In 1996 while coaching football at Northern Illinois University I was faced with two moments that would profoundly shape my future. I had undergone surgery to fuse my right ankle, and this procedure severely limited my range of motion. Meanwhile, one of my star football players pulled both of his hamstrings, and it was unclear if he would become the star player he was destined to be. It was yoga that would help both Justin McCariens, of the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets, and myself find growth and healing in ways we would have never imagined.
Because of my background as a coach for the last 20 years I have had the pleasure to work with a number of world-class athletes. Yoga is the tool that I use to help them reach their own elite level. The practice improves physical performance, cultivates discipline, and unlocks the deep mind clarity needed to perform and live powerfully. Yoga also provides a pathway to help athletes understand that by accessing a power greater than themselves, they will achieve feats never done before.
Typically the first shift an athlete experiences through yoga is in the physical body. I have seen players take as much as three-tenths of a second off their 40-yard dash time. Distance runners shave one minute off of their mile times and golfers find power they didn’t have access to before, increasing their drive as much as 40 yards. These improvements come from an increase in flexibility and balance. The typical workouts athletes perform involve major muscle groups, but yoga works deeper to affect the ligaments and smaller stabilizing musculature. Many stretching programs miss the hamstrings, hips, and gluteus maximus. Yoga postures provide direct access to these areas. Hips are the steering wheels to our body. Once we gain access to our hips we are able to move freely with athletic agility while protecting the stability of our knees. Improved mobility also results in better alignment, allowing the body to move more efficiently on and off the playing field.
The second major benefit athletes discover through yoga is the ability to find discipline and clarity of mind. Yoga helps cultivate a steadiness within that keeps us calm in the midst of a challenge. With a calm and steady mind we are able to perform at our best in high-pressure moments. I was blessed to discover meditation when I was 8 years old and it has become my saving grace for studying how my mind operates and becoming aware of the patterns it runs in all moments. Over time I have developed the ability to think ahead and understand how a chain of events will unfold. This is a great tool for an athlete in any sport. By gaining mental clarity and the discipline to continue to operate from this space we are able to see things from a slower perspective and think faster in times of competition.
I have found that athletes early in their meditation practice will benefit from five minutes of sitting and counting their breaths. I tell my players to simply breathe in and breathe out one. Breathe in and breathe out two. Continue to 40 and repeat. (Try a simple guided meditation to do before exercise here.) Once this has become easy for them, I invite players to practice pregame meditation. It is important for athletes to learn to work with their breath as they move around a field or court. By using their breath accordingly athletes begin to recover during and after exertion. When an athlete reaches up, moves upward, or expands, they breathe in; when something is going down or contracting this is the time to breathe out. By learning to link breath with movement, which yoga teaches us, an athlete gains access to more power throughout their performance.
Finally, yoga offers athletes access to a higher power. As we develop and practice yoga we find several aspects of our internal world that allow us to move deeper into our collective connection. Togetherness, intention setting, and the power of our breath are different aspects of yoga practice that support this unity and help us access intuition and an ability to listen at a deeper level. This type of listening practiced by teammates is profoundly powerful during the game; when we communicate on such a high and subtle level, we become unstoppable.
In the end yoga is the link that allows all athletes to reach a new level of performance. It is said that when we are ready, we do not find yoga, but yoga finds us. Yoga found me when I was ready to perform in my life at my highest, and now it is my privilege to share this gift with others.