Most athletes of any sport will say that the mental part of the game is just as important, if not more so than the physical part of the game; but they'll do very little to train their minds like they do their bodies.
Not true for Skal Labissiere of the Sacramento Kings, who just completed his NBA rookie season back in April.
The 21-year-old follows in the footsteps of Michael Jordan and his hero Kobe Bryant who famously put an emphasis on training the mind. Labissiere has made mental skills training and meditation a priority since he was introduced to the philosophy as a teenager.
"It has really helped with my career and my game," Labissiere told ABC10. "No matter how talented you are, how physically dominant you are, if you don't have the mental aspect of the game, it does no good for you. I really take that part seriously."
Labissiere works with Graham Betchart, who introduced him to the world of mental skills training. He's based in the Bay Area and serves as a mental skills coach to several young NBA players including Aaron Gordon of the Magic, Jaylen Brown of the Celtics and Ben Simmons of the 76ers.
After working with George Mumford, the mental guru who mentored both Jordan and Bryant, Betchart, 39, began his own company called Play Present. He eventually sold the company to LUCID, a Bay Area company that has turned his mental skills development methods into a mobile app.
Athletes like Labissiere can listen to hundreds of five minute meditation sessions on the app, which are recordings of Betchart's voice. On occasions, the Kings' future star has been known to call Betchart to give him a session over the phone.
"You don't need incense and candles and sit in the corner like a Buddhist monk and sit there for an hour," said Betchart. "This is a five minute thing that you can do anywhere and anytime."
Betchart's message to his athletes is simple: live in the moment. In doing so, he says his athletes can focus and improve skills, such as their shooting abilities, just by simply imagining themselves taking jumpers as opposed to just physically doing so.
"Your mind has infinite capabilities," Betchart said. "If you can do it in your brain, you give yourself a much better chance to do it in the real world because your brain doesn't know the difference between imagining something and actually doing something."
Mental training has not only helped Labissiere improve on the court but it has also helped him move on from his life's greatest adversity off of it.
As a native of Haiti, Labissiere was 13-years-old living with his family in Port-au-Prince during the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated his homeland in January 2010. Shortly after, he was brought to the United States and began attended high school in Tennessee, before earning a scholarship to play at Kentucky.
Labissiere credits basketball, meditation and his mental training as things that helped him move on from the traumatic experience of the earthquake.
"After everything I've been through, when I (experience tough) situations now, I'm like, 'I've been through bigger things before'," Labissiere said. "I'm very thankful for life and thankful for everything."
As a rookie with the Kings, Labissiere spent the first part of his season traveling back-and-forth from Sacramento to Reno to play with the D-League Bighorns, where he built confidence and playing time.
The franchise shifted dramatically when the Kings traded their All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans in February - the move signified a new philosophy as they look to rebuild. That would also turn into opportunity for Labissiere, who began seeing himself playing rotational minutes.
Labissiere finished his rookie season with per-game averages of 8.8 points, 4.9 rebounds in just over 18 minutes in the 33 contests he appeared in. He shot 53.7-percent from the floor and became a quick fan favorite with his defense and athleticism.
With his rookie season under his belt, Labissiere reflected fondly on his first NBA season and looks forward to much more opportunity for growth next season.
"I enjoyed the process, there's beauty in the process, beauty in the grind," Labissiere said. "Just going through the whole season and now finally playing. Since I stepped foot in Sacramento I've been working and putting the time in, and that's what I'm going to keep doing."
In July, Labissiere will return to Haiti for the first time since the earthquake. He'll host a basketball skills academy for 50 of the top high school athletes and coaches in Port-au-Prince. Basketball won't be the only focus of his camp. Camp S.K.A.L. stands for "skills, knowledge and life."
Labissiere will certainly preach the importance of mental skills training and use his own story as an example of success.
"This will be my first time back home in seven years," Labissiere said. "I'm blessed to be in a place now where I can give back to my Port-au-Prince community and this is just the start of more free Camp S.K.A.L. events there in the future. I look forward to sharing some of the basketball and life knowledge I've gained over the years."
Follow Sean Cunningham on Twitter: @SeanCunningham
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