At age 19, Jaylen Brown was one of the youngest players selected in the 2016 NBA Draft. He was also one of the more polarizing lottery selections at No. 3 overall in recent memory, as few draft boards had the athletic wing going to Boston so high in the first round.
When you combine those factors with the reality that Brown will be joining a 48-win team during his rookie season, it’s fair to guess that the 6-foot-7 forward will be dealing with a heavy dose of expectations and scrutiny as he begins his Celtic career.
To help him manage the pressures of NBA life on and off the floor, Brown will look toward his mental skills coach Graham Betchart for guidance. The 38-year-old has worked with No. 1 overall picks Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, as well as lottery picks Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine on their mental approaches as a younger breed of NBA talent turn to unique ways to maximize their abilities.
I caught up with Betchart, who is also the Director of Mental Training for Lucid, earlier this month to discuss his work with Brown, his training techniques, and whether mental skills coach would become a more widespread phenomenon in the NBA.
Q: Let’s start from the beginning. How were you first able to make a connection with Jaylen? How far back does your relationship go with him?
Betchart: I met Jaylen years ago at the NBA Player’s Association Top 100 camp. I was a counselor for them and Jaylen was one of the kids who was in my group. I think he was about 15 when we met. He was a quiet kid and the camp was really good, so everyone was really good. We kind of connected though. I was teaching the mental game to people and [mental skills coaching] with players there, and I was seeing who gravitated toward me. Some people have an open mind to it and are ready for it, and Jaylen was one of those guys.
We stayed in touch and when he went back to high school, he kind of blew up on the national scene. He started to have shoe companies at his practice and stuff and the pressure started to get really big, so that’s when we reconnected and started doing our work. A lot of what I do is build the relationship and when the player goes through some challenging times, the player goes ‘Oh, Graham! I’ll reach out to him, I remember him.’ That’s kind of how we connected. Now we’re rolling…He’s like the coolest guy ever. He’s genuinely really intelligent. Our conversations are really fun for me because we talk about all kinds of life. He’s an exceptional human being as well as being a really good basketball player.
Q: You said players gravitate toward you more when challenging stuff comes up for them. What do you specifically do with a player like Jaylen to handle those issues when they arise?
Betchart: When I say mental skills, I’m working on focus, confidence and harnessing your competitive drive. That’s initially the stuff I work on with everyone. Learning to focus on what’s in your control, learning to take confident action all the time, and helping them understand that confidence isn’t a feeling, it’s an action. Often, you aren’t going to feel very comfortable but you have to perform and do your thing. That’s the initial thing we work on. How do we get focused? Let’s focus on what we control, the moment we are in, the task at hand and trusting our abilities. They don’t control results and outcome. They don’t control what other people think. It’s really shifting everything to what they control and learning to take confident options, even when they feel really vulnerable.
Q: One part of Jaylen’s game that is regularly under the microscope is his outside jump shot. Has that been a priority for your work together, just how to handle that his mindset when dealing with the fallout from his play, good or bad?
Betchart: For a lot of players at 19 or 20, they can’t shoot yet. They won’t be able to shoot at 20 like they will at 26. A lot of the challenges for guys like Jaylen Brown, Aaron Gordon or Ben Simmons is that they haven’t mastered shooting at age 20. So we work on creating a mindset that allows him to grow. Jaylen is going to have to miss a lot of shots to master shooting. That’s the process. That’s how you learn how to master something. If Jaylen refuses to shoot so he can’t miss, then you’re not working on your shot. If I’m doing any good for these guys, I’m working to create some space where they can be vulnerable and commit mistakes. With basketball you’re going to have to miss shots and be doing it on TV. You’re going to be doing it with everyone having an opinion about you and that’s hard.
Q: The publicity young players get now seems to be bigger than ever. With social media in place, fans have a voice to connect with players more often as well. What do you tell a guy like Jaylen to handle that stuff? Stay away from it? Does he have a plan for it?
Betchart: These young guys coming up with social media, it’s so much different than even 10 years ago. There’s so many voices out there. In general, we tend to like when people say positive things and dislike negative opinions of you. I try to tell him that you can’t accept one opinion and reject the other. This whole thing is people are going to have opinions about you and you have to let them have it. We’re not going to put in any effort into trying to stop other people’s opinion.
The concept we work on is eye of the hurricane. The hurricane is like the social noise and media. That’s not going to go away. So instead of spending your energy is making the hurricane go away, we try to get to the middle of it, the eye. It’s calm there and we try to use that analogy to try to find that place, where they are focused on what they can control in the middle of the hurricane. The concept comes from Michael Jordan and his mental coach George Mumford. Jordan got calmer as the pressure was amped up around him, so he tried to use that concept with others. Other people try to stop other’s opinions and we don’t do that. Let them have their opinion. Have compassion for other people.
Q: There was actually an instance during the Celtics draft party at the TD Garden when team co-owner Wyc Grousbeck was booed upon announcing that Brown was the team’s pick at No. 3. Did that come up with you guys at all?
Betchart: Before the draft, there were articles written about him being too intelligent or too smart, almost like arrogant or something. We talked and he was like, ‘Is this real? This is crazy. How can someone be writing I’m too smart?’ I think he learned through this whole experience is that everyone is going to have an opinion and you just learn to let it be. We never talked about the booing [at the Garden.] A lot of that stuff doesn’t faze him at all. I feel like he’s just going to do something really big in his first week in the NBA. He’s got it and now he’s mentally very strong. We’ve been working on this stuff for years, so I feel like he’s set up to have a great career because he’ll be able to deal with whatever happens.
Q: How does word get around about you among players in the league?
Betchart: Demetrius Jackson actually just hit me up. I’ve been in this space for about 12 years, all in. 12 years ago I was having to convince people that mindset and working on your mental skills are important. All the energy was on convincing them. Now, I don’t convince anybody. It’s almost like people are searching for it or looking for it. If I tell an athlete or someone I do this, they say it’s awesome. It’s so different now how people respond to the mental game and how they talk about it. It’s a positive thing now, they are open to it and they want to find out how to do it. It’s still a mystery to a lot of people but they don’t reject it. They go, “How does it work? How do we implement it?” It’s a monumental difference from how it was 10 or 12 years ago.
Q: How is what you do with Jaylen different from therapy and from coaching from the Celtics staff?
A: There’s a whole spectrum of how I look at this whole field. I feel like the word mental health to a lot of people means a severe disorder, or bipolar, or suicidal. It’s extreme. But if I say mental skills, that’s a whole different thing. One, I’m really clear that our lane is more mental skills training, even though I think it’s a part of mental health. I feel like it’s important to clarify that spectrum on what’s what. I’m not working on bipolar or eating disorders, I’m working on focusing on the moment.
Q: Do you expect the field of mental skills training to grow within the NBA in coming years?
Betchart: It’s happening now, and I feel like in the next couple years you’ll see every team bringing in people who are doing work like this. It’s happening everywhere. I’ve slowly started to do some work with the Warriors D-League team, the 49ers, New York Jets in just the past couple months. We feel like they are working for it, teams are open to it now and players are open to it. Now, I think it’s about the team finding the right fit, finding the person who can connect with the players.
You have to have someone come in and connect with the players. If it’s the old school approach where the mental coach or psychologist has to be integrated with the team in a normal way. Just like the strength coach is at every practice and integrated, I feel like the mental strength coach has to be integrated in the same way.