NBA

Meet the Mental Skills Coach Training Young NBA Stars

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What do Karl-Anthony Towns, Aaron Gordon, Andrew Wiggins, Ben Simmons, Zach LaVine, Marcus Smart, Stanley Johnson and Jaylen Brown have in common?

townswigginsinside1Yes, they were all lottery picks in the last three years. They are some of the NBA’s most talented up-and-coming prospects.

Wiggins, Towns and Simmons were the last three No. 1 overall draft picks. LaVine and Gordon have had success and put on a Slam Dunk Contest for the ages in February. Each player has a ton of potential, and some of the NBA’s next stars could emerge from this group.

However, these players have another common thread connecting them, albeit one that is lesser known: They are all clients of Graham Betchart.

Who is Graham Betchart, you ask? He’s a sports psychologist or, as he likes to be called, a “mental skills coach.” His impact is felt all over the NBA – as evidenced by his impressive client list – but very few fans know who he is since his work is done behind the scenes and doesn’t get much attention.

Betchart has a master’s degree in Sports Psychology and he’s been providing athletes with his services for over a decade. He’s very good at what he does, which is why some of the NBA’s brightest young stars feel comfortable opening up to him and sharing their insecurities, struggles and fears.

In addition to the players mentioned above, Betchart has worked with many other NBA players such as Festus Ezeli, Patrick McCaw, John Jenkins, Skal Labissiere, Anthony Brown, Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell and many others. He has worked with the National Basketball Players Association for several years, and recently started helping NFL players too. He has also assisted famed mindfulness guru George Mumford, which allowed Betchart to work with NBA legends Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Betchart is responsible for making sure some of the league’s young stars can manage their stress, handle everything that comes with being a professional athlete in the limelight and produce at a high level on game days. If a player is going through a difficult time or is in the middle of a slump, Betchart is the one who gets the call or visits him. He provides his clients with coping skills, instructing them to stay present, meditate, recite positive affirmations, visualize success and do breathing exercises among other things.

“Mindset is such a huge part of performance,” Betchart told Basketball Insiders. “In the NBA, everyone is athletic and skilled with an incredible body, so what’s the difference? What separates players from one another? Mindset. More and more people are realizing this now.”

One reason why Betchart’s client list skews younger is that the next generation of NBA stars seem much more open to mindfulness training than those who came before them. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma associated with mental health care, but seeking out professional help for these concerns is much more accepted today – particularly among younger people. Athletes seek out any possible edge that will allow them to maximize their performance and increase their efficiency, so it only makes sense that they are now taking time out of each day for mindfulness exercises. And not only will this help them on the court, the off-court benefits seemingly make it a no-brainer.

When New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall first heard of Betchart’s work and his app Lucid, which allows players to do mindfulness exercises on their own, he reached out and said, “Man, where has this been? We’ve needed this!” Marshall became a client and investor in the app shortly after.

While Betchart has plenty of clients to work with these days, it was much harder early on to find players and teams who were willing to give his training a shot.

“I’ve been at this for about 12 years full-time and I know of some people who have been doing this for nearly three decades, but even they say that it’s only in the last couple years that this really started to gain traction,” Betchart said. “Just speaking from my experience, when I started doing this work 12 years ago, I was going to high school teams and directly to the athletes and I had to convince them that this had value. I had to convince them that working on their mindset or working on anything mental was positive, because there used to be a real stigma attached to it. If you said you were working on something mental, all of a sudden it meant something was ‘wrong’ with you. You’d say the words ‘mental health’ and people would run away from it. I called myself a ‘mental skills coach’ because I realized that people are okay with words like ‘skills’ and ‘coach’ – everyone wants to work on a skill or be coached! Early on, I had to basically find a way to fit in and deliver this stuff without kind of letting people know what I was doing. Twelve years later, now people will tell us that they’ve been searching for this kind of service because they understand the importance of mindset and training their mind. These days, we aren’t spending any energy on convincing people that this is important. Instead, they’re looking for it and they’re finding us, which is so refreshing.

