Aaron Gordon would become the center of the basketball universe when he stepped on the court Saturday night for the NBA's annual slam dunk contest. He'd be turning to an app to help get his mind right.
"I think 80 percent of the game is mental and the other 20 is physical," said Gordon, who's also an investor in the app. He said the mental exercises, like "Training Your Mental Core," help him cope with key moments during games. "You can't perform in pressure situations if you're not locked in and in tune with yourself."
While Gordon was the odds-on favorite to win this year's throw down, after losing the 2016 slam fest by just a few points in an epic battle, he lost again Saturday to Indiana Pacer Glenn Robinson III. While using an Intel drone overhead to "pass" him a basketball for a windmill dunk, Gordon lacked his usual explosiveness and finished in last place. He recently missed several games for the Magic due to a bone bruise in his leg.
It's not uncommon for pro athletes like him to look for competitive advantages to improve their focus. Lucid is among more than a dozen mental-training apps, including Calm, Headspace and Peak Performance, that specialize in visualization, goal-setting and meditation that the apps makers say helps everyone from top athletes to office-workers succeed.
Lucid was co-created by Gordon's mental coach, San Francisco-based sports psychologist Graham Betchart, and Jason Stirman, a Silicon Valley insider. The app is designed to help build confidence, said Stirman, Lucid's CEO. It costs $10 a month and is available on iOS and Android, has counted more than 100,000 downloads since debuting in May.
Besides Gordon, New York Jets standout wide receiver Brandon Marshall is also a big advocate and an unofficial spokesman for Lucid, Stirman said. Marshall, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011, frequently promotes the app across his social media platforms and his nonprofit. Last fall, he paid for hundreds of New York City high school football players to use Lucid for free.
Still, whether mental-training apps actually work remains a subject for debate. Almost all of them that promise to help people diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's have no scientific evidence to back up the claims. In one infamous case, the Federal Trade Commission sued Lumos Labs, which claimed its Lumosity app could do everything from help with homework to protect against dementia, all through playing its games. Lumos ultimately settled.
Lucid, for its part, has received generally positive reviews on its app from users ranging from a competitive runner to a roller derby skater to someone trying to lose 25 pounds.
Meanwhile, medical experts have mixed views about the benefits from these types of apps. Bill Cole, a renowned sports psychologist and "mental-game coach," said athletes may see mental-training apps as aids to their workouts, but that doesn't mean the apps are actually doing much. "There's definitely a placebo effect," he said.
Others, like A. Mark Williams, chair of the health, kinesiology and recreation department at the University of Utah, say that while some of these apps may lead to short-term improvements, they need more scientific study to prove their effectiveness.
The energetic Betchart provides the voice for more than 300 training sessions on the app, each lasting about five minutes. He delivers in a midtempo cadence, leading you through breathing exercises, or telling you things like how staying in the moment can unlock your potential. He uses slogans and catchphrases including "MVP" (meditation, visualization and positive affirmations) and "fear is an illusion."
"Throughout your competition, you may find yourself in challenging and uncomfortable situations. Your mind wanders and you worry about future outcomes," Betchart says during one session. "But you must know that your greatness lies within the present in order to attack the task at hand."
Betchart says his app is also designed using the teachings of George Mumford, now an advisor for his company, who's worked with NBA greats Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
Betchart himself is also well-regarded for his work with today's NBA stars, including Gordon and Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine (who beat Gordon in the slam dunk contest) and LaVine's 'Wolves teammates Andrew Wiggins, the top overall NBA draft pick in 2014, and Karl-Anthony Towns, last season's top overall pick and NBA Rookie of the Year. Betchart has also worked with this season's overall top draft pick, Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The players all have bought into Betchart's philosophy of "good athletes become great." They also believe in Betchart's "WIN" (what's important now) strategy, and the "next play speed" method.
"Can you shoot an airball on one play, and go in for a thunderous dunk on the next play?" Betchart said, describing his approach. "How fast can you fail, refocus and move on?"
Betchart has been offering similar preachings to Gordon since they met eight years ago. He was a coaching consultant and the player was a lone 13-year-old freshman phenom playing on his high school varsity basketball team. Struggling with the enormous expectations, Gordon asked Betchart if Betchart could help him stay on track to reach the NBA.
Betchart said with Gordon it's all about harnessing his impatience. Betchart has been there through state championships in high school, a Final Four appearance during Gordon's lone season playing in college, and, finally, Gordon's cracking into the starting lineup with the Magic this season despite injuries.
"He wants it all now," said Betchart, who will be with Gordon at this year's dunk contest in New Orleans. "He's so driven and puts so much pressure on himself to be great. The big work on my end is letting him know to stay in the present."
Prior to last year's dunk contest, Gordon envisioned his slams during his numerous sessions with Betchart.
"I was replaying the dunks in my mind so much that by the time the contest started and once I was on that stage, I said to myself, 'Oh, I've already done it. I got this!'" he said.
It must have worked. Gordon unleashed some of the greatest dunks ever, which went viral on the internet and had basketball fans worldwide lit. Many point to the dunk of him soaring high above Stuff, the Magic's mascot, while wrapping the ball under his legs and slamming it down.
But Gordon realizes he needs to keep his focus if his success is going to continue.
"I just want to continue that journey," he said.
First published Feb. 18, 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update, Feb. 18 at 8:10 p.m.: Adds Gordon losing the 2017 slam dunk contest.
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