Meet the Sports Psychologist Training the Minds of the NBA's Top Draft Prospects
Graham Betchart built a career as a "mental skills" coach for top NBA draft prospects like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Now he's trying to build a brand.
Courtesy Graham Betchart
Jaylen Brown was puzzled when he first read the headlines. When the six-foot-seven guard enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, in the summer of 2015, few expected that he would remain past his freshman year; until the NBA banned high-school players from entering the draft, players like Brown rarely went to college at all. The five-star recruit already had the strength to compete against NBA bodies, and even at 18 he could bulldoze even the staunchest of defenders.
His sole season in Berkeley was a successful one, but when Brown finally did declare for the NBA draft, the adulation he had come to expect never materialized. Instead, there were concerns about how Brown, whose jump shot epitomized streaky, would translate to the perimeter-dependent NBA, and issues on top of those. Brown read about how he was apparently too arrogant, and how his draft stock was allegedly marred by terrible interviews. It was the first negative feedback Brown had received in his life as a basketball player. He initially thought he was being pranked.
The NBA circus was unlike anything the 19-year-old had experienced before. After spending an entire day in May interviewing with NBA teams in Chicago in an attempt to quell any doubts, he headed to Michael Jordan's Steakhouse to unwind with a late-night dinner.
Brown wasn't dining alone. Over salmon, asparagus, and mashed potatoes, he met with Graham Betchart, his mental-skills coach and one of the most influential, yet unknown, individuals working in college and the NBA. Betchart had advised Brown since he was 15 years old, and over their three-hour meal that night he stressed the same teachings that had helped the wing emerge as a NBA lottery selection in the first place.
"I told Jaylen, 'What do we control here?'" Betchart says. "Basketball is what you do, it's not who you are. Let everyone have their opinions about you. That's the deal."
"Someone criticizes you and your basketball game, and they start to internalize that. They are so tied up in what they do. Jaylen is a human being choosing to play a children's game. If you learn to look at it like that, it can take away the pressure, and then you aren't afraid to fail."
Brown won't be the only lottery pick during Thursday's draft to benefit from Betchart's coaching. The 38-year-old helped likely top pick Ben Simmons stay grounded during his maelstrom year at LSU, and advised Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere on how to endure the pressures of life in Big Blue Nation. Betchart's client base extends well beyond the 2016 draft; he has worked with scores of NBA stars, including Aaron Gordon, Zach LaVine, Marcus Smart, Stanley Johnson, and Andre Drummond. Betchart has also helped Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, which means that if Simmons is indeed the top pick, Betchart will have trained the past three No. 1s.
"A lot of my work involves planting the seed in these guys' heads, and then being available the moment they reach out," he says. "It is not normalized for young men to reach out and be vulnerable, so I just want to be there when they are ready."
"Graham does a great job of keeping it simple," says Gordon, who first began training with Betchart as a freshman in high school. "He can turn very complex ideas into one or two sentences that you can take with you for weeks."
Now Betchart is ready to pivot. He has spent the past decade training some of the nation's elite basketball talent, but it is an exhausting, and often maddening, existence. "You could text a player nine times and never hear back," he says. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't hard sometimes." So he decided to scale up his methodology.
This past spring, Betchart sold his company, Play Present, to Lucid, a Bay Area–based #disruption concern, for an undisclosed amount. Within a few months of the acquisition, Betchart's training was available to the masses in the form of a free-to-download app; a membership costs $99.99 a year.
"I consciously tried to get it to people who I thought could be figures," he said. "I wanted some guys who were cool to be doing this, and then we could work on normalizing it, and get it to the rest of the world. You shouldn't have to be a professional basketball player to do this. Anyone should be able to download the app and do your mental training."
No man becomes an app naturally, but Betchart's route to becoming a one-man mental-health brand was exceptionally roundabout. The son of a carpenter and a bookkeeper, Betchart was born on one of the nation's longest running communes, called The Farm, in Summertown, Tennessee. After a year spent in what he describes as a "hippy upbringing of love, light, and sharing," he and his parents next lived for several years on a boat in the Caribbean before ultimately moving to the Bay Area.
Betchart seemed the quintessential teenager: a three-sport athlete in high school, never lacking a girlfriend, popular throughout the student body. Looking back, he says, it was all a façade. "I was being who I thought I was supposed to be. I learned about math and English, but no one is addressing what is going on at a deeper level," he says. "No one is actually talking to us about if we are feeling pain or suffering in there."
