This year's Super Bowl will be played in New Jersey, but it looks as if the Seattle Seahawks will have the "ohm" team advantage, as head coach Pete Carroll encourages all his players to meditate daily.
"Coach Carroll combines old-school values with a real appreciation for the science of psychology," said Michael Gervais, a high-performance sports psychologist who has been the team's consultant since 2012. "He recognizes that quality of thought readily translates into quality of movement."
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While Carroll hasn't made meditation mandatory, he promotes it and about 20 players participate voluntarily, meditating several times a week, Gervais said. The team also incorporates yoga into its regular strength-training sessions.
Players new to meditation start off with six minutes of deep breathing, Gervais explained. As they gain more experience, they devote longer periods of time to the practice. Gervais said this demonstrated the tremendous tolerance they have for taking on extended tasks that can often be boring or difficult.
"That grit is a characteristic that helps them to get closer to their full potential on and off the field," he said.
While football is obviously an intensely physical sport, mental muscles also flex pretty hard during a game. Learning to slow down and calm down is so important, Gervais said, because it teaches players to fine-tune their focus, attention and attitude. This leads to what Gervais described as a more mindful approach to the game.
"Simply put, mindfulness occurs when you become more aware of your thoughts," he explained.
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There's an entire body of science backing the idea that increased mindfulness can equate to better performance. Studies find that daily meditation helps raise awareness of self-defeating thoughts. Mindfulness practice also helps reduce production of the "flight or fight" hormone adrenaline that contributes directly to anxiety and distracting mental chatter.
Meditating regularly probably influences the size and topography of the player's brains as well. Not that all that extra brain matter is useful for blocking or tackling opponents, but work sponsored by the National Health Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found an increased thickness in areas of the brain associated with self-awareness, introspection and learning after several weeks of short meditation sessions. A regular mindfulness practice also appeared to shrink the more emotionally reactive spots in the brain that tend to plump up in response to chronic stress.
By halting negative thinking and replacing it with sunnier thoughts while in training, players learn to carry a more positive attitude onto the gridiron, Gervais said. This can also translate into direct physical advantages as well. For example, Gervais said the time players devote to sitting on a meditation cushion with their eyes closed has taught many of them how to slow their heart rates during the intensity of play.
And certainly a relaxed, more focused team certainly can't hurt the Seahawks game, Gervais said. He can't comment on the progress of individual players, but he said that over time, the athletes who participate in mindfulness training seem to develop a rich consciousness of the thoughts streaming through their minds. They've learned to block out distractions from the other team and from a fan base so rabidly vocal, cheering crowds triggered an earthquake at a recent home game.
"Collectively, they've learned to think more clearly under pressure," Gervais said. And so far this season, the Seahawks' appreciation for developing both brains and brawn seems to have paid off. They players appear to be pretty loose heading into big matchups, such as last weekend's championship game against the 49ers.
Gervais said there should be a take-home message here for the rest of us.
"We can learn something here from some of the best athletes in the world," he said. "What they do can be used outside of football. It's relevant to any type of performance whether it's on the football field, the board room or the living room."
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