February 4, 2014

What does Mindfulness have to do with Football?

Apparently, a lot this year. It’s the day after the Superbowl, where I sadly watched my Denver Broncos accept a crushing defeat by a far superior Seattle Seahawks team. The Seahawks were amazing to watch, and if they hadn’t been playing my Broncos, I would have watched their performance in awe. Their play was flawless, their coaching inspiring. It was an entire team effort, and truly, in hindsight, one of the best and most dominating performances I have seen by a team in a long time. The Seahawks succeeded in doing what most teams were incapable of this year, stopping the #1 Offense that had been scoring at will all season, and holding them to one touchdown. But it wasn’t simply the #1 Defense of the Seahawks that accomplished their victory, their offense was spot on too. Russell Wilson looked like a veteran quarterback, running his offense effectively. Even when scrambling out of the pocket, or evading a tackle, he seemed to do so with a sense of calm and composure you wouldn’t expect from a second year quarterback, let alone in his first Super Bowl appearance.
What makes this all the more interesting to me, a person who studies meditation, mindfulness and the neuroscience behind it, was an article I read at the beginning of the season in ESPN magazine. I was so intrigued by the article and what it might mean for football, that I saved it. You can find the full article here:

http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/9581925/seattle-seahawks-use-unusual-techniques-practice-espn-magazine

2014 has been declared the year of mindfulness. The Huffington Post announced this fact in a front page article, and described how mindfulness, meditation and presence are all trending topics in mainstream conversations today. The latest issue of Time magazine has Mindfulness on the cover. It appears to be everywhere, which couldn’t make this soon to be meditation teacher and cognitive scientist happier. So maybe it was destiny that the team that seems to be the most mindful, would be the one to win the Superbowl in this year of mindfulness.

So in the aftermath of last night’s defeat, this avid sports fan who loves to examine the game from all angles, had to take a deeper look at what happened. When I did, what intrigued me most about this Seattle team was two fold. First and foremost, I like Coach Carroll’s compassionate, whole player coaching philosophy. In a sport where player’s are only as good as their body, and it’s ability to play each week, his program of getting to know and coach the whole player — mind, heart and body, is refreshing, and novel, to say the least. NFL players often talk about feeling isolated or alone, even as part of a team, which always seemed odd to me. But if you are competing week in and week out to keep your starting position, or gain one, against other players on your own team, this isolation may be a natural result. In a game where players are known for how hard they hit, how fast they run, or how far they throw…to focus solely on the player as a body, has been the norm. But the science shows that your mind is stronger than your body, and to isolate and focus on only one piece of the whole human equation, leaves you with less than you started with. Coach Carroll has figured this out and seems to be showing that having individual visions for each player, within the team vision, and giving them the tools, language and support to reach that vision, actually elevates the entire team. While the whole matters, it’s not at the cost of the individual, which I imagine is not in line with the majority of NFL coaches’ philosophies. To see Coach Carroll talk about his respect for the individual within the team framework on the post game show, stopped me in my tracks, and made me think…something is changing here. To see Steve Young’s excitement at Carroll’s approach made it seem all the more plausible.

The second intriguing point for me, is the Seahawks are so committed to improving their player’s mental focus, they have their own meditation coach. Meditation has been shown time and time again to improve sports performance. The ability to visual your actions on the field or court, and then to maintain a mental awareness and focus during the game or performance have been studied and documented.  During meditation, lots of things happen in the brain. One of these things is a decrease in the activity in the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe provides a person with a sense of self in relation to other objects in the world. This is where a person’s sense of separateness lives. When brain activity in this area decreases, the walls of separation come tumbling down. This is why meditators often describe feelings of connectedness with others or something bigger than themselves when they meditate. So a team meditating together, would most likely deepen those feelings of connectedness. That appeared to be the case with the Seahawks last night. The entire team, and especially Russell Wilson, seemed to know where each player was on the field. They moved with a fluidity and ease that seemed to provide evidence of this interconnectedness. Ironic that by teaching each player how to focus on their own thoughts and mind, it improves the team’s play and the performance of the whole. Meditation also gives you the ability to respond, rather than react to a situation. To step back, see it all, weigh the options and then choose your response. Sadly, for the Broncos, from the opening play, they seemed to be simply reacting rather than responding to the tasks at hand. And the further away the game slipped, the more lost in their thoughts of defeat the Broncos players appeared to be.

On the bright side of things, if there is a bright side after a Broncos loss, the team that won provides an interesting program for discussion. I know some diehard fans will be worried that Carroll’s kinder, softer coaching style might change the game, make the players themselves soft in some way, and to that, I say “Did you see the Seahawks last night?!” They displayed a full range of strength and toughness physically, emotionally and mentally, and it was unlike anything I had seen this season. They were firing on all cylinders and had a rhythm to their game, that left the Broncos without a chance. I, for one, feel this new approach to coaching adds another dimension to the game. It reminds me of the Chicago Bulls (another of my favorite teams), when they were led by Phil Jackson, the zen master himself. The teaching of meditation and the development of the mental side of the game allowed the Bulls to run the most complicated offense in basketball, the triangle offense, with an ease that made it look like a well choreographed ballet. Maybe Pete Carroll will be the Phil Jackson of football.

Now some people will say, Seattle won because they have one of the youngest teams in the NFL, which in a game where physicality matters, gives you an advantage. Or maybe they were more prepared, simply chose better plays or it was just their night. But something inside me, saw something in September when I first read that article, and it came to fruition last night. Seattle has been quietly doing the deep work that matters, and is often neglected, and it showed up in their Super Bowl performance. While my love for the Denver Broncos cannot get me to the point of being a Seahawks fan, I am a fan of Coach Carroll and his program. Maybe Pete Carroll will change the face of football, I for one, hope he succeeds in bringing his whole, mindful coaching to the NFL. Watching my team lose to a better coached squad, with a clearer vision and a mindful player program, somehow makes it easier for this Broncos fan to swallow.