Sports Psychology and Meditation Helps Aaron Gordon Build Confidence

By John Denton
Jan. 12, 2017

PORTLAND – How does a NBA small forward bounce back from a disappointing, zero-for-five performance to making 11 of 17 shots and four 3-pointers and resemble the best player on the floor just three nights later?

There’s an app for that.

There’s an app for just about everything these days, but not just any run-of-the-mill app has helped Orlando Magic standout Aaron Gordon put aside poor performances and bounce back with a vengeance – as he did Wednesday while burning the Los Angeles Clippers for a game-high 28 points. Not just any app has the capability of helping the 21-year-old Gordon snap out of his play-it-safe mode, build his confidence and finally begin to fulfill his enormous potential as a basketball player.

Working with California-based sports psychologist Graham Betchart for the past eight years, Gordon is a daily visitor to an app called ``Lucid: Mental Training For Athletes.’’ Betchart, who has a Master’s degree in sports psychology, built the app to share his mental strength teachings with athletes so that they can better deal with pressures and maximize their talents. The tool is built around Betchart’s ``M.V.P.’’ principles – meditation, visualization and positive affirmation.

Gordon, the Magic’s rapidly blossoming small forward, is a big believer in the powers of meditation, visualization and breathing. Those tools have helped him bounce back from poor performances, thrive in the face of pressure and conquer fears of failure.

``One of the things that I have learned is that with being mentally tough, it’s not like you wake up and say, `OK, I’m going to be mentally tough today.’ It’s taken me a long time of training to have a foundation of mental strength and toughness,’’ Gordon said. ``Then, when things aren’t going your way, you can be patient and trust in the process. It’s taught me to have a consistent mindset regardless of what’s going on around me. Instead of caving in to the circumstances, you buy in to the opportunities, I suppose.’’

The circumstances around the Magic (16-24) aren’t too rosy these days what with the team having lost four straight games. Gordon, however, has been a bright spot for Orlando by staying patient within his game, working tirelessly to improve his skills and showing them off in a variety of ways.

Gordon’s electrifying performance on Wednesday – six straight makes to open the game, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the face of the defense at the end of the first quarter and 28 points – was a strong indicator of how his game is blossoming of late. In six games since the calendar flipped to 2017, Gordon has pumped in 16.3 points, grabbed 6.2 rebounds, handed out 3.2 assists and defensively he’s locked down the likes of James Harden and Carmelo Anthony. Thus far in January, he’s made an efficient 47.4 percent of his field goals and he’s hitting on average two 3-pointers a night to keep defenses from backing off of him.

Part of Gordon’s surge could be credited to an unsolicited call and a fiery pep talk that he had recently with Betchart on Dec. 2 before the Magic were heading to the arena in Philadelphia. A night earlier, Betchart saw Gordon miss all three of his 3-point shots, score just eight points and grab three rebounds in a loss in Memphis. After the no-holds-barred talk with Betchart, Gordon scored a then-season-high 20 points and drilled two 3-pointers in a Magic victory.

``I’ve been coaching him for years and I called him and I said, `Look man, I’m going to be really real with you now and I don’t see you doing it. I see you trying to play it safe,’’’ recalled Betchart, after watching a Magic game on television from his home in Northern California. ``I’ve known him for more than a decade, so I really coached his (butt). I saw him trying to play it safe and trying to not make mistakes.

``Over the last seven weeks, you’ve seen him going for it,’’ Betchart continued. ``I’m not saying it was that moment (that changed Gordon’s play), but we had a real moment. I just told him, `Man, you need to live or die out there and by dying I mean you are dying a slow death by not trusting your skills.’ He chose to live, he’s having some 30-point games and he looks relaxed. He’s not forcing it or willing it; he’s just letting the game happen. Seven weeks ago, that’s when he willed himself into this space and went all in.’’

Has he ever? Gordon scored a career-best 33 points against the same Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 14 and he pumped in another 30 against Memphis on Dec. 26. Since then, he had 22 points, six rebounds, six assists and strong defense against Anthony on Jan. 2; a career-best seven assists, 18 points and suffocating defense against Harden on Jan. 6; and Wednesday’s showing where he came back from a two-point stinker three nights earlier and carried the Magic offensively for long stretches.

