them. Asking what kind of music they listen to or little conversations like that. Then asking genuine questions about family and hobbies, and little things like that start conversations. When you actually care about what someone listens to and who they are as a person, where they’re from, and what they enjoy in life, they’ll start asking questions. Then you slowly start to fit in. Then you go on court, you play hard, you start to get to work. You try to give them a little bit of feedback and you try to absorb feedback as well. It has to be a two-way street. I think that’s the best way to acclimate to a new situation with teammates.

I want to just talk a little bit about your experience in the NBA, which must have been an absolute dream for you, but you also at the time had to leave behind or put on hold a successful career in the NBL. Can you talk about any mentors that you’ve been able to turn to throughout your career to help you with big decisions like that?

It started with my mum and dad when I went to the Institute of Sport when I was 16 or 17. It was a big decision that I had to make. I said no the first time and then about six months later they ended up pushing me out the door a little bit and saying, if you don’t like it, come home. But if you don’t go, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. I remember just thinking, that’s a great way for me to approach an opportunity. And opportunities only come from hard work and consistency.

Now, when it comes to other decisions; Australian teams, state teams, national, NBL, NBA, it’s always been the same kind of people. I stay within my family circle. I’ve had two or three mentors in my time. Al Green in Adelaide helped me out in my younger days, Ken Cole who I’m still very close with, and Owen Hewin, my old coach. Joey Wright was somebody that I spent a lot of time talking to as well. These people are a consistent touch point for me when I need an answer about a situation and they have a plethora of answers, information, knowledge, and contacts that help me make a conscious decision.

When I went to the NBA, it was tough. I gave up a good role in Adelaide. But my attitude was – if I make it, great. If I don’t, it’s okay. I gave it a crack. A lot of people said I would never make it, never get close. There was a very, very small number that truly believed in me and thought I could do it. I was one of them. But it’s just about patience and persistence. Those are the two things that will hold you in good stead. That’s how I got a 10 day, and a second one, and then a third one, I got signed by another team.

Then I’m playing in the NBA and I’m guarding an MVP. I’m playing against Dwayne Wade in his last game. Dirk Nowitzki, Russell Westbrook, all these guys I’ve been watching on YouTube and TV for years, and now I’m playing against them. It’s a pretty surreal feeling to say, I ticked that box.

Once you realise you’re there, you realise it’s just begun. Initially, you think getting there is it. I’m there, let’s shut up shop and retire. But that’s when the work starts again. Your goals need to be, redefined, clear, written down, put in place, and then consciously thought of. Because if you don’t have that, your vision is unclear. I know I did all I could at the time. I know I’ve been trying to put myself in a great position ever since and to play great basketball no matter where I am, and that’s my main focus now.

Stepping onto the court, you had those free throws to shoot, how did you handle those nerves with two shots to shoot?

It was my first night and coach had said to me don’t worry about even warming up really just take it all in just enjoy this. You’re an NBA player now. You’re not going to play tonight. We’ll switch up in two days against Boston. Someone gets hurt on a free throw and the rule is the opposing team picks the player to shoot the free throws. They picked me knowing that I was fresh in the NBA and sitting there not expecting to play. Then I went up and my first one I didn’t think at all it was going to go in. I didn’t think both were going to go in. I was that nervous. You’re holding the ball, it feels like a watermelon, not a basketball. You’re shaking. I tried to bend my knees and my hands and I couldn’t really feel anything. I clanked the first one and I knew the fans were getting a bit razzed up because they knew it was my first night. It was nerve-wracking. I made the second one and ran back thinking, how good’s this? I’m going to play heaps. And then the coach just says come on over here, mate. Sit back down. This is where you sit the rest of the night. But that for me was my first ever taste of the NBA. And to know that I officially scored a point in the NBA, that alone would have been more than enough. I was just over the moon to be there, but knew that I had a lot of work to do once I got there.

What about guarding those superstars you were listing off before? How were the nerves there, or how did you manage that surreal feeling of having to guard Russell Westbrook and Dwayne Wade and all these absolute superstars in the league that you might have idolised growing up?

