NCAA Basketball and Criminal Freedom

Watching the VCU Rams basketball team beat the U of K Jayhawks to enter the NCAA final four is a great example of the many character traits required for criminal freedom.  The NCAA tournament is a long, hard series of games that results in one team beating every team they play on their path to the national collegiate championship.  Key traits that have led the VCU team to the final four include:

  • persistence
  • stamina and effort
  • leadership

Persistence is a word that has described the VCU team since its first round one win.  The team was initially derided by announcers for even being chosen to participate in the NCAA tournament.  Other teams were seen as more worthy of the selection and they were continually expected to fail in each of their successive games.  In a similar way, people searching for sobriety and criminal freedom must engender dogged persistence to remain on the straight and narrow path of responsible living.  Ex-offenders are often expected to fail in their attempts to live responsibly.  They face numerous obstacles to employment and sobriety and usually return to the same environment where they face all the problems they left when incarcerated.  Persistence in the face of criticism, reduced expectations and even name-calling can be used as a source of positive motivation like it has for VCU.  The attitude of ‘doing whatever it takes’ to win the game, or remain crime free, is the driving force to success.

Stamina and effort are also hallmarks of successful NCAA teams.  When facing bigger and more experienced teams, VCU has had to exert and sustain extreme amounts of effort to achieve their current ranking.  By contrast, criminal thinkers typically quit at the first sign of failure which is an example of the thinking error “Lack of Effort.”  Criminal thinkers lack effort for anything that is boring or disagreeable.  Putting in the intense hours of practice required of a collegiate team while still maintaining college level coursework is a testament to the stamina and effort required for success.  Similarly, job searching, staying sober and following through with responsibilities and retribution will also feel like a herculean effort for the changing person.  Maintaining a focus on the long term goal of positive living, which is a metaphorical parallel to the national championship, can help the ex-addict and/or offender make the choices needed for the day to remain drug and crime free.

Leadership to a criminal thinker means power and control.  It means getting what they want at the expense of others.  True leadership, as demonstrated by NCAA teams, means trusting others to make decisions and providing feedback so that the team will benefit.  VCU coach Shaka Smart was asked by an analyst why he didn’t call time outs more often especially when the other team started to make a run of points.  He said he trusted the decision-making ability of his team.  Good coaches, good leaders and good teammates provide timely feedback to people they lead.  They don’t pretend to have all the answers and they consistently defer personal praise to their team.  They would rather pass the ball to make an assisted score than try to shoot every time they get the chance.

Life lessons for criminal freedom can be gleaned from every day events and even March madness.

Closed Channel Thinking

The essence of criminal thinking is the closed channel.  Criminal thinkers are closed off from being receptive, are closed to any interest in being self-critical and also shut down from disclosing the truth about their destructive behavior.  These three components of criminal thinking must be replaced with their natural corollaries, i.e. receptivity,  self-criticism and self disclosure.

Receptivity is being open and responsive to ideas, impressions and suggestions.  When a responsible person makes a suggestion about changing a bad habit or doing something that is positive, the recovering person must listen intently to what is being suggested.  They should practice active listening skills which have deteriorated with their destructive thinking patterns.  Active listening is listening to the message without interruption, clarifying the content of the message, restating what the person said to ensure you understand the message and being aware of your feelings and the sender’s feelings.  Changing criminals and even addicts must realize that they do not have the solution to their problems and must rely on responsible others for guidance, correction, and advice.

Self-criticism is pointing out the faults in your own behavior and thinking.  Criminal thinkers are skilled at pointing out the faults of others, but continually fail to see the harm in their own behavior.  An excellent exercise to promote positive change is to look at the role you play in every negative situation that has happened during the week.  What could you have done differently or thought differently to prevent the negative outcome.  Even in situations where the criminal thinker is truly victimized, they should focus on the lifestyle of crime, drugs or victimization that has allowed them to be victimized themselves. There are always people who have experienced more harsh conditions and life problems than ours, and still made positive choices that didn’t involve drugs, crime or abusing others.

Self-disclosure is another area of extremes for the criminal thinker.  Criminal thinkers relate minimal information about themselves and only do so when they can use that self-disclosure to take advantage of someone.  They gather information about others but don’t talk about themselves.  For true change to occur the changing criminal must begin to share their distorted thinking with people who can help correct their distortions and thinking tactics.  They are wise to take the advice of the 4th Step of AA which suggests that addicts “take a searching and fearless moral inventory” but they cannot do this by themselves.  Their distorted thinking will no doubt make the search superficial and less than fearful!

