April 18, 2024

Lauren Betts fumbled her first pass. She missed her first shot. But instead of slumping her shoulders every time a Connecticut double or triple team converged on UCLA’s newest star, Betts focused on the work she did to earn that attention.

“I’m fine,” she told herself. “I’m good. I’m a good player.”

“I just kind of have to shut out all the negative,” Betts said, “and just remind myself of who I am.”

The 6-foot-7 center is quickly reminding everyone else. Empowered by her coaches and teammates, the Stanford transfer is averaging a team-high 16.1 points and 8.9 rebounds, leading the country in field-goal percentage at 81.4% and elevating the No. 2 Bruins to their highest ranking in program history. Betts delivered 13 points and seven rebounds in a victory over UConn on Nov. 24, a statement win that announced the Bruins (7-0) as legitimate contenders for their first NCAA championship.

Betts forgot she could be this dominant. She still wears the wounds of a disappointing season at Stanford, where she entered as the No. 1 prospect in her class but played just 9.7 minutes a game with 5.9 points and 3.5 rebounds. In nabbing the coveted transfer out of the portal, UCLA coach Cori Close knew that rebuilding Betts’ confidence would go beyond just carving out a larger role for her on the court.

When players need to work on their basketball skills, they hit the gym. But at UCLA, when they need to work on their mental skills like Betts, they hit the “mind gym.” The program’s comprehensive mental conditioning regimen has been a secret to unlocking the sophomore center’s full potential after a disappointing freshman season crushed her confidence.

Stanford center Lauren Betts blocks out and looks up during a basketball game

Lauren Betts (51) played limited minutes during her freshman season at Stanford before transferring to UCLA.

(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

“This program and honestly Coach Cori have been doing a really good job of filling me with a lot of positivity and all the things I’m capable of doing,” Betts said. “All the negativity that I saw about myself before I got here, it kind of just brought me back to normal.”

Close always knew Betts was this kind of star. Close got a firsthand look while coaching the U.S. under-19 team in the 2021 FIBA World Cup when Betts was not only the youngest player to make the cut but averaged 11.1 points and 9.6 rebounds in the United States’ gold-medal run. Even when Betts was playing behind star Cameron Brink, Close believed the top-ranked prospect could do more.

All she needed to do was use the work in the mind gym to get Betts to believe it too.

Like the repetition needed to hone the perfect jump shot, mental training is a daily necessity for the Bruins. The team spends three minutes on visualization every day. Once a week, mindset coach Collin Henderson meets with the team, typically over Zoom, for 25 minutes. There are worksheets. Coaches are assigned follow-up tasks to focus on during the week. Players sometimes have to text Henderson answers to a prompt or meet with him individually.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that I’m valued and that I matter and that no matter what happens, I still am important.”

— UCLA center Lauren Betts

UCLA center Lauren Betts, guard Londynn Jones and guard Charisma Osborne celebrate on the sideline during a win

UCLA center Lauren Betts (51), guard Londynn Jones (3) and guard Charisma Osborne (20) celebrate from the sideline after scoring against UC Riverside on Nov. 9.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The program was a key point in Close’s recruiting pitch to Betts out of the transfer portal.

“I knew that her potential was a 10,” Close said, “but I knew that her confidence was not a 10 yet.”

Close has made mental training a tentpole of her program since taking over in 2011. Fifth-year guard Charisma Osborne doubts there’s any other team in the country that works on mental training the way the Bruins do. The nine-month curriculum emphasizes themes for mental toughness. They discuss ways they can “earn unshakable confidence.” They each develop individual routines to help refocus after bad plays. They talk about how players can never outperform their self-image. That lesson resonates most with Betts.

The 20-year-old’s self-image has been intertwined with basketball since she was a tall middle schooler growing up in Colorado. She was gawked at every day in school. The tall boys were cool. The girl who towered over everyone was mocked.

“It was awful,” Betts said, shaking her head.

The pain didn’t ease until Betts came into her own on the basketball court. Working extensively with her father Andy, a 7-footer who played professionally in Europe for 14 years, Betts blossomed by eighth grade. With confidence earned on the basketball court, Betts could feel proud of her height. It helped her pull invitations to elite scouting camps. She made her youth national team debut in 2019 with the under-16 team playing at the FIBA Americas tournament, where the United States went undefeated en route to the gold medal.

UCLA center Lauren Betts purses her lips as she shoots a free throw against Arkansas

UCLA center Lauren Betts shoots a free throw against Arkansas on Sunday.

(Michael Woods / Associated Press)

While at dinner with her national team teammates one night, Betts learned she had been ranked as the top prospect in her recruiting class. She was stunned. Those around her weren’t.

“At that age, bigs are still focused on finishing layups and she’s out here doing moves, finishing layups, protecting the rim,” said UCLA sophomore guard Kiki Rice, who played with Betts on the U.S. under-16 team and was ranked second in their recruiting class. “I knew it was rare that I was ever going to be able to play with a big like that that was her size and skill level.”

With her pick of colleges, Betts chose Stanford, lured by the program’s prestige and legendary coach Tara VanDerveer. But because of the pandemic, she was not able to visit the school before committing. She understood the transition to college would come with inevitable speed bumps, especially in a deep post position group, but it wasn’t just a diminished role on the court that didn’t meet the top prospect’s expectations.

“A lot of the things I would say that people assume that I knew, that’s not what I was told,” Betts said. “It’s tricky to really go into specifics. I wouldn’t say anything specific happened, but I would say it was a long period of just not what I wanted as a freshman. … I didn’t feel like I could see myself playing there for four years.”

The experience eroded Betts’ self-belief to the point that Close didn’t think Betts’ confidence would return to its peak until late December or January. Then she dominated in her UCLA debut with 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes as the Bruins crushed Purdue 92-49 in their season opener.

Close stresses that Betts is no average center. During the team’s summer conditioning tests that included on-court sprints and a mile run, Betts made all the time benchmarks for the guards. When the Bruins switched every screen against Purdue, Betts didn’t get beat on defense one time, Close said. For defensive inspiration, Close shows Betts clips of San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama. UCLA’s star center can be that type of defensive presence, the 13th-year coach believes.

“She’s not one-dimensional,” Close said.

After her confidence was buoyed by her elite recruiting status and basketball success as a child, Betts is starting to believe her versatility can extend beyond the basketball court. At UCLA, her self-image doesn’t have to depend solely on how many points she scores or how many rebounds she grabs. Expanding her perspective has only helped improve her play.

UCLA's Lauren Betts celebrates and gets help standing up from teammates after scoring against UConn

UCLA’s Lauren Betts, left, celebrates and gets help standing up from teammates after scoring against UConn during the Bruins’ win over the Huskies in the Cayman Islands on Nov. 24.

(Kevin Morales / Associated Press)

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that I’m valued and that I matter and that no matter what happens, I still am important,” Betts said. “I think that has just brought out a sense of joy in everything that I do.”

In difficult situations, Betts brings back her joy by giving herself compliments. She knows it sounds funny, but simply reminding herself that she’s a good player goes a long way helping her refocus. If teammates or coaches see her getting frustrated, they grab her hand and join in.

After a career of trying to prove herself to everyone else, the only people she feels a need to remind of her prowess are those on her own sideline.

“The right people know who I am,” Betts said. “I don’t care about what other people think right now. … If you forgot about me, that’s too bad. Because I’m here.”

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