At first, you look and think, far out, that’s Giannis. I remember the coach said don’t let him dunk, that’s it. Don’t let him get in the paint, don’t let him dunk. First two plays of the game, he dunked twice. Timeout, 50 seconds into the game and we all got rinsed. I was sitting on the bench and about five minutes later they put me in and they said, how are you guarding Giannis? At first, it was a bit of a shock but then you just go into playing basketball. I back myself against most people and I’m happy to get my ass kicked time and time again and walk out of there with my head held high saying I gave it everything.

I was willing to be knocked down throughout my whole life over and over again because I knew that was the way I was going to be shaped into the player I am today and the person I want to become. Without the hard parts of basketball and life I would never be in the position that I am today. If I had it easy, I would never have got this far.

I wouldn’t have put in as much work. There are a lot of things that wouldn’t have worked in my favor, and I’m glad I did it this way because I’m proud of who I am today and I’m proud of the basketball I get to play.

And representing Australia must have been a childhood dream, what was it like suiting up for the Boomers for the first time?

Amazing. We were in Lebanon for the Asia Cup. I had my name read out in front of the coaching panel and I couldn’t believe it. I burst into tears. Then I called my family and started crying again and they were upset and we were just so happy because to play for your country is everything. I think a lot of Australians would say this – they’d rather win a medal at an Olympic Games than win an NBA championship. I definitely agree with that. It’s such a prestigious moment to wear your name on a green and gold jersey and to become a part of history. The first time is always the best. Sitting there, looking at your jersey for hours on end. I’m thankful to be a part of it at some point in the past. If I get to be a part of it again, that would be incredible.

You’re a huge advocate for mental health and having those important conversations. When you think back on your career so far, what do you think has been fundamental for you personally to manage the highs and lows of professional sport?

Remember who you are and where you’re from. A lot of people tend to forget memories of when they were a child with their families. In high-pressure situations or moments where I’m really struggling mentally, I try and think back to when I was a teenager, a kid, with my sisters, with my mum and dad, with my best friends, that’s where I try and go back to. Because those were times where the world wasn’t really the world, it was just a playground.

I try and think whatever it is in front of me right now, it’ll pass. But I have to be open about how I’m feeling and then understand what am I feeling, and why. Is it an action that I have caused? Is it an action that someone else has brought upon me? Or is it something that doesn’t even involve me, but I’m involving myself in it, and do I need to be doing that?

I’ve always tried to stay really close with my family. It’s about having honest conversations with them first because they’ll always give me an honest answer. Whether I like it or not, they’ll tell me, this is A, B, and C, this is black and white. So I really urge people to have a conversation and trust that whoever it is in their life that they feel like they maybe can’t speak to, because you can speak to them.

I’ve seen a professional on and off the last couple of years. It’s not weak to ask for help. It’s not weak to speak up, whether you’re a male or female. It doesn’t matter what the statistics say. If men have a higher rate of suicide, or whatever that stat is. It doesn’t discount or discredit anyone who’s going through a tough time. So, for me, when I’m struggling, I tell my family, I tell my loved ones, I tell my partner, and I have honest conversations.

You’re the captain of the Melbourne Phoenix – were there any players that you’ve played with or played under who you’ve modeled your leadership style on? Or is that something that you’ve developed on your own?

I think I’m still learning how to be a good leader. I think I’m great in some aspects. Others I can always continue to put work into. I still speak with a sports psychologist about what I need to be doing and how I can be better. I have honest conversations with the coaching staff, assistants, and teammates. So it all depends on what kind of leader you want to be. You can be a leader who says nothing and just leads by example or you could be a leader that says a bit more and maybe doesn’t get to play as much. I definitely know a lot of players who have had both hats on.

I think that’s where now for me, it’s helping other people become good leaders. Part of your leadership is pointing your teammates and other people in the right direction so they can become leaders as well.

With so much experience so far throughout your career, if you’re looking back at an 18-year-old Mitchell Creek entering the league with the Adelaide 36ers, what advice would you give him around planning, communication and self-love?

If I had planned my days, my weeks, and short-term goals a lot clearer, it would have allowed me to have had an opportunity to be more successful. It doesn’t always mean you’re gonna make more money or whatever else, but it just gives you an opportunity and all we want in this world is an opportunity. If we get that, great, try and take it. If it doesn’t work, guess what? We go back and keep working. Communication. I would have learned how to speak, understand, and listen at a much higher level earlier on. If I had had those two, it would have given me a different path moving forward.

You can book a basketball coaching session with Mitch Creek here: Train with Mitch

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