Betchart felt overwhelmed; he couldn't slow down his mind. He hit rock bottom once he enrolled in junior college. "I felt that I wasn't a good enough human being, and that I was a terrible person," he says. "It was just too much weight."
On the advice of his mother, Betchart began working with a therapist at what he describes as a healing center. He began to practice meditation and visualizations, and affirmations that he could use to center himself. He also learned to be vulnerable, which he realized was his strength. "These teachings are ancient wisdoms, rooted in Indian and Buddhist traditions," he says. "This set me on a path for sports psychology, but I didn't call it that then. To me, it was just healing."
Graham wanted to continue honing his emotional and spiritual health, but didn't really know to accomplish that after his graduation from University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2001. It took a chance meeting with Adonal Foyle, then on the Golden State Warriors, to help direct his vision. While working as a salesman at a high-end gym across from the Warriors' practice facility—"I always had a natural ability to communicate well," he says—Betchart became friendly with Foyle, who was at that time completing his master's degree in sports psychology.
"In that moment, I thought that was it. This is what I have been searching for," Betchart remembers. "I had already had so much experience working on mental training within a non-sports context, so I felt like I had the ability to get this to sports."
The field that Betchart joined is roughly 70 years old, and emerged when Coleman Griffith, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, was hired as a psychologist by the Chicago Cubs to give the team an edge. Proactive sports like baseball and golf have typically been more receptive to the idea of expanding one's mental skillset, but athletes in pursuit of an advantage have tried out sports psychology in an attempt to be more present and fully focused.
When Michael Jordan and then Kobe Bryant began working with the noted mental skills trainer George Mumford, their contemporaries noticed. Jordan, says Ian Connole, the director of sports psychology at Kansas State, was also the first non-post players to lift weights; Connole drew a comparison between the trajectory of mental skills training and that of weight training, which used to solely be the purview of the head coach.
"Positions are becoming more specialized," he says. "And because of that, we can take things to a much deeper level. When anyone sees that [mental training] is working for the best athletes in the world, anyone who has that desire to get to that level wants to adopt and apply it.
"It has filtered down, yes. But it has also become more acceptable to talk about it."
Serious credit for that goes to Metta World Peace, the mercurial stopper who famously thanked his therapist following the Los Angeles Lakers' 2010 NBA Finals victory versus the Boston Celtics. "I definitely want to thank my doctor, Dr. Santhi [Periasamy], my psychiatrist," the former Ron Artest told Doris Burke on ABC as his teammates celebrated their victory around him. "She really helped me relax a lot, thank you so much, it's so difficult to play with so much emotion going on in the playoffs. And she helped me relax."
According to Connole, roughly half of Division I schools provide sports psychology training and resources to their student athletes; just a handful, including K-State, that have at least one full-time sports psychology professional on staff. Another is the University of Utah, where Nicole Detling has worked with the men's basketball team for the past two seasons.
When Detling first started, during the 2013-14 season, only one Ute trained with her, but that number grew to six in 2015; she plans to work with the entire team this upcoming season. Her coaching is dependent on the individual, she says, and can cover everything from dealing with the pressures of end-of-game situations to free-throw shooting.
"A lot of what I'll talk about is also getting out of the last game and getting into the next game," she says. "When you have an initial emotion, the hormones and chemicals that are released from having that emotion will stay in your system for 90 seconds. What you can do during that time period is embrace the suck, and recognize that after 90 seconds, your thoughts will start to affect you negatively. You will need to start changing your thought process and get into a different mindset."
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak was exposed to mental skills training when he played for the Chicago Bulls under Phil Jackson. He wasn't receptive at first. "To me, the game was much more about physicality and things that were quantifiable, like how much one could bench press," he says. But once he started to view the game as multi-structured, his thinking changed. "When things go haywire, which they often do in pressure- and stress-filled situations, I want everyone to have done this training."
When he first entered the mental training field in the mid-2000s, Betchart saw potential stumbling blocks everywhere. He thought the field was too vaguely defined, which contributed to the lingering stigma surrounding mental health. "So many people think there must be something wrong with you to have to seek out mental help," Betchart says. "I wanted to phrase it as a skill, and just like your physical skills, that you would have to practice every day."
Betchart felt there was a new way forward that split the difference between oversimplification and impenetrable density, but his signal realization was that, unlike his peers, it made sense to work outside the confines of a professional team. "After a player turns pro, it becomes harder and harder to connect with him," he says. "Their circle gets real tight, and they can close you off all of a sudden." Betchart still interviewed for positions with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Sacramento Kings, but believed that his professional future would be as a sort of mental-health freelancer, building programs to suit athletes in need.
