The improvement of Gordon Hayward during the 2018-19 season has been a promising development to watch for Celtics fans in recent weeks. The swingman has progressed well on the offensive end after a rough start, improving his shooting percentage in every month from December (37 percent) all the way through to March (55 percent). His 25-point outburst on Wednesday night against the Heat delivered a season-high 13 free throws and displayed some of the timely aggression that made him a highly sought after free agent in the summer of 2017.
Amid his recovery through a tumultuous regular season for the Celtics, Hayward has repeatedly referenced that some of his biggest obstacles have nothing to do with on-court play
“I think physically, I've been feeling pretty good for a while,” Hayward explained last month. “Mentally, it's been a challenge.”
Hayward has been working with a mental health counselor to help him navigate those challenges, something he first revealed in an ESPN article last month. In an interview with BostonSportsJournal.com Hayward opened up about the origin of those conversations, how exactly they have helped him progress and the evolution of mental health support in the NBA.
Getting a hand on the road to recovery
Hayward may have returned to the court for the first time in September but his support system began far before then. Amid months of rehabilitation, which had to be done away from the team for long stretches, Hayward first enlisted the help of a mental health counselor shortly after his gruesome ankle injury last October in Cleveland.
“It was definitely probably a little bit into the injury,” Hayward explained. “Just a lot of time on my hands last year, so just wanted to make sure I was not losing myself mentally. I think that's been the toughest hurdle.”
The decision to see someone was reached thanks to encouragement from the Celtics, friends and family.
“I've never been the type of person to go and necessarily do that on my own, but I think with the nature of everything that happened, it was good,” Hayward said. “I kind of had to be steered towards it a little bit, but I was open to it.”
Hayward underwent a season full of repetitive rehabilitation with the potential backdrop of a late-season return, a scenario that was constantly speculated about in the media up until the final months of the regular season. The 28-year-old was removed from the limelight but faced an uphill climb back to full health under the microscope of the NBA world and social media.
“The whole thing was just a lot,” he admitted. “Everything that I was dealing with. It's good to be able to talk somebody and have it not necessarily be friends or family — be kind of like a third party person and unbiased, just to hash things out. It was all a lot.”
Celtics assistant Scott Morrison has been Hayward’s individual coach since signing with the Celtics in 2017 and has been a pillar of support for Hayward during his tenure in Boston.
“I think, with just human nature being the way it is,” Morrison said, “any time you are in a new situation or in a situation like this, where everyone is under a lot of scrutiny, it's good to have someone you can just complain to sometimes about things you aren't happy with, or maybe something you aren't seeing a progression like you want to see. These guys are under a lot of media eyes and a lot of pressure from external and internal sources. Just to have someone help through that and help them lock in on what's important is big.”
A changing attitude
Sports psychologists have been around for decades now, although the idea of seeing one was not even considered by most players until recent seasons.
“Just from my own personal experience, I know 15 or 20 years ago when I was playing, it was a taboo thing,” Morrison said. “You didn't want to admit that you needed the help or didn't want to admit to yourself that you needed help and would do anything you could to avoid sports psychologist. I remember the first person I ever heard using a sports psychologist was John Smoltz with the Braves. I remember playing a little bit after that, not wanting to admit that I needed any help like a lot of my teammates.”
Morrison’s mentality on the subject shifted with age though. He has seen the attitudes toward mental health evolve first-hand over the last 20 years, first as a standout collegiate player in Canada and then as a head coach for two highly successful Canadian programs before joining the Maine Red Claws as a head coach in 2014. Through that experience, he noticed a key in getting others to accept the guidance.
“As a college coach, it was not very effective towards the full team because somebody would be worried about what the next guy is thinking about them,” he said. “Now, it seems to be moving more towards 1-on-1 work and I think that's best because not only does it allow you the privacy to say what you want, but it allows that person to focus solely on you, whether it's a sports-related thing or an off the court related thing. I think it's just best to have someone who deals with your own personal issues or topics that you want to discuss.
“I think the players now will owe a lot to the Kevin Loves of the world that kind of made it more public and more acceptable. 'If this guy is doing it, I can do it too.' At the end of the day, no one knows what they are really saying in there, so they are kind of protected that way but get to see the benefits at the same time.”
