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Mind Over Mascot

The key to an NBA star's explosiveness? Inner peace

AARON GORDON sat on his bed in a Toronto hotel and closed his eyes as his mental skills coach, Graham Betchart, encouraged him to visualize the creative moves he would make later that evening in the NBA's slam dunk contest. Betchart urged the 6'9" Magic forward to forget about the judges and focus only on what he could control. Gordon did a two-minute breathing meditation and expressed his desire to simply enjoy the event, reframing his anxiety about performing in front of thousands. "You take in those nerves," Gordon says. "Those nerves help you jump highest." On one of his six dunks, Gordon hurdled Stuff the Magic Dragon, Orlando's mascot, with an under-the-legs dunk that electrified the Air Canada Centre.

The trophy ultimately went to 6'5" Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine, another member of Betchart's roster, which includes Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the NBA's top draft picks from each of the last three seasons.

Betchart, 38, was a walk-on at UC Santa Cruz and has a master's in sports psychology. He was working with youth basketball players in Oakland when he met Gordon, then 11. The two began working together when Gordon was at Archbishop Mitty High in San Jose. As Gordon's career took off, so did Betchart's. Starting in 2011, he was invited by the NBA Players Association to talk about the importance of honing mental as well as physical skills at the union's annual top 100 camp for high school players. His talk, plus Gordon's endorsement, helped him attract other top players. "When Aaron Gordon's doing [mental training]," Betchart says, "it's not considered weird."

In 2015, Betchart published a book, Play Present: A Mental Skills Training Program for Basketball Players, and it sold about 300 copies—"two hundred of which I bought myself," Betchart says. The content resonated so strongly with former Stanford forward Andrew Zimmermann, however, that he moved into the garage of Betchart's Pacifica, Calif., home later that year to help grow the Play Present brand.

With Gordon's backing, Play Present joined forces with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jason Stirman to create Lucid, a meditation app that would allow Betchart's strategies to reach a wider audience. Lucid has now been downloaded about 35,000 times since its launch in May, according to Stirman. Users listen to daily five-minute audio clips of Betchart's program—meditation, visualization and affirmations.

Gordon himself uses the app twice a day to supplement his phone chats with Betchart, and the two meet monthly for private sessions in Orlando. Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011 and started an organization (Project 375) to promote mental-health awareness, also uses the app and has partnered with the company to provide free subscriptions to high school football players in New York City.

Betchart says that athletes can reach their potential by training their minds from a young age to move beyond the focus on winning and performance. Betchart preaches a path to success in which joy is found in each breath and step. Gordon envisions Lucid creating a new generation of athletes who are confident yet better equipped to handle failure. "I just want to cultivate mindfulness," says Gordon. "This is the way to do it."

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"You take in those nerves," Gordon says. "Those nerves help you jump highest."