Or, anyway, that's how he tells it now. Many of Betchart's stories have an apocryphal feeling about them—every meaningful encounter happens unexpectedly, random conversation shapes the direction of his life for the next five years. Let him go long and enough and he'll admit that this is less the universe bending to his benefit than Betchart having a knack for getting in where he fits in. "I know how to show up uninvited," he says. "I actually feel like I am invited, it is just not in a regular way people get invited. I just know when to show up." There's some stagecraft here, too, of course; Betchart lets you peek behind the curtain, but he decides when to pull it back.
While he was figuring out his practice, Betchart caught on as a basketball coach at Mission High School, the most underperforming squad in the greater San Francisco area. He helped coach both the junior varsity and varsity teams, and viewed Mission as his laboratory. "At that age, they don't know if you know your stuff," he says. "I could use this time to practice all this stuff I was learning, whereas if I was working with pros I would have to know my shit already." During those early years at Mission, Betchart built what eventually became Play Present, the 12 plays that he would teach to all of his clients.
Like many Bay Area residents today, Betchart believes in failing fast, and then keeping it moving. His teams were small but often quicker than opponents, and he developed the concept of "next play speed": no matter what happens, make or miss, you remain in the moment and move on to the next play as quickly as you can.
"I was coaching all process," he remembers. "All we cared about was being assertive and aggressive, and then moving on." This fueled his core concept, WINS, or What Is Important Now. What you can control as a player is your attitude, focus, and effort; the outcome of the game is outside your purview. If you can learn to focus on what you actually control, it'll more often lead to a win. The moment you waver, you lose track of what is happening right now.
"I knew next play speed was big, and I knew being present was big," he says. "If we could help players move forward quickly, and train them in this, we had something."
Betchart spent six years at Mission. He supplemented his job as a high school coach by consulting throughout the Bay Area and training Gordon, whom he met as a 13-year-old freshman about to join the varsity team. After years of searching, Betchart had found his niche. He would work with the most talented teenagers, and when they entered the NBA, they could help spread the word about his process.
"I figured I would just train kids and get them to the NBA," he says. "I had a lot of credibility in basketball, and was welcomed and respected, whereas other players' experience with mental training and sports psychology is with someone who would try to help them and didn't know the sport well. Or didn't have the ability to build the relationship with them."
To alleviate the fears of prospective parents, like Gordon's, who worried their youngest son was a target to be conned, Betchart worked with the budding five-star forward for free for the first few years. Betchart only truly connected with Gordon's parents when their son was drafted by the Orlando Magic with the fourth pick in 2014.
In 2011, Betchart was hired as a lecturer at the National Basketball Players Association Top 100 Camp, for elite high-school athletes, a position he held until for five years (until this most recent camp). There, he worked on building his retinue, working with players like Smart, Drummond, Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, Brown, Labissiere, and others. "I would meet all of these dudes when they are 15 or 16 years old, and you just try to plant the seed, and see who is interested in it," he says. "Then in college, I follow up with the ones who are into it."
Using just a single iPhone—"I keep a charger on me at all times"— Betchart would text, check in, and as he puts it, "be present" in the lives of these players. He was on the road constantly through the fall and winter, during the heart of both the college and NBA seasons. The idea was to be in his players' space, where, he says, it is easier for them to open up and speak candidly.
"It is really about your timing, and how you reach them and impact them, so I try to spread it out, and not get in a routine," Betchart says. "Guys I met four years ago who I may not have spoken with for three years, I consider myself to be retained by them. When their moment comes, I'll be there. If they are going to reach out to anybody, it'll be to me."
That is how he began training Simmons. Betchart met the forward at a camp during his junior season at Montverde Academy, but then didn't hear from Simmons until this past winter, when the LSU big reached out on Twitter. The two reconnected, and one night, as Betchart settled in to watch Simmons play a non-conference game—he watches the games of all of his clients, he says—Simmons' name and number appeared on his phone.
"I asked him why he was calling, didn't he have a game?" Betchart recalls. "He said that he was getting his ankles taped, but wanted to do some pre-game meditation and visualization. I call it my MVP program—meditate, visualize, and positive affirmation—and I thought it was brilliant time to call me." (Betchart added this wrinkle to his routine, and advised Labissiere to also call him while on the training table pre-game.)
