This mindfulness teacher gets results (just ask Kobe)
Newton’s George Mumford teaches basketball greats — and everyday people — the power of flow.
SOMETIMES THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENTS in our lives take place when we’re not even present. For George Mumford, a Newton-based mindfulness teacher, one such moment took place in 1993, at the Omega Institute, a holistic learning center in Rhinebeck, New York.
The center was hosting a retreat devoted to mindfulness meditation, the clear-your-head habit in which participants sit quietly and focus on their breathing. Leading the session: meditation megastar Jon Kabat-Zinn. Originally trained as a molecular biologist at MIT, Kabat-Zinn had gone on to revolutionize the meditation world in the 1970s by creating a more secularized version of the practice, one focused less on Buddhism and more on stress reduction and other health benefits.
After dinner one night, Kabat-Zinn was giving a talk about his work, clicking through a slide show to give the audience something to look at. At one point he displayed a slide of Mumford. Mumford had been a star high school basketball player who’d subsequently hit hard times as a heroin addict, Kabat-Zinn explained. By the early 1980s, however, he’d embraced meditation and gotten sober. Now Mumford taught meditation to prison inmates and other unlikely students. Kabat-Zinn explained how they were able to relate to Mumford because of his tough upbringing, his openness about his addiction — and because, like many inmates, he’s African-American.
Kabat-Zinn’s description of Mumford didn’t seem to affect most Omega visitors, but one participant immediately took notice: June Jackson, whose husband had just coached the Chicago Bulls to their third consecutive NBA championship. Phil Jackson had spent years studying Buddhism and Native American spirituality and was a devoted meditator. Yet his efforts to get Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and their teammates to embrace mindfulness was meeting with only limited success. “June took one look at George and said, ‘He could totally connect with Phil’s players,’ ” Kabat-Zinn recalls. So he provided an introduction.
Soon Mumford was in Chicago, gathering some of the world’s most famous athletes in a darkened room and telling them to focus on their breathing. Mumford spent the next five years working with the Bulls, frequently sitting behind the bench, as they won three more championships. In 1999 Mumford followed Phil Jackson to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he helped turn Kobe Bryant into an outspoken adherent of meditation. Last year, as Jackson began rebuilding the moribund New York Knicks as president, Mumford signed on for a third tour of duty. He won’t speak about the specific work he’s doing in New York, but it surely involves helping a new team adjust to Jackson’s sensibilities, his controversial triangle offense, and the particular stress that comes with compiling the worst record in the NBA.
Late one April afternoon just as the NBA playoffs are beginning, Mumford is sitting at a table in O’Hara’s, a Newton pub. Sober for more than 30 years, he sips Perrier. It’s Marathon Monday, and as police begin allowing traffic back onto Commonwealth Avenue, early finishers surround us, un-showered and drinking beer.
No one recognizes Mumford, but that’s hardly unusual. While most NBA fans are aware that Jackson is serious about meditation — his nickname is the Zen Master — few outside his locker rooms can name the consultant he employs. And Mumford hasn’t done much to change that. He has no office and does no marketing, and his recently launched website, mindfulathlete.org, is mired deep in search-engine results. Mumford has worked with teams that have won six championships, but, one friend jokes, he remains the world’s most famous completely unknown meditation teacher.
That may soon change. This month, Mumford published his first book, The Mindful Athlete, which is part memoir and part instruction guide, and he has agreed to give a series of talks and book signings in Massachusetts and beyond. The book comes at a perfect moment: Once dismissed as a peripheral New Age practice, mindfulness is now everywhere. It’s being taught at companies from Google to Target; famous practitioners now include Oprah, Jerry Seinfeld, and George Stephanopoulos. While Mumford is visibly uncomfortable with the idea of marketing himself as the Man Who Taught Michael Jordan to Meditate, he’s taking baby steps down the route traveled by so many celebrity trainers and gurus. “I haven’t advertised or put myself out there,” the 63-year-old Mumford says over a plate of fish and chips. “One of the reasons I did [the book] is it’s the best way to get out there.”
