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Luka Garza’s inner game is turning him into a Hawkeye legend

Jon Darsee
Special to Hawk Central

Every conversation I’ve had about Iowa basketball this year sooner or later pivots to appreciation or even marvel at the tireless energy, zeal and passion Luka Garza brings to the game.

Throw in the story of the 9-pound cyst in his belly that required hours of surgery to remove, nearly jeopardizing his sophomore season and potentially risking his life, then add this spectacular season in which he skyrocketed to national attention and became the Big Ten Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and multiple National Player of the Year awards — suddenly we are talking the stuff of Iowa legend. 

And yet, there is another reason to lean in and pay attention. Perhaps the most admirable characteristic of Garza's approach is one that is available to all of us, at any stage in life. It’s what his father Frank calls the “inner game,” which has particular relevance during these days of disruption, uncertainty and fear.

In a recent interview with Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Mike Hlas, Luka Garza said, “I did a lot of visualizations and different things last year and through my whole career because my dad’s always been key on that.” Garza went on to say that after a bad stretch of games last year he asked his father to “ramp up the inner game” because “outside noise” was having a negative impact on him, leaving him feeling “nervous and antsy.” 

“When the noise around me was getting big,” Garza continued, “I felt I was letting it get to me. I thought it was hard for me to be consistent, especially at the level we are playing. I needed something.”

I can relate. Thirty-some years ago while struggling to live up to expectations playing professional basketball in Brazil, I started meditating. A hamstring injury severely limited my mobility and left me with few options.  Either figure out how to heal quickly, get shot up with some unknown substance that the Brazilian team doctor was recommending, or pack it in and head home.

In an act close to desperation, I chose to fumble through a book on hatha yoga (this was 1986, years before yoga studios became ubiquitous) and taught myself a routine to loosen up my leg enough to get through practice or games. It took me about an hour every day, working through poses alone in an empty spare bedroom. To overcome boredom, I toyed with breath control and meditation techniques.

My only goal was to get back on the court, yet this daily focus and discipline had an immediate impact. My play improved overnight. The game felt like it had slowed down, allowing me to see the court better and anticipate plays as they developed. My free-throw shooting jumped 10 percentage points. What started out as a tool to help me function on the basketball court opened my eyes to a playbook for how to live beyond basketball. 

The National Institute of Health website states, “Meditation is a mind-body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness and enhancing overall health and well-being.”  

Athletes have long sought an edge to the mental game, and more and more they are turning to meditation. Former University of Iowa All-American and NFL All-Pro kicker Nate Kaeding is one such example. He turned to meditation soon after arriving on campus because being the center of attention in front of 70,000 Kinnick Stadium fans before each extra point or field-goal attempt felt overwhelming.

“I needed a way to block out the crowd, to focus my mind on the process instead of the result, and an aid to help me lessen the sense of pressure,” Kaeding said. “Meditation was one of the tools I started using early in my career as a kicker that has expanded in my life as I’ve grown as a husband, father and businessman. I use it every day.” 

When I asked Frank Garza about his son’s transformation from his sophomore to junior year, he said, “It’s all about the inner game — from visualization, which I began teaching Luka as a boy — to meditation and breath control, which he really began to embrace last summer. That is the key to who he is today.

"If you asked me for a single reason why he became the player he did this year? It’s the inner game. His consistency, durability and performance are all directly related to that.” 

Frank Garza co-founded a business called Conscious Selling that provides sales training seminars built around the practical application of the inner game. Their client list includes A-list organizations such as LinkedIn and Salesforce, but Garza insists his real passion is teaching kids and young athletes to understand that making their inner life a priority will impact achievements in their outer life. 

“We started our youth program, called ELEVATE, to bring this knowledge and to build positive foundations for youth and young adults. Luka attended these programs growing up. Bottom line is this: What can be accomplished on purpose can’t be achieved by accident.  Luka is having this success because we went inside first. If you can conceive it in the mind, believe it in the heart, it will manifest on the outside.”

Frank crowed, “Let the peacock fly!” as Luka’s transformation this season became a metaphor and model for achieving heights folks don’t expect of you. Watching father and son, it’s easy to understand how it is Luka’s devotion to the inner game that sets him apart..

Jon Darsee, a regular Register contributor, was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. He now serves as chief innovation officer at the UI.

Jon Darsee