web analytics

SF native Graham Betchart is changing how elite athletes approach the game

Trending Articles

       
Graham Betchart eyes championship patches at the Mission High School museum. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Sports seem random at times. There are so many moving parts — physically, mentally — that order is typically difficult to find.

It’s why we talk about performance in mystical terms: “He’s in the zone.” “That guy is clutch.”

But this story is about how one man took his passion, put it into simple terms so everyone could understand and sold it with the enthusiasm of an evangelist.

He took significant risks along the way, always betting on himself and his ideas, and he’s turned it into a career.

It’s a true Bay Area business story, complete with an app-developing Stanford grad living in a garage. But at its core, it’s an affirmation of committing to enlightenment, testing your theories, seizing success — and then selling the hell out of what you’ve found.

FINDING A WAY

Graham Betchart is a San Francisco native. He was raised in Bernal Heights, went to Rooftop Elementary, Hoover Middle and Lowell High schools before graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2001.

He left school as a typical 20-something, searching for meaning in life. He knew he wanted to work in sports, but being an agent required law school and sports management rubbed him the wrong way.

So Betchart made ends meet by working as a personal trainer in Oakland, where he met former Golden State Warriors center Adonal Foyle. Foyle introduced the energetic former college basketball player to sports psychology and invited Betchart to learn more about the study.

“This little lightbulb went off,” Betchart recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Is that some jedi shit? What is that?’”

After sitting in on a couple of classes, he knew he had found what he was seeking. Betchart enrolled in the sports psychology Master of Arts program at John F. Kennedy University — where Foyle started taking classes in 1999.

At the same time, Betchart accepted a job as a junior varsity basketball coach at Mission High School.

“Mission always had talent, and I remember looking down and saying, ‘What is wrong with these guys?’” he said. “[I] wanted to do something positive for a school that doesn’t have a lot of positive.”

While going to graduate school at night, Betchart was testing his ideas “under the guise of being a high school coach.”

He called his theory “Next Play Speed.”

“If you screw up in life or basketball or whatever, you still need to focus on the next play,” explained Arnold Zelaya, dean of students, athletic director and head basketball coach at Mission. “You’ve got to be ready for the next play because you can’t change the last one. That kind of mentality just kept us going.”

Betchart made a four-year commitment to the school. During that timeframe, the team improved gradually.

In Betchart’s fourth year, the team jelled around the stability of Zelaya’s continued presence and the program’s commitment to Next Play Speed. Demaree Hampton, one of the best point guards to play in The City in the last 10 years, also joined the team in Betchart’s third year. The result: Mission’s “first city championship in this era” in 2008.

Despite fulfilling his commitment, Betchart knew he couldn’t walk away from the program. He had to prove his theory wasn’t a fluke. He stayed with Mission for two more years, claiming another city title in the process.

According to Zelaya, Mission “couldn’t have gotten much worse than what was going on” when Betchart started. Now, the team has won six of the last nine city championships.

Graham Betchart was in attendance when Aaron Gordon, left, riveted the world with his dunk contest performance during the 2016 All Star Weekend. (Play Present/Instagram)

Graham Betchart was in attendance when Aaron Gordon, left, riveted the world with his dunk contest performance during the 2016 All Star Weekend. (Play Present/Instagram)

AIMING HIGHER THAN HIGH SCHOOL
Toward the end of his time with Mission, Betchart was spreading his message to interested parties around the Bay Area.

One of the teams he worked with was Archbishop Mitty in San Jose. He’d been helping the program for at least a year when he learned of an other-worldly incoming freshman in 2009.

Betchart had already met Aaron Gordon at a camp two years prior in a chance encounter, but it wasn’t until he went to the then-lanky forward’s home that things started to click.

“I bought in as a 13 year old,” Gordon said. “I think it was the fact that I was going from middle school, being a big fish in a little pond, to being just another fish in a big pond in high school.

“I was a freshman on varsity and I wasn’t playing as well as I wanted to,” Gordon continued. “I knew there was something more, and when I met G, I realized that’s what more is.”

Betchart had worked with talented players before — but never anyone with as much raw potential as Gordon. And never had Graham met someone who was so intellectually curious about developing his mentality and mindfulness. So he started working full-time with Gordon and accepted an invitation from the NBA Players Association to be a mental skills coach.

The gig offered an experience that put him in contact with future first-round draft picks Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown from Cal, new Sacramento Kings big man Skal Labissière and rookie phenom Ben Simmons. It was great exposure, but it didn’t pay the bills.

“This whole time, I don’t charge anyone,” Betchart said. “I never ask for anything. I just gave. … I had a plan and my plan was, if I could get someone to the highest level, and they’ve been doing it for years, I could normalize [mental training].”

Once again, he found tangible results in the process. At the time, Gordon couldn’t shoot. He was as high as the No. 4-ranked player in the country, but he was liable to go on sustained streaks of misses from the free throw line.