And as he does, he’s giving us a glimpse into the usually secretive mental training practices of elite athletes. Professional teams are ordinarily very protective of what they do to help players be focused and confident — they see it as a key source of competitive advantage. Mumford toes that line, stopping short of describing exactly what goes on in the locker room. But by piecing together descriptions in the new book, Mumford’s own explanation of his work from interviews, and accounts from athletes and coaches who’ve hired him, it’s possible to gain some insight into the pioneering work Mumford has done with athletes over the last two decades.
GEORGE MUMFORD WAS BORN 10th in a family of 13 children. He grew up in poverty in Dorchester, his father an alcoholic. Mumford was a good athlete — particularly basketball — but he was injury-prone, which he attributes partly to the stress of his chaotic home life. He won an academic scholarship to the University of Massachusetts but didn’t make the basketball team; instead, he spent his years in Amherst playing in pickup games, teaching himself guitar, and earning a degree in finance.
“I think George could have played on the college level,” says Julius Erving, who lived with Mumford at UMass and often played ball with him at Boyden Gymnasium and elsewhere. But Dr. J, who of course went on to become a Hall of Famer, was most impressed by Mumford’s seriousness of purpose. “George was certainly a quiet guy in terms of his personality and demeanor, but he was a deep thinker. He was definitely concerned about being successful, and we migrated toward each other.” The friendship gave Mumford insight into the pressures of being a world-class basketball player, which helped him relate to the superstars he began counseling two decades later.
At UMass and in his post-college job as a financial analyst at a defense contractor, however, Mumford was living a double life. As a teenager in Dorchester, he’d begun drinking and doing heroin, and by his 20s had developed a raging habit. “I had a security clearance on my badge and track marks on my forearm,” he writes in his book. “I always made sure to wear long sleeves.” In 1984, after Mumford was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection caused by intravenous drug use, a friend took him to Alcoholics Anonymous and he entered a 21-day detox program. Soon afterward, a therapist referred him to a stress management program that included meditation.
Mumford found that meditation offered drug-free relief from the chronic pain of his many sports injuries, and soon he was practicing it daily. At night, he began to pursue a master’s degree in counseling psychology at Cambridge College; when he wasn’t studying or working, he was often attending silent retreats or talks at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre and the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, where he later took up residence.
By the end of the 1980s, Mumford had begun working with Kabat-Zinn in Worcester. “George was a unique person,” recalls Kabat-Zinn, founding executive director at UMass’s Center for Mindfulness. “Part of it was his own personal history — he’s not shy about telling people he had his own drug issues and all sorts of personal challenges growing up.” Race was also a factor. There was a “paucity of diversity” in meditation circles of the time, Kabat-Zinn says, and Mumford was a pioneer in taking the practice on in a deep way and translating it for other African-Americans.
Mumford says his ability to connect goes far deeper than color. “I don’t relate to people on race,” he says. “I relate to them on a soul level.” But when he began working with the Chicago Bulls, in the fall of 1993, that connection was hardly instantaneous. Michael Jordan had just quit basketball to play minor league baseball (badly, it would turn out), and the Bulls were in crisis. Sacrificing valuable practice time to have the team listen to some guy talk about breathing was unusual, but Jackson felt it was worthwhile.
“George had a gift for demystifying meditation and was able to explain it in language that made sense to the players,” Jackson wrote in his 2013 memoir, Eleven Rings. “He also had an intuitive feel for the issues they were grappling with because of his friendship with Dr. J and other elite athletes.”
After Jordan quit baseball and returned to the Bulls, Mumford focused on teaching the superstar a new way to lead. “Jordan, in particular, was very skeptical, but over time he began to understand the clarity, the mindfulness, and the importance of learning to focus and perform in the moment,” says Roland Lazenby, a veteran NBA writer who authored biographies of Jordan and Jackson. The players began to realize that Mumford’s work was transforming the team — particularly in helping Jordan play unselfishly. Today Mumford recalls MJ as one of his best students. “He got what I was doing, and he understood,” Mumford says.