“All these years, it was like seeing someone who is really thirsty and you have water in your hand, but they refuse to drink when you offer it to them. That’s how I felt, thinking, ‘Oh my God! Let me help you!’ It’s cool that the world is now much more open to this, to the point that professional athletes are advocating for it. The pros we work with are the first ones to say that it all starts with their mindset. I don’t know if every major sports team has someone on staff doing this yet, but we’re definitely heading in that direction. Just like every team has a trainer and strength coach on staff, soon every team will have a mental strength coach or sports psychologist or whatever they want to call it. It doesn’t matter what it’s called – the important thing is having that person there who can help the athletes work on their mindset.”

Another reason today’s NBA prodigies are more open to mindset training could be because they had a much different rise to stardom than the big-name players of yesteryear. Wiggins, Towns and Simmons were being heralded as “the next big thing” from the time they were children; each of them had at least one mixtape hyping them up as a future star by the time they were 13 years old. The social media age not only promotes players at a very young age, but it also thrusts them into the spotlight when they’re barely teenagers. Mindfulness training is very attractive for a kid who is dealing with intense scrutiny, overwhelming pressure, extreme expectations and the negativity often found online.

While there are plenty of positive things that come with being a star, there’s no question that they live in a fish bowl, are scrutinized and often find it difficult to relate to others. The NBA provides structure and leadership for players, but working with someone like Betchart can help with potential pitfalls too.

“We start with focus, mainly focusing on what’s in your control,” Betchart said. “So often, athletes are focused on stuff that’s outside of their control such as results or outcomes like wins and losses. Putting your energy and focus on those things can really be derailing, so we start by having them focus on the things that are in their control and then go from there. That’s a big challenge as these athletes are coming up. I use the acronym W.I.N. and tell athletes that it stands for ‘What’s Important Now?’ What’s important now isn’t a result or outcome, it’s being in the moment – which I call ‘playing present’ – and then moving on to the next play quickly when that moment is done. That can be hard if you’re having negative results, but you have to be able to move forward. That’s sort of the initial training for athletes, focusing on what you can control, owning what you do control and then moving on to that next play quickly. We can talk about that and it sounds easy, but it’s really hard to do.”

Simmons, who was the top pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s draft, turned to Betchart for mindfulness training because he was searching for a way to handle all of the attention and pressure that emerged during his one-and-done season at LSU and leading up to the 2016 NBA Draft. Betchart met Simmons at the 2011 Top 100 Basketball Camp, which was hosted by the National Basketball Players Association. Simmons was intrigued by mindfulness training and he eventually started meditating and doing breathing exercises given to him by Betchart, who would work with the LSU star over the phone and sometimes fly to Baton Rouge so they could meet in person.

“He’s an awesome human being,” Betchart said of Simmons. “At this point, I’ve worked with so many great athletes so I tend to gravitate to great humans instead, and he’s one of those really good guys. I’ve known Ben for a few years now; he has a terrific family. With this kind of work, the more years you work with someone, the deeper it goes and the more they develop. With Ben, I’d say we are still in the early stages, but I see someone who is very open-minded to it. And he’s still only 19 years old, so he’s still super young. For him, one of the bigger challenges was that he was a big deal. Ben Simmons is a big deal basketball wise and there was a lot of noise around him coming into college and coming into the draft this year. There was all kind of stuff written about him.

“The big thing that he took to was really focusing on what he can control. He can’t control what people say about him, he can’t control if people criticize his shot, he can’t control if they say he’s the best passer since Magic Johnson, he can’t control if they say he’s the best prospect since LeBron James. You can’t control any of that. For him, he has found a lot of peace in just learning to let go of all that and focusing on what he can control. And all you can control is this very moment, trusting your skills and then going on to the next moment. That wisdom tends to help relax players. For him, it really helped a lot since he had so much noise around him – especially being part of this social-media generation. I mean, it’s a lot of noise.”

While Betchart has an impressive list of star clients, his biggest success story might be Gordon of the Orlando Magic. Gordon has been working with Betchart since he was in the eighth grade, so he’s the best example of how mental skills training can help athletes improve their performance and deal with pressure and demands. From a young age, Gordon’s parents talked to him about being mindful. However, it wasn’t until middle school that Betchart put a sports spin on it and Gordon realized how much these skills could help him with his athletic performance.

