Positive reinforcement from James Thompson IV pushing Eastern Michigan

Within the study of human behavior, an area has emerged called positive psychology, which dovetails nicely with the development of psych student and dominator-in-training James Thompson IV.

Eastern Michigan’s 6-10 sophomore strives to realize his massive potential. In the process, he works toward the tenets of well-being contained in the psych acronym PERMA.

“I try to keep everything negative out of my head,” Thompson said, “and I try to replace everything with positive stuff. I keep trying to do that so I can be a better person and a better player.”

PERMA is shorthand for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments, all of which lead to what some psychologists define as a meaningful life.

Thompson, who can be seen when EMU plays Bowling Green Tuesday on ASN, battles negative reactions to adversity, whether due to losses, injury or sub-par performance. He is fully engaged in both his craft and in an academic pursuit that he hopes will lead to professional basketball and to work as a veterinarian.

Relationships with Eagles coach Rob Murphy and his teammates led a young man from Baton Rouge, La., to the unlikely destination of Ypsilanti, Mich. Thompson’s purpose, or meaning, is to contribute to the program’s upward trajectory, as well as self-improvement.

He has accomplished a great deal already, earning the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year in 2016. But his goals are mostly team oriented — a conference title and NCAA Tournament berth.

“He can be MAC Player of the Year, if he continues to put the work in,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, if he really gets stronger and understands how to play at a high level consistently, he’ll play in the NBA. If he understands how to be a Kenneth Faried type of player – high energy, rebounder, finisher, defender, shot blocker, shot alterer — he’ll have a chance to play at the highest level, and I’m sure he’ll have an opportunity to make money playing basketball.”

Thompson is a key figure for a team picked to win the MAC West Division. He averages a double-double (14.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and is the conference’s No. 3 rebounder. He leads the league in offensive rebounds at 4.8 per game, and according to numbers guru Ken Pomeroy is No. 1 in the nation in offensive rebound percentage.

Yet when he watches game video, he often sees missed opportunities for himself and his teammates – rebounds he might have grabbed, sequences he could have impacted.

“I realize that I really need to be dominant,” he said. “I’m supposed to be dominant, but I could be dominant getting offensive rebounds and stuff like that, and leading the team. I don’t have to be dominant just by scoring the ball every time. I know I can get the ball and pass it out to my shooters, or pass it to somebody cutting, and let them be dominant if (opponents) are going to double-team me.”

Indeed, Thompson adjusts to being a target, rather than just a role player, which he was a year ago.

“It becomes frustrating,” Murphy said, “when you’re used to playing one-on-one basketball for a year, and all of a sudden you don’t get clean touches. When that happens, that’s a credit to your game, that the No. 1 option on everyone’s scouting report is to stop you, so you have to find other ways to be impactful, and that’s rebounding, defending, running the floor. If you do those things, obviously the post game will open up and you’ll be able to score some, but that can’t be your sole focus.”

Thompson isn’t required to score, since the Eagles (9-6, 1-1 MAC) have a veteran squad with multiple options. Willie Mangum IV (16.7 ppg) and Ray Lee (15.5 ppg) are also double-figure scorers, and five other players average between 4.5 and 10 points per game for the MAC’s No. 2 scoring team (83.8 ppg).

“I feel like I should be doing more for the team, to lead us,” Thompson said. “I should be connecting the team more on the court, keeping us together. I feel like I should be more of that vocal leader to keep everybody positive throughout the game, no matter what’s going on.”

Murphy sensed that Thompson was a special talent, and person, when they met two years ago. He received a phone call on a Sunday afternoon from one of his coaching connections about an uncommitted big man attending prep school in Reno, Nevada. He said that he quickly researched Thompson, called his athletic director to inform him that he was hopping on a plane that day, apologized for the cost of the ticket, and met with Thompson that evening.

“We just hit it off,” Thompson said. “When I was sitting down thinking about what school I wanted to go to and what I wanted to do, I never thought I’d go where it was cold. But I felt like he would never do me wrong. I knew that he would always have my back throughout, no matter what happened.”

Said Murphy, “I was thankful that he believed in me and took a liking to me, and for our program to add such a good player always helps in recruiting other good players.”

The Eagles’ next step is attaining the goals they set, which are well within their reach. Thompson understands that he must help lead, in ways that don’t always show up on a box score.

“I know that the seniors and the veterans that we’ve got on the team would use my energy and it would create more positive stuff for the team from me,” he said. “If I stay positive, I feel like their energy would be positive, too, and it would just keep going throughout the whole team.”

Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer based in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. Follow him on Twitter at @FairbankOBX.

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