When Jackson moved to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999, Mumford went with him. Over time, the same pattern emerged: initial skepticism, followed by widespread acceptance. “Michael Jackson tried to get me to meditate,” Kobe Bryant once told an interviewer, “but I couldn’t sit still for 20 minutes.” Under the tutelage of Phil Jackson and Mumford, however, meditation became a key to game preparation for Bryant — and for his teammate (and feud counterpart) Shaquille O’Neal.
“There weren’t a lot of things that Shaq and Kobe agreed on,” says Lazenby, “but they both agreed on the effectiveness of George Mumford.”
Around the same time, Mumford had expanded beyond the NBA. He began working with the Boston College men’s basketball team, coached by Al Skinner, another UMass basketball player who lived with Mumford after Dr. J left school for the pros. From 2010 until this March, when a new coach was appointed, Mumford taught mindfulness to the Holy Cross basketball team.
Mumford also worked with individual athletes — volleyball players, lacrosse players, soccer players, golfers — and even dabbled in executive coaching. Dan Gerstman, who owns a national retail sales agency based on Long Island, met Mumford at a conference and spent two years speaking with him during weekly phone calls. (Gerstman says that Mumford would sometimes take calls at 4:30 a.m. when he was in Los Angeles working with the Lakers.) “It was mind-opening in ways — it really helped me to concentrate better,” Gerstman says, “and I started to see that my life’s results at work and at home became better overall.”
Mumford says his work with a client often resembles assembling a large and complex jigsaw puzzle. “You have all the pieces spread out, then you start putting the pieces together one by one,” he says. “It takes awhile, but at some point you see what’s happening. . . . It’s ‘circular learning,’ where you go over the same thing . . . and each time, you pick up something.” At a certain point, he says, it just clicks.
IF THAT STRIKES YOU as a maddeningly vague description, you’re not alone. In talking with Mumford, it’s hard to get a clear sense of what it is he does. That’s partly because Mumford’s work is built on discretion and trust — he’s loath to discuss specifics of his famous clients, in person or in the book — and partly because the nature of the work can resist description.
Even clients sometimes have trouble characterizing Mumford’s job. After dominating the Celtics in an August 2013 game, Andrew Bynum told reporters he had Mumford to thank for motivating him. But when asked to provide Mumford’s title, Bynum had to fish into his pocket to retrieve his teacher’s business card. It read “personal/organizational development consultant.”
When pressed, Mumford himself describes his approach as nonlinear, non-formulaic, and driven by context and personal dynamics — not something that can be outlined in Seven Simple Steps. If he’s working with a team, he’ll ask: What are the individual players’ challenges and how do they relate to one another? If he’s working with one person, the key question might be: How can she quiet the negative voices inside her head? (“You’re going to miss this foul shot and your teammates will hate you.”) His goal is to help athletes experience the utterly focused, time-stands-still state that psychologists refer to as “flow.”
“What George offers is an esoteric, ethereal thing — it’s very hard to pin down,” says Roland Lazenby.
Some of Mumford’s services involve traditional guided meditation — and those skills are on display on a Sunday morning at the South Shore Insight Meditation Center in Hanover, where he is on the board of directors. He sits upright in a chair at the front of the room, a statue of Buddha on a raised platform behind him. Around him sit six recovering substance abusers, most of them in their 50s and sober for decades. Mumford begins this session by passing around a typewritten sheet, and participants take turns reading aloud each of AA’s famed 12 steps. Then he has everyone close their eyes and he instructs them to focus on their breaths, in and out. Unlike many meditation instructors, whose voices change to a singsong cadence when they guide a group, Mumford speaks in normal tones. It’s the height of allergy season, and he tells the group to modify the in-through-the-nose, out-through-the-mouth procedure if clogged sinuses make it necessary. For a quarter hour, a calm descends on the room, with periods of silence broken by Mumford’s instructions. At the end, he rings a bell, and everyone opens their eyes.