Betchart's methodology isn't static. It can't be. With the proliferation of new distractions and mental obstacles, Betchart has had to add elements; a process that doesn't account for Snapchat won't do for the players he trains. "We use the term 'eye of the hurricane,'" he says. "There is going to be a storm around Ben Simmons at all times, and instead of stopping the storm, you just need to get comfortable in the middle of it. Why spend my energy trying to stop someone from trolling me on Twitter?"
Here we are nearing the heart of why all these five-star recruits and future NBA draft picks feel the need to reach out and work with Betchart. Yes, he knows the sport; yes, he puts in the time and real work to build relationships with these players. More than that, though, in an age of suffocating social media ubiquity, Betchart's process, and his presence, offers a reprieve. Anyone who spends a lot of time online can appreciate the appeal of a crash course in how to stay levelheaded and human amidst the maddening noise. For blue-chip athletes going from high school to college, and then ascending into the lunacy of the NBA, it matters even more.
"Take someone like Ben or Jaylen, who were killing it in high school," Betchart says. "At that point, they are good. They don't need me. But then everything shifts, and there are new pressures. It is an opening for us to work together. It's getting harder for them, and I can help them process it. The transition moments in these lives of these players are when mental training and mindfulness is most needed."
There's a truism about therapists being crazier than their patients; for Betchart, it may be that his life is even more stressful than those of the players he trains. "I am building this bridge as I walk, which is frustrating at times," he admits. He does acupuncture, massage, and weight training to help balance his life, and to stem the adrenaline and emotion of his work. That is why Betchart was so keen on the acquisition of Play Present by Lucid earlier this year. For the first time in his life as a mental-skills trainer, he has a salary—with players, pricing is fluid and a good deal of contingency work is involved—as well as equity in a company. He also has a defined position: director of mental training.
In his role, Betchart largely defines the curriculum. When someone downloads the app and becomes a member, he or she is starts a four-year program, which includes 250 workouts a year; it's a significant expansion from the dozen steps that formed Betchart's original Play Present set-up. After a thousand workouts, Betchart says, you'll have undergone the same training as someone like Aaron Gordon or Jaylen Brown. Gordon, as it happens, also has a position within Lucid: he's the president of athlete acquisition.
"Every time we sign an athlete—and we want to be like Nike, signing a lot of athletes—Aaron vets him or her," Betchart explains. "He has been working with me the longest, he knows this stuff in and out, and he makes sure they are on the same page."
The question that remains is whether Betchart's teaching can live independently of Betchart himself. He built a carefully cultivated community in a comprehensive and labor-intensive way. The challenge is to see how big that community can get, and whether athletes will buy in to a less bespoke mental-training experience.
Asked whether any of his Magic teammates would work with Betchart or Lucid, Gordon is noncommittal. "I am not 100 percent sure on how receptive my teammates are. You have to make sure how foolproof this thing is first," he says. "I know for a fact that it is, but basketball players are very competitive. You don't want to show your hand to anybody."
Even though Betchart claims that he is cutting back from his grind of working with new players to focus on Lucid, it seems he can't leave that hustle behind. He is already committed to a whole new crop of potential NBA stars, like Josh Langford—headed to Michigan State, and "way deep with mental training" per Betchart—and the Syracuse-bound Tyus Battle. He has extended his teachings to the gridiron, training Najee Adams, a top running back prospect who will spend next season at Alabama. "He is amazing," Betchart texts me.
And then there is Josh Jackson, the second-ranked prospect in the 2016 recruiting class, a future Kansas Jayhawk, and possibly a top overall draft pick. Betchart has spent the past two years connecting with Jackson, and though Betchart says their mental training doesn't run as deep as some of the other athletes he has worked with, he believes the ultra-athletic wing could help spread the gospel further than any of his other clients. "We know he'll only be in Lawrence one season, and so the main thing with Josh and I is that he knows I am here," Betchart says. "I don't want to force it. I just want to be there for him." Even as he scales up toward brand-hood, Betchart's human touch and attention is still the most appealing thing he has for sale.
"[Jackson] might not be ready to work with me for another five or so years, and that is fine," Betchart says. "I've learned to wait. If I keep working with lots of really good players, I feel like there will be a natural pull to do this. Players will think, 'If all the No. 1 picks are doing it, I should probably do this too.' I am hoping that is where this goes. Even if I am passionate about it, I can't force anyone to do the work."
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