Gordon remembers getting called out by Betchart, who momentarily strayed away from the talk of meditation and breathing and challenged Gordon’s pride.

``It was kind of scary for me because my body didn’t feel 100 percent correct with my ankle and my mind wasn’t all the way there. I was making excuses for myself and I was having trouble really staying present,’’ Gordon remembered. ``I’ve been working so hard on my mentality to stay present and when I talked to Graham, he said, `Wake up!’
``You have to let it go and be OK to fail,’’ Gordon continued. ``You won’t ever succeed if you aren’t OK to fail. The ultimate is seeing failure as success and it’s a dualistic approach to it. It’s an interesting concept that not many people can grasp. The better you get at failing, the more you are going to succeed ultimately.’’

Magic coach Frank Vogel has been highly complementary of Gordon’s stellar performances, but it’s the third-year pro’s desire to win that has impressed the coach the most. Vogel said Gordon ``really, really cares’’ and that he ``probably takes losses harder than anyone on our team.’’ And Vogel was impressed with how Gordon responded on Wednesday following a poor performance on Sunday against the Lakers.

``The kid’s having a good season for us and I’m proud of his performance,’’ Vogel said following Wednesday’s game. ``He plays extremely hard on both ends. He got it going with his shot-making (on Wednesday).’’

Gordon first met Betchart when the latter spoke to his high school team at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose. The thing was that Gordon was just 13 years old at the time, having already been promoted to the varsity because of his jaw-dropping athleticism and basketball smarts. And he was struggling with the expectations being hoisted upon him at such a young age.

Betchart remembers that even though Gordon was the youngest player in the room, he was the first to speak up and ask questions about playing with ``next-play speed.’’
``Aaron’s come so far. He was one of those players who at 13 years old, everybody knew who he was, so he had this unbelievable pressure on him,’’ Betchart recalled. ``It was overwhelming to be considered a great basketball player at that age. To see how he’s dealt with that and how far he’s come, it’s impressive.’’

Gordon and Betchart are investors in the ``Lucid’’ app, and Gordon said he utilizes the tools several times a day. Meditation and breathing exercises are often some of the first things he does when he wakes up in the morning. And, just about every night when the Magic play, those are the last things he does before running out onto the floor.

``You listen to (the mental strength tools) day-in and day-out and it guides you through the ways to stay focused and stay present and how to be concerned with the process and not the results,’’ Gordon said.

Gordon’s biggest moment in basketball to date – last season’s Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto – was all made possible by the mental strength tools he’s worked on for years with Betchart.

Long before he went out and dazzled millions of basketball fans with his ability to soar high above Magic mascot, Stuff, for a dunk where he wrapped the ball under his legs, Gordon saw himself doing those things with his eyes closed sitting in his apartment back in Orlando.

``I was visualizing each dunk over and over so that by the time I got to the contest I had already finished those dunks in my mind multiple times,’’ said Gordon, who finished runner-up to defending champion Zach LaVine, but was considered the real winner by millions of fans. ``Once I got on that stage I was like, `Oh, I’ve already done this, I’ve already pulled off these dunks multiple times.’

``Everything in your soul is telling you to run and get out of there because you are going to be embarrassed, fail and humiliate yourself, but you have to harness that fear,’’ Gordon said of the anxiety he was able to overcome in the hours and minutes prior to the dunk contest. ``I was able to turn it into joy and that joy helped me jump even higher. It was almost like an outer-body experience.’’

The Magic are hopeful that Gordon can continue making the jump that he’s shown over the past six weeks of the season. Finally past the broken foot that ruined his first season and the broken jaw and the sprained ankle that delayed his second and third seasons, Gordon sees himself ready to fully expand his wings and soar to his full potential.
Now, however, Gordon doesn’t feel quite the same pressure to be everything all at once. He knows it’s important to breath, to visualize success and to keep his focus solely on the here and now instead of who he will eventually become.

Yes, there’s an app for that, and Gordon isn’t afraid to use it to help him push through his failures and ultimately succeed.

``I’m OK now with seeing failure as a learning mechanism instead of just failure,’’ he said. ``You need to go through that fire to come out more polished. You need to go through the tough times to appreciate the good times. Honestly, it’s helped me to see myself as more than a basketball player. Basketball is what I do, not who I am.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.