Next the group takes turns talking about recent challenges, which range from a struggle for identity to a stressful relationship with an aging parent. To each, Mumford listens attentively (even as the stories drag on) and then offers a response — sometimes humorous, sometimes wise, always compassionate. He quotes Yogi Berra and Robert Frost, among others. (He’s read a book a week since getting sober, and The Mindful Athlete abounds with literary, psychological, and spiritual references.)
“George can take any audience and just be there for them and express the truth of how to stay present in the moment,” says Madeline Klyne, cofounder of the meditation center in Hanover, who first worked with Mumford in prisons during the early 1990s. “People just respond to him.”
That is also true of college players. “He relaxed you,” says Steve Hailey, who met Mumford as a freshman basketball player at Boston College in 2003. “You’d block out everything that went on that day — where you were, the pressures of the next game, and the people around you.”
But even when he works with a college team, Mumford spends much time one-on-one. He begins by handing out to each player a 100-question assessment, which gives him a sense of the team’s mental strengths and weaknesses. Meeting privately, he’ll talk to players about stresses and anxieties, conflicts with coaches or teammates, or other emotions that may hurt their play.
“George just has a way of knowing and relating to you — where you understand him and can talk to him, and it’s kind of comfortable right from the start — it’s strange,” says Hailey, who’s now a Boston-based private basketball trainer who refers some of his high school and college players to Mumford. Unlike traditional therapists who practice in regimented 50-minute sessions, Mumford prefers unstructured hanging out. He’ll often watch a team practice, then pull aside one or two players for three-minute chats. When he works with a team on retainer, he watches every game, either in person or on tape. With pro athletes, he’ll also watch postgame interviews on TV, closely observing body language. “There are some things he can see from the outside looking in that as the coach you would miss,” says Milan Brown, the former Holy Cross men’s basketball coach.
Mumford shows a special understanding of the unique stresses facing elite athletes. Every Division I college player was probably the best on his or her high school team; now they’re fighting for playing time and a starting position — knowing that even if they become starters, next year’s freshman recruits hope to knock them off. In the NBA, where millions of dollars ride on a player’s individual statistics, the pressures are even greater.
Mumford recalls that when he began working with the Bulls, he was surprised by how much time and energy players spent in the key moments before big games dealing with requests for tickets from friends and hangers-on. It’s an illustration, Mumford says, of how the more successful a team or an individual becomes, the more distractions there are. “It takes away from your ability to train and maintain,” he says. His job is to help them block out the distractions — to help be in the moment, on the court and off.
Some of the qualities Mumford seeks to instill in athletes — self-confidence and a reduction in negative self-talk — are goals of traditional sports psychology. But Mumford’s approach is different. “There are sports psychologists, but they never participated in sports, and they don’t really get it, in my opinion,” says Al Skinner, the former BC basketball coach who was recently hired as coach at Kennesaw State University. “They’re book-read; they’re sitting on the perimeter asking questions . . . [and often] they’re not very good in the locker room.”
WHEN MUMFORD BEGAN working with the Chicago Bulls in 1993, meditating in a professional sports locker room was extremely unusual. But the practice has grown, pacing the success of Jackson’s teams and the thinking of new-generation professional coaches less focused on old-school styles of motivation and more open to new ideas. For instance, Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks, has had a sports psychologist lead locker-room meditation sessions with his football team. Closer to home, the Red Sox have also shown a growing interest in mindfulness training. In January, Globe baseball writer Alex Speier reported that the Sox had hired Richard Ginsburg, a sports psychologist from Mass. General, who will lead a new department of “behavioral health.” Speier wrote: “The staff plans to place an emphasis on the emerging field of ‘mindfulness,’ in which individuals consciously identify and take stock of the circumstances surrounding them to avoid getting overwhelmed or distracted.”
In an e-mail earlier this month, Sox spokeswoman Zineb Curran confirms that the new behavioral health program involves consultation with MGH’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, whose primary benefactor is John Henry, the Sox’ principal owner (who also owns The Boston Globe). But she declined to provide more details, since “the program is still in its early stages of development.” (The Patriots and Celtics declined to discuss whether they employ psychologists or other mental-skills professionals.)
