Author and Basketball Pro John Willkom On The Mindset and Disciplines of Professional Athletes

An Interview With Chad Silverstein

Toughness: I don’t mean this in a physical sense, but in the sense that it’s easy to feel like a victim when things are hard. Being able to move forward, forgive, and exhibit resiliency is something I strive for daily.

In the world of sports, talent is abundant but individual greatness is defined by a unique mindset and steadfast discipline. In this series, we go one-on-one with athletes who raise the bar not just in skill, but in mental preparation and routine discipline. We’ll explore their thought processes and uncover the reasoning behind the specific habits that give them an edge. Prepare for a deep dive that could reshape how you approach discipline and mental resilience. This isn’t just about the game; it’s a blueprint for achieving peak performance in life. I had the honor of interviewing John Willkom.

John Willkom is a founder, 2x author, and former Division One basketball player. His first basketball book, Walk-On Warrior, is still the #1 ranked college basketball book on Amazon, despite being published in 2018.

John serves on various boards, is a proud husband and father of two daughters, and calls Minneapolis home.

Thanks for being part of this series. Let’s jump in and focus on your early years. Can you share who was your biggest influence when you were young and provide specific examples of what you learned from them that helped shape who you’ve become and how you live your life today?

I was fortunate to have older kids in my neighborhood, who were bigger, faster, and stronger than I was. From an early age, my ability to participate in neighborhood games was based on my ability to keep up with those kids.

When I got to 7th grade, I had a basketball coach who completely changed my athletic trajectory. He was all about getting more skilled and being in great shape. At the time, every practice was a shock to the system. But, as I got better and more fit, practicing became more fun for me. One thing that I think a lot of young people don’t fully understand is that you have to be in great shape to practice well. And it’s really hard to go from what I thought was “hard work” to a completely different level of conditioning. During that year, I learned that there is always another level. What one person thinks is the peak may be another’s baseline. Perspective is a powerful thing.

Staying on the topic of influence, who has been your biggest catalyst more recently and what can you share that you’ve learned from them that led you to making changes in your life?

My first boss out of college was a guy who went out of his way to teach me about business, building relationships, and doing the right thing. I stayed in touch with him over the years, as he was always someone I could trust.

A couple of months ago, he passed away suddenly, and I found out through a text message from his wife after he missed one of our calls. I still think about him often, and if I could sum up what he taught me, it would be this:

  1. Be fully present with others and give them your best.
  2. Don’t take tomorrow for granted.
  3. Enjoy the journey because time never stops.

Resilience is a hallmark of high performers, especially in the world of athletics. Could you share the hardest thing you experienced as an athlete, how you dealt with it, what you learned, and the overall impact it’s had in your life?

In my freshman year of college, we were playing in a holiday tournament against a good, senior-laden team. I was young, inexperienced, and had a hard time with the opposing team’s press. One mistake led to another and another. Couple that with fans on the road heckling you the entire game, and I left that contest questioning whether I belonged.

We had another game the next night. I had a strong suspicion that after my opening night performance, the chances of me playing were slim to none. How could my coach or teammates have any confidence in me? Towards the end of the first half, my coach turned, looked at me, and told me to sub in. My reaction was almost a “Are you talking to me? Really?” I nervously got up, checked in at the scorer’s table, and jogged onto the court at the next whistle.

At that moment, I took a look around and saw a packed gym full of fans. For whatever reason, it occurred to me that all these people were there to see me play. Maybe not me, personally. But, as a player on one of the two teams. They had paid money to come to that game.

All of the anxiety, pressure, and nerves instantly faded, and I just started to play. For the rest of that game, I played well, and I learned a valuable lesson about mindset and having a short memory. For the rest of my career, I’d remember that game, that realization, and the wisdom of understanding that things are never as bad as they seem.

Can you share the single most significant sports moment or achievement from your career and provide some context around why it’s your most significant highlight?

My most important sports moment probably occurred long after I was done playing. I had been keeping a journal as a player and would write down things that were meaningful to me at the time.

After college, life got busy, and eventually, I would find myself in a new city for my wife’s medical residency. As she trained to be a doctor and worked day and night, I kept thinking, “What can I do with all of this time that would be meaningful to me?”

After 13 years, I decided to revisit my own journey through basketball. I re-read the journal entries, some of which were laughable as an immature 18-year-old. Others, I sat there and thought, “It’s interesting that I felt that way then because I feel differently about that now.” A trip down memory lane eventually became a nightly practice of writing. Even as I wrote, I didn’t have a clear goal of writing a book. The writing, in itself, was meaningful to me and maybe therapeutic in a way.

As I neared the end of telling my story, I made the decision that I should share this with other people. It should be a book, not for my own ego, but for the simple fact that maybe young basketball players could benefit from my journey.