Hayward did not hesitate to consult others around the league about his situation and got reassurance about the benefits of a mental health coach for the life of any NBA player.
“I've talked to guys over the years that have used somebody even when they weren't coming back from injury,” he said. “I think the NBA as a whole is a stressful job and you are constantly competing and being judged and obviously judging yourself as well. I think just in that environment elsewhere, it's a lot to deal with, let alone family and other issues that life presents. I think in general, it's good for people to talk to somebody.”
The Celtics have been at the forefront of trying to give that support to their players for years now, putting them ahead of a lot of organizations across the sports landscape.
“The way things in sports go now is I think, as coaches, we are good at teaching skills and reads and helping guys improve their performance on the floor from a physical standpoint,” Morrison said. “We have a training room, that when a guy gets hurt, I don't try to tape them up or tell them what to do. They are the experts in that. The mental part being so big in terms of overall performance, you should have someone dealing with that as well that's an expert in that field.
“Yogi Berra said it a long time ago, the game is 90 percent mental. We always joke about that and agree with that but it took this long to figure that, 'Hey, we got to get guys to be experts in this field and apply their knowledge to help the guys get better.' It's kind of embarrassing it took this long, but you have to applaud the guys that were first responders in that field. I think Coach Stevens is one of those guys that really put an emphasis on this stuff early.”
Maximizing his game
This probably would have been a tough year for Hayward even if he wasn’t coming back from injury, given the talent and makeup of the Celtics roster. He’s taking just 8.7 shots per game despite averaging 25 minutes, both of which are the lowest total of his career since his rookie season. On many nights, opportunities have been hard to come by, creating a smaller margin of error as the team faces sky-high expectations.
As Hayward has looked for teammates first instead of shots for himself for most of the season, Morrison has been a constant presence in his ear, imploring him to ignore the skeptics and believe in himself. He believes Hayward’s confidence level may have been impacting his overall game early in the year.
“I think, maybe, I'm not trying to give myself any kind of credit, but I believed in his physical attributes a little sooner than anyone else,” Morrison said. “I've watched him so closely that I would see flashes of things that he's supposedly not able to do yet. People would say 'When he gets back...' I would say to myself, 'If he can do this in one instance, he should be able to do it more.'
“Maybe he alerted us to the fact that confidence was an issue. That might be related to the injury as well, or a lack of reps or taking time off. I try to do my best to build his confidence and not hide from mistakes that have to be corrected but also highlight the strengths he was displaying on the floor. Just trying to encourage him to be a little bit more aggressive and believe in himself and not listen to the people that might not say he's back yet.”
The critics have started to quiet down as Hayward piled up his sixth straight double-digit scoring performance on Wednesday night. His consistency has slowly returned to form. His attitude has also shifted throughout the year, and he is moving away from being his own harshest critic on things that are beyond his control.
“I think I'm still working on a lot of things, but it's certainly helped with preparation and also after games,” Hayward said of the counseling. “I've been able to, not necessarily move on, but learn from games and get ready from the next one.”
Hayward (11.3 ppg) has also acknowledged that he’s trying to look beyond the box score in judging his own play, no small task for a guy who averaged 21.9 points per game in his last healthy season.
“I think it's just kind of the nature of the situation we have here,” Hayward said of his mentality. “There are only so many shots to go around. It's going to be different guys on different nights, based on who is hitting, matchups, certain things like that. I want to continue to stay aggressive and definitely still look for my shot, but try not to judge whether or not I've played a good game based on upon hitting shots.”
Needless to say, the assistance has helped Hayward build toward his season peak amid an underwhelming regular season for the team. The Celtics' postseason ceiling gets much higher with Hayward playing at this level. How much Hayward’s work with a counselor plays into that we will probably never know, but credit starts with the player for being open to a different form of coaching and reducing the remaining stigma around mental health treatment.
“Gordon himself deserves the credit, just like the other guys that have come out and said they have sought out help,” Morrison said. “The more good players that come out and say, 'I get counseling or I get mental health treatment or whatever the case may be,' the easier it will be to get someone else open to that idea as well.”