Access our free “Closed Channel Thinking” worksheet on

The Ability to Respond

Stimulus Organism ResponseIn Psychology 101 class we learned about the the Pavlovian stimulus-response (S-R) theory.  When a particular stimulus is offered it will illicit a particular response. For example, when a stimulus, such as an opportunity to steal, is available to the criminal thinker they feel compelled to respond and take advantage of the opportunity.  The changing criminal will often say they just react to situations. They blame the victim for leaving items unattended.  They see their actions as disconnected from their thoughts.

The wonderful thing about the human psyche is the ability to think before we respond.  A theory offered by a psychologist named Clark Hull added an “O” to the S-R cycle.  In his theory “O” stands for Organism, i.e. Stimulus, Organism, Response, S-O-R.  When a stimulus is offered it must be processed through the ‘organism’ before a response is made.  The organism is you!  It’s your brain, your thoughts and your decision to make another choice.  Just because the criminal thinker has always responded to a situation negatively does not mean they have to in the future.  The entire field of cognitive-behavioral therapy is built upon the notion that we can think before we respond.  We are not animals that only salivate ever time they hear the food can opening.  We can condition ourselves to turn the other way when opportunities to use drugs or commit crimes present themselves.  The key to this change is becoming increasingly aware of what is going on in the area between stimulus and response. In criminal thinkers, distorted reasoning, blaming, minimizing, diverting attention and other games are played in the area before response.  Actively involving responsible people, mentors, counselors and therapists into our thought lives is they key to recognizing our thinking distortions and accepting the challenge to change.

When was the last time you reflected on a negative outcome and the role your thinking played in the situation?  When was the last time you changed your typical response to a challenging situation?  What could you have thought differently to change your response?

Reflection and Change

Reflection is a key component of change for the criminal thinker.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers nine different definitions for this word and several of them provide insight for persons seeking a positive change in their lives.  One of the first definitions of the word is “the production of an image by or as if by a mirror.”  This is an excellent definition of the role of change agents in the lives of offenders.  Many cognitive-behavioral counselors and therapists see their purpose as holding up a mirror to the victimizer that enters treatment.  Their job is to help abusers see the truth and consequences of their actions.  They succeed when they are able to build a sense of self-disgust in the client.  Criminal thinkers must develop a healthy sense of self-disgust for what they have done and what they have become.  Self-pity is self-defeating, but self-disgust motivates positive change.  Unless the criminal thinker can view themselves honestly in the mirror and experience the disgust that goes along with acknowledging the harm they have caused, they are bound to continue repeating patterns of violence and abuse while minimizing, blaming and distorting the truth of their actions.

The second relevant definition of the word “reflection” for the changing criminal is a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation.  The most common meditation criminal thinkers perform is the premeditated actions of planning and committing crimes.  Meditation on the ripple effect of those crimes is far from their thinking.  In order for change to occur the changing criminal must constantly check their motivations and thinking.  They must reflect on the decisions they made each day and identify all the times they used harmful thinking tactics which have become a habit in their lives.  Thinking tactics such as manipulation, controlling others, belittling, minimizing, distorting the truth and divert attention away from themselves must be identified and replaced with their natural opposites.   Instead of minimizing the harm that their actions caused, they should maximize it.  Instead of diverting attention away from themselves when held accountable, they should keep the focus on themselves to experience full accountability for their actions.

A radical approach to change is needed for radically distorted thinking that has resulted in countless victims, violence, and pain.

Selective Perception and Memory

Don't ForgetCriminal Thinkers are notorious for having selective perception.  They pay attention to the details that benefit and support their way of viewing the world.  They remember events and situations that justify their irresponsible and criminal behavior and discard and forget the central role that their decisions and lifestyle played in their current reality.

Memory is a curious thing.  Many of us think that we have poor memories, especially when we quickly forgot someone’s name that we just met.  We sometimes forget what were just about to do or where we put our dang keys!  However, our memories are filled with millions of facts, figures, emotions, and ideas that we can recall in an instant.  The key to thinking change is using the great capacity that resides in our memory.  A person seeking lasting change in their lives must begin to redefine the meaning attached to their memories.  They must continually reevaluate negative situations in their life and discover the role they played in causing the situation in the first place.  The criminal thinker continually uses the thinking error of “victimstance” to blame others for situations they caused themselves.  When the thought about blaming others enters their mind, they must immediately focus on what they could have done, and what they can still do, to prevent further injury and victimization to others as well as themselves.

Re-scripting (aka: rewriting) one’s memory will only happen through intentional, continuous practice.  A common practice among self-help groups is to take a moral inventory of one’s life daily.  For the changing criminal/addict or abuser, that means thinking back through ones day and remembering all the thoughts and situations where they blamed others for their negative feelings and situations.  Writing these situations down in a journal or notebook is an excellent way to literally re-script our thoughts and therefore our lives.  Our thoughts define our actions.  Our actions define our character.  Our character defines our life.

"An approach to the treatment of offenders which emphasizes the role of altering thinking patterns in bringing about change in an offender's life."