A for Athlete



By Des Bieler, June 2, 2015

Vaughn Gray recalled what changed for him. Over the past couple of basketball seasons, the former George Mason University forward found he was able to “see the game slower . . . react to things more efficiently” during contests.

“I felt like I was maximizing my motions, and my playmaking abilities were more heightened through the breathing techniques,” Gray told me recently.

And where had he learned these techniques? In several classes he and his teammates had taken in July and August of 2013, as part of a GMU studyon the possible benefits of a “mindfulness-based intervention.”

That study, published last year, built on a nascent body of research into how approaches that emphasize mindfulness (defined in the study as “bringing conscious attention to the present moment in a receptive, curious manner”) may prove more effective for athletes than traditional sports psychology.

Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation actually changes your brain.

But it’s one thing for a group of athletes to learn some of those concepts; it’s another for them to put them to good use. To help bridge that gap, the GMU study introduced a novel element: yoga.

“We wanted to add yoga because athletes are accustomed to physical exercise, and we thought it would be a nice complement to the mindfulness intervention, which traditionally is basically talking for 90 minutes,” said Fallon Goodman, the doctoral researcher at the school’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being who oversaw the study. “There are some experiential exercises, but yoga added that physical component that athletes are used to.”

Goodman’s project involved taking a team and administering the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) program, which was established by other researchers within the past decade, then comparing the results to those of a control group of club athletes from the school. Both groups filled out extensive questionnaires at the start of a five-week period, and again at the end of it, but while the control group was left to go about its normal business during that period, the Patriots basketball team underwent eight 90-minute mindfulness intervention sessions.

Those sessions were each followed by an hour of Hatha yoga, a gentle, basic form of the discipline that emphasizes getting into certain postures and focusing on breathing. Other forms of yoga popular in the West, such as Iyengar and Bikram, are derived from Hatha.

At the end of the five weeks, the team reported “less perceived stress.” Compared with the control group, the basketball players reported greater mindfulness, which was to be expected. But they also experienced “greater goal-directed energy” — an ability to purposefully pursue values, both on and off the court, that were in line with what kind of players and people the athletes wanted to be, rather than just reacting to external, often negative, pressures.

How much of those gains were attributable to the addition of yoga to the mindfulness program? Well, that’s hard to say, even for Goodman, who hopes to find out more in another study. “That’s something we would do differently, trying to distill that out a little bit better,” she told me.

Certainly, Gray found benefits in both classes he took, saying that “it was good to add the yoga side,” which the coaching staff had already been planning on implementing, to the “mental training.” Gray recently graduated and hopes to play professionally overseas; meanwhile, he still does yoga “every once in a while . . . because I like the way it loosens my body up.” He prefers to do it in the morning: “It wakes you up mentally, and it kind of focuses you in, gets you kind of centered in your body and your mind.”

Jenn Crewalk, a GMU staffer who led the yoga sessions (unaware at the time that the players were participating in a study), told me in an e-mail exchange that she “definitely tailored the class to the existing skill, camaraderie and healthy competitive spirit between them.”

“It was really energizing watching a few athletes complete the full expression of a difficult pose, then they all support each other to go for it,” Crewalk wrote. “These yoga sessions were much more lively and interactive than some classes I teach at the gym, where you have to build that supportive community.”

The Patriots actually went on to have a difficult couple of seasons, as they made the move into a much tougher basketball league, the Atlantic 10. However, Gray said, “There was never any negativity in the locker room. We were able to push through adversity. Even though things may have been rough at the time, when we were losing or whatever, we tried to always stay as a family, because we kind of knew all of each other’s personal issues” from the mindfulness interventions.

Gray’s experiences line up with what Goodman described as the benefits of mindfulness, as opposed to the psychological skills training traditionally used by sports psychologists, which encourages athletes to try to control or push away unpleasant thoughts and feelings. “Instead of acting in a reactive way of trying to get rid of that stress, or maybe acting in a way that’s not in line with what you want to do,” she said, “by accepting it and becoming more aware of it, the hope is that your behaviors will then be more in line with things you care about.”

Goodman was confident that the yoga sessions had helped with that process. “I mean, you talk about mindfulness, it’s hard to explain to someone and to talk about,” she said. “Then you’re actually kind of living it, or acting it out with your body, with yoga. And then, the next step is, translate that into your sport — so what does it look like to be a mindful basketball player?”

In the future, a greater number of Patriots may know what it’s like to be mindful in their sports. Goodman told me that, following her study, “a lot of other teams are interested, so I guess that’s a sign that something went well.”