“I started working with Graham when I was going from eighth grade to ninth grade,” Gordon said. “I was basically going from being a big fish in a little pond to being a little fish in a big pond. I knew that I needed something to help my game and continue to keep me on the right track. Graham introduced this to me at 13 years old and from then on, the ball was just rolling. I think it’s helped me a tremendous amount. We use basketball as a medium, but we just talk about life. He’s also helped me with situations in my life that have nothing to do with basketball. We talk about money, materialistic things, existential things – some things that normal basketball players may not talk about with their sports psychologist. He’s become a mentor for me. He’s helped me see that there’s more to life than just basketball and I’m eternally grateful for that.

“I think a lot of people just don’t know about it. A while ago, if you went to someone for ‘mental coaching’ or ‘mental training,’ you were automatically labeled as mentally weak. And that’s not true. That’s not true at all. It means you’re searching for something more – a greater sense of fulfillment. I think kids are starting to understand that more and more. They see guys like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and they see the iciness about them, the mental toughness. You’re starting to see kids say, ‘I want what he has mentally.’ And where they find it is through coaching, mental training and the Lucid app.”

“A lot of the basketball players I’ve worked with are pretty young – either just making their way up the NBA or on the verge of being in the NBA – because I started doing this training with them when they were teenagers,” Betchart said. “Aaron Gordon, for example, is someone who I met when he was 11 years old and I started working with him when he was 13 We built a strong bond over that time and now we have eight or nine years of work to show. A lot of it is building trust. If you build trust with these guys before they’re multi-millionaires, it’s a lot easier. So that’s why the NBA players I’m working with are young, but I hope to continue working with them. And then I’m hoping that this group of guys is vocal about it and we can influence the next generation, so that the next wave of players picks up on this stuff  – maybe even earlier and starts seeing the results. That way, you don’t need to be some lucky, top recruit to have this either. I mean, everyone should be doing this stuff and benefitting from it.”

Gordon loves the idea of spreading mindfulness training to the next generation.

“That would be amazing and a trend would ensue,” Gordon said. “There would be a better brand of basketball players – guys who are more level-headed, more well-adjusted, more focused. That means the level of competition will rise, which will only help the NBA and make it a more spectacular game. That would be amazing, if I could usher in this new trend.”

Betchart’s app Lucid, which features Gordon and other athletes, has 1,000 five-minute mental training workouts that focus on meditation, visualization and positive affirmations. The app will also eventually include messages for people who are dealing with a specific problem such as a slump, playing better in practice than in games and other scenarios.

“With the app, we want to meet people where they are,” Betchart said. “We aren’t asking you to go on some ‘five-day silent retreat for mental health.’ You know? All you need is a phone and headphones to do this and we tell guys, ‘Hit play every day.’ People are gravitating toward it and seem happy that there’s a resource for this. And we’re not saying we’re the only resource, but we just hope people know that there are resources for this and we want people taking advantage of them.”

“It’s incredible what it’s doing for people,” Gordon said. “I’ve always wanted to cultivate mindfulness in a younger generation and this is the perfect first step. It’s not just about basketball either. Every day, we get emails about how Lucid is helping people in everyday situations. It can help someone in business, in ballet, in tennis, whatever. It’s incredible. Anybody can do this. This is for everybody.”

Betchart does make one thing clear: It takes time to see results.

“There’s no quick fix or overnight success,” he said. “Some of these things are very gradual. Sometimes the improvement is so slow you may not even notice it, but that’s how it works. And you can’t speed through it – we only let you do one per day. You can’t go to a weight room right now and have overnight success. Mental training is the same way. We don’t want you to just put 10 minutes into this and then never do it again. We want this to be something that helps you grow over the next few years. Think of it this way: If you’re a freshman in high school, we want you to work at this and realize your goal by the time you graduate. That may seem like a long time, but there are no quick fixes for things like this. And the guys who have stuck it out and worked at it, like Aaron, have seen great results.”

As the 2016-17 NBA season tips off, keep an eye on Betchart’s players and remember that it often takes more than just physical preparation to reach that level of success.

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About Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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