Walk-On Warrior was published in 2018 and has been a best-seller on Amazon ever since.

You’re clearly driven by a specific set of disciplines that guide you. Can you share your top five that you personally prioritize and how they influence your daily routine?

1. Growth: I’m a big believer that there is no finish line physically, mentally, or spiritually. It’s the journey that’s rewarding, and I try to focus on that.

2. Relationships: All of us have a story, and it’s shaped by the people we meet. Life’s best memories always have meaningful people in them.

3. Toughness: I don’t mean this in a physical sense, but in the sense that it’s easy to feel like a victim when things are hard. Being able to move forward, forgive, and exhibit resiliency is something I strive for daily.

4. Determination: People are turned off by hard things. Satisfaction, however, comes when you keep going despite the obstacles.

5. Faith: You need to believe that things are possible. Faith is that underlying belief that carries you through.

Nobody’s perfect. Share an instance where taking on too much served as a critical lesson that you learned from. What happened and how did you respond?

I’ve worked in the agency space for a long time, and we’ve all had projects where we’ve taken on more than we can handle. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more direct in expectation setting. Probably most importantly, I’m not afraid to make that phone call if something goes wrong mid-stream that is going to affect a timeline or deliverable.

Honest and open communication is a stress reliever in itself. It may sting a bit in the short term, but you’ll go to sleep each night knowing you did the right thing.

Discipline can be a solo endeavor, but successful people tend to “borrow” other people’s disciplines. Can you share some specific examples of some of your disciplines that your teammates have picked up and the difference it made for them?

There were always little things on the basketball court that were reflective of our program’s culture. Things like tucking in our jerseys, touching the line on sprints, and always being early to practice set the tone for everything that we did.

Off the court, upperclassmen would ask the younger guys about upcoming opponents. The answers were always right in our scouting reports, but it was a subtle way to ensure we were reading the reports.

Last, we had a culture of competing in every drill. Competition is a two-way street, meaning that I want the guys across from me to challenge me to the best of their ability. In certain programs, guys might let up in the weight room because they know a teammate is weaker, for example. Good teams will hold that guy accountable and challenge him, as opposed to giving a voice to those weaknesses.

Measuring discipline can be tricky. How do you track or assess how your discipline impacts your results? Do you track or keep a scorecard of any of your daily habits or disciplines?

We used to have a program called “Maximize the Day,” where we’d keep track of the extra work we did outside of practice. This could be ball handling, shooting, or extra time in the weight room. The point was that we were both challenging each other and holding ourselves accountable by having a chart posted in our locker room. It was one thing to do the extra work; it was another to make it public. Just having that there gave us all confidence that we were doing more than our opponents.

Ever found yourself at a crossroads, where your commitment to discipline clashed with other realities in your life, like team dynamics or short-term goals? How did you handle it and what was the outcome?

Absolutely. Imagine doing all of this stuff for basketball in a day and still going to class and finding time to study. Being a student-athlete requires a tremendous amount of planning and efficiency.

Reflecting on your athletic journey, what’s one thing you would go back and do differently if given the chance?

I would’ve enjoyed it more. With all of the hard work, pressure, and lack of free time, it was easy to forget about why you were playing. At its core, we all play sports because we love the game. Allowing that to shine through would be my advice to young athletes.

When it comes to pursuing the highest level in your sport, what valuable advice could you give someone that you wish someone would have told you?

Give it everything you have. There will always be something to fall back on when your sports career ends, but a lot of the players that I played with regret not applying themselves more when they had the opportunity.

If we were sitting together two years from now, looking back at the past 24 months, what specifically has to happen for you personally and professionally, for you to be happy with your results?

Ten years ago, I would’ve told you that my success would’ve been measured on performance. Today, it’s all about impact. I want to do great work for those that depend on me. I want to innovate in my industry. And I want to be a part of a community that cares about each other. Satisfaction for me is more about doing my best on a daily basis vs. external factors.

Finally, where can fans and fellow athletes follow your journey of talent and discipline?

You can find my books on Amazon:

Walk-On Warrior:

No Fear In The Arena:

My website:

This was great. Thanks for taking time for us to learn more about you and your business. We wish you continued success!

About the Interviewer: Chad Silverstein is an accomplished entrepreneur and visionary leader. He started his first company, Choice Recovery, Inc., while attending Ohio State University and grew it to become an industry outlier before selling the business after 25 successful years. With the launch of his second venture, [re]start, a career development platform, Chad aimed to help people find meaningful career opportunities. Under his leadership, his team was recognized as a “Top Workplace” award winner for over a decade, twice being ranked the #1 small and medium-sized business to work for in Central Ohio. Chad sold [re]start in 2023, enabling him to focus on building an online community of high-performing leaders and continuing to make a positive impact in people’s lives.