Meet the Man Expanding Mental Conditioning Throughout Sports

Ten years ago, Graham Betchart was leading a mental skills drill at a basketball camp in California's East Bay when he asked for a volunteer to shoot free throws. Eleven-year-old Aaron Gordon, now a third-year forward for the Orlando Magic, accepted the challenge. "I got to the line and made the first shot," Gordon says. "Then I missed the second one."

Gordon was not a happy camper. "I hung my head, and my shoulders were slumped," he remembers.

Betchart used Gordon's disappointment to teach a valuable lesson. "I asked Aaron, 'What was the mistake in that situation?' He said, 'I missed the shot.' I told him, 'That's not it. The mistake was how you responded after the miss,'" Betchart says. "You are free to fail. But how fast can you move forward afterward? That's key."

The pick-yourself-up-and-keep-pushing idea is a guiding principle of Betchart's work. It's also what Betchart calls "next play speed" — the ability to move on without getting hung up on things like an error, a bad call, or a booing fan. He preaches this concept as a mental conditioning coach who helps high school, college, and NBA players train their minds. Betchart, 38, is one of a small number of such professionals in sports today.

The idea isn't new — Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant worked with mindfulness coach George Mumford during their careers. But it's not widespread in sports. While most teams have strength and conditioning staffs to keep athletes physically fit, there is no real emphasis on how to keep the mind fit. But if sports is 80% mental and 20% physical — the breakdown many people in athletics give — then shouldn't players be just as concerned with exercising their minds? That's where mental skills training comes in.

MINDFUL MOTIVATION

It would take two years for Betchart's and Gordon's paths to cross again. Betchart volunteered to work with Gordon's high school varsity basketball team when Gordon was a 13-year-old freshman struggling at the charity stripe. "It started to affect me," Gordon says. "I was worried about going to the line. [The misses] made me think, Wow this is who I am: someone who misses a lot of free throws." Betchart picked up on Gordon's lack of confidence.

A former three-sport athlete, Betchart had seen a therapist for depression during his freshman year at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He used meditation, visualization, and positive affirmations — or what he likes to shorten to MVP — to cope. The trio of mental exercises led Betchart to sports psychology, the field in which he now holds a master's degree. But Betchart doesn't use that term. "I prefer to call this coaching," he says.

So, that's what Betchart did with Gordon: He mentally coached him. "To change his mindset, I had Aaron repeatedly say, 'I love free throws,'" Betchart says. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. "We have to continuously work out in order to maintain a level of physical fitness. We have to do the same with the mind," Betchart says. "It's not a quick fix. It's a little bit every day."

Gordon, whose free throw percentage was 60% in high school and 42% at Arizona, saw his average spike to 72% as an NBA rookie. "He changed the way he thought about shooting," Betchart says. Adds Gordon, "The positive affirmation definitely helped. It's gradual improvement, and I'm working to get better."

MAKING IT NORMAL

Working with Gordon and other teens over the years (at no charge) prompted Betchart to form the mental skills company Play Present four year ago. He sold it to Lucid, where he is now director of mental training. He helped create an app for athletes this year. Betchart still works with Gordon, who is part of a client roster that includes Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine, Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond, and Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons. 

Betchart works with his guys in person, over the phone, and via text message year-round. Earlier this year, while Simmons was playing for LSU, he was on the trainer's table getting his ankles taped when he dialed up Betchart. "We did a five-minute MVP," Betchart says. "I had Ben close his eyes and focus on his breath, then visualize his game plan so he could see it, like it's real. We said a few affirmations during the last minute — 'I am confident and powerful and move on to the next play with ease' — three or four times. Then I told him to open his eyes and get out on the floor."

Mental conditioning can help athletes of all ages in all sports. Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson works with Trevor Moawad, who has advised pro and college football squads — Florida State, Alabama, and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wilson believes the ability "to stay focused on the task at hand, to be able to have great attention to detail" is what makes a person successful. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals, and Toronto Blue Jays all have at least one coach or coordinator assigned to working with players on mental skills.

Betchart wants to see the field expanded even more. "I'm trying to normalize this," Betchart says. "With mental conditioning, we can get better at everything we do."


Illustration: Greg Kletsel; Photo: Elise Gordon

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