It had the potential to adversely affect the way he played the game. The danger is that instead of attacking and seeking contact — as a player of his size should — he might hesitate around the rim. Betchart saw the possible issue and got to work addressing it.

“As a senior in high school, I shot 60 percent. As a freshman in college, I shot 40 percent. And then as a rookie, I shot 70 percent,” Gordon recalled. “So it took three years for me to break the habit. In those 1,000 days, I would tell myself that I love free throws and love going to the free throw line over and over.”

Gordon has noticeably improved his shooting every year since working with Betchart. Last season, in his second year in the NBA, he shot more at a higher success rate. And Betchart doesn’t think it’ll stop there.

“I firmly believe [Gordon will] win the 3-point contest, and he’ll do it before he turns 25. I’ll bet on it,” Betchart said. “No one thought he’d be shooting over 70 percent as a pro. Everyone said he can’t shoot. So how did that happen over three years? It’s a mindset.”

COMMITTING TO THE BUSINESS

Betchart secured his star pupil in Gordon. He got positive results from years of testing his system. But he still didn’t have a paycheck.

So he set out to write a book. It took a painful amount of editing to get “Play Present: A Mental Skills Training Program for Basketball Players” down to something that the average high schooler could consume and understand. Then Andrew Zimmerman, a friend he made working with the Stanford basketball program, gave Betchart a rude awakening.

“[Zimmerman] told me, ‘Your stuff is so good, but no one’s going to read the book, man. I don’t mean to break your heart, but it’s not going to get to teenagers because they won’t read it. If you want to scale this, it needs to be on a phone,’” Betchart remembered.

Zimmerman then moved into Betchart’s garage and began developing an app.

At the same time, Lucid — a sports-minded tech company based in The City — was looking for someone to provide content for its model. The company started with Michael Jordan’s former mental coach, George Mumford, but — as Betchart tells it — Lucid needed someone who could provide concise messages for teenagers.

So CEO Jason Stirman acquired Betchart and his language in January 2016.

“Here I was, broke, I ruined my credit, my wife was pregnant, and we’re actually OK,” Betchart said of the moment he realized it all paid off.

A month later, Gordon was set to participate in the dunk contest. Betchart knew the 20-year-old had something in store that would excite the masses and make Gordon a household name. Riding a natural high, the duo attended a Jordan party, where Betchart was introduced to the Chicago Bulls legend.

“As we shake hands, I say, ‘Hey man, I work with George Mumford,’ and he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘George saved my life,’” Betchart said. “… When Mike said [Mumford] saved [his] life, I knew I’d made it.”

Mission High School head basketball coach Arnold Zelaya, right, worked with Graham Betchart when he was still testing his ideas on prep basketball players. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Mission High School head basketball coach Arnold Zelaya, right, worked with Graham Betchart when he was still testing his ideas on prep basketball players. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

LASTING LEGACY

The rest has been a whirlwind for Betchart.

He and Stirman signed Gordon to be president of player acquisitions. It’s clear in Gordon’s interviews that he’s a true advocate for the brand and thought process. He eschews the big talk of some young players with boundless talent, preferring to stay within himself and approaching the game from a more cerebral place.

“Initially, the reason I picked up the game of basketball was for the love and joy of it. As you get older people start to rank you,” Gordon said. “In sixth grade, they give you a number. Then they put you in a race. When you’re in that race, you want to be first. What it does is starts to muddy up who you are as a person, as a basketball player.

“You start comparing yourself. The only person you can ever be is yourself and you can only be as good as your potential will let you be. Knowing that takes a whole lot of stress off and it brings the innocence of the game back.”

Betchart’s legacy is still felt at Mission High School. In 2013, Ritchie Lee, a former basketball team manager, spoke at graduation with a speech titled, “Next Play.”

“It’s part of our identity, our tradition,” Zelaya explained. “I’ve been here for more than 10 years now. Next Play is not going away.”

And Betchart’s client base is growing.

He’s branching out from just basketball, adding New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall to his cavalry of stars. He also works closely with Jeremy Ydens, who was the last pick in the 2016 MLB Draft and is headed to UCLA this fall to play baseball.

Betchart records five-minute mindfulness lectures that users can download from the Lucid app. He tours the country selling his message, aligning with brands like Under Armour, Adidas, NFL teams and several premier young NBA players. But what he’s most proud of is claiming small victories over an archaic way of thinking.

“The people ahead of me did this work in silence because they weren’t honored and it was scary,” Betchart said. “People would kick you to the side or coaches thought, ‘Who is this pussy talking to us? Just suck it up.’ But that doesn’t work. I felt that my role was to be a vocal mouthpiece and bring it to the world.”

Equal parts philosopher, psychologist and new-age jock, Betchart knows there’s more work to be done. There always is when you’re grounded in the present.

Click here or scroll down to comment