Still, it’s surprising mindfulness training hasn’t caught on more broadly. It’s a cliche that many sports are more mental than physical, or that as elite athletes (like Olympians) optimize training to achieve a physical parity, mental preparedness makes all the difference. Despite the cliche, many teams do little to help their players improve in this area. Mumford cites various hurdles facing teams that want to hire him. At the college level, tight university athletic budgets and strict NCAA regulations limiting how many hours athletes can practice (meditation sessions can cut into practice time) are factors. So is some coaches’ concern that Mumford might come between the coach and his players — a longstanding issue that’s faced sports psychologists.
Some observers see signs that may change. Coaches point out that as recently as the 1960s, college and pro football players rarely lifted weights — and those who did worked out with informal guidance from the head coach. Then one college hired a “strength and conditioning coach” and experienced success; today every large football program has one. Competitive sports is an arms race, and if teams that embrace mindfulness continue to experience success, the practice will continue to spread.
There’s also room for growth among individual athletes. In an era when affluent parents spend thousands of dollars on AAU teams and private instruction for teenage athletes, it’s easy to imagine “mental skills training” becoming a bigger part of the adolescent sports regimen. After all, who wouldn’t want their child’s mental skills honed by Jordan’s former guru? That hasn’t happened yet, perhaps because of a lingering stigma over taking a child to a psychologist — but also, in Mumford’s case, because of a lack of marketing. Indeed, when he’s not working with the Knicks, Mumford sounds a bit underemployed — not that he’s particularly concerned about it. “I’m not [booked up], but I’m not sure I want to be,” he says. “I’m not in it for the money.”
That attitude extends to his billing. Mumford doesn’t believe in hourly charges, he says, because he doesn’t stick to rigid therapy-like appointments. He also eschews the “quick fix.” “There are people out there who are willing to do one or two sessions, and I’m not,” he says. He prefers clients who will commit to working together for three months or more, during which they’ll have some set appointments plus 24/7 access by phone. When I press him on the cost, he says it depends on his sense of a client’s ability to pay. It could cost hundreds of dollars or several thousand dollars, or he might just ask the person to make a donation to a good cause.
Mumford’s fans hope that if his profile does expand as a result of the book, the primary beneficiaries won’t be big-time athletes. There’s growing evidence that mindfulness can help in many areas of life, from overall health to academic performance. In fact, the Benson-Henry Institute has launched a program that teaches mindfulness to teens, to help with test-taking and other stressors. Kids everywhere show a willingness to mimic their sports heroes, who influence fans’ choice of footwear, sports drinks, and musical tastes, and some mindfulness pros hope that the more young people can learn about how NBA stars utilize meditation, the more open they’ll be to trying the practice themselves.
Says Jon Kabat-Zinn: “George has found a niche that’s incredibly important. [His clients] are huge role models for kids in the inner city, and if [these kids] begin training their minds to create mindfulness and a sense of being fully present, that’s the way you really create opportunity.” And if this new generation aspires to Be Mindful Like Mike, George Mumford stands ready to assist.
ZEN MOMENTS IN BASKETBALL
“The crowd gets quiet, and the moment starts to become the moment for me . . . that’s part of that Zen Buddhism stuff. Once you get into the moment, you know when you are there. Things start to move slowly, you start to see the court very well. You start reading what the defense is trying to do.” – Chicago Bull Michael Jordan, after making the game-winning shot to clinch the 1998 championship, his sixth
“When you get in that zone, it’s just a supreme confidence that you know it’s going in. It’s not a matter of if – it’s going in. . . . Everything slows down. You just have supreme confidence. When that happens, you really do not try to focus on what’s going on [around you], because you could lose it in a second. . . . You have to really try to stay in the present, not let anything break that rhythm. . . . You get in the zone and just try to stay here. You don’t think about your surroundings, or what’s going on with the crowd or the team. You’re kind of locked in.” – 5-time world champion Laker Kobe Bryant, on his 81-point game in 2006
“Every so often a Celtics game would heat up, so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. . . . At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain.” – 11-time world champion Celtic Bill Russell in Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man