PHOENIX — Rare are the occasions when a group of 200- to 350-pound individuals whose job descriptions involve physically crushing opponents can offer a veritable symposium on the benefits of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.
Welcome to the Seattle Seahawks’ grand experiment.
Grandfatherly coach Pete Carroll is not running your grandfather’s football team. Instead, under the Seahawks coach, at a time when they are atop the competitive landscape with their second straight Super Bowl appearance, Seattle has moved to the forefront of NFL teams in terms of embracing mental conditioning as a means of allowing their players to thrive.
The Seahawks talk often about celebrating the uniqueness of their individual players, finding ways to tap into the strengths of each player and create roles, gameplans, and more broadly an environment to permit them to do just that.
“In a very short time in Seattle with the Seahawks, [Carroll has] created a fertile ground for people to explore their own best self,” said Dr. Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist, in an interview for Mindful Magazine.
“It’s grounded in really well-researched science, of psychology, is he’s exploring with a person, collectively and individually, what is possible. … It is a culture of people aspiring to be at their best.”
Gervais, characterized as a high-performance psychologist, is a central part of that grand experiment. He’s been a regular in Seahawks practices and on the sidelines during games for three years. He’s worked with players on mental conditioning through practices such as meditation and yoga.
But more broadly, he’s at the forefront of Seattle’s culture of mindfulness, described somewhat loosely as a focus on the present in which a player is keenly aware of his surroundings and thoughts.
“The idea of mindfulness is really important — being mindful of situations, the surroundings you have, understanding what other people are thinking, understanding what other people do extremely well and what their weaknesses are — how do you heighten their strengths and how do you strengthen their weaknesses,” explained Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. “I think that’s kind of the thought process, especially as a quarterback, that I always have to be conscious of, that I always have to be utilizing.”
Wilson does not take that responsibility lightly. Not only does he embrace the advice of Carroll and Gervais in the discipline of mindfulness, but he’s hired mental conditioning consultant Trevor Moawad — with whom he’s worked since preparing for the NFL draft in 2012 — to help him maintain heightened levels of awareness, focus, and leadership.
“What’s unique about Russell is, Russell knows you don’t need to be sick to get better. He knows that I can do really, really well and still find ways to get better,” said Moawad, suggesting that most athletes who seek his services do so after they’ve encountered adversity. “It should be obvious to athletes but it is not obvious to most athletes.”
Wilson is not alone in embracing the atypical tenets being preached by the Seahawks. Safety Earl Thomas, for instance, suggested his sideline-to-sideline defensive coverage and game awareness were unlocked by the mental skills approach taken by Seattle.
“[Mindfulness] puts an emphasis on focus. I couldn’t focus for a long period of time until I got here. It took practice,” Thomas said. “You see everything for what it is — you notice it. When it comes to football, how the game moves, I can see everything now. My eyes can expand to see the whole picture.”
Such testimonials come in contrast with what one might assume to be the typical view of sports psychology in the NFL, a league that has cultivated an image of rigid, almost oppressive discipline for decades. It is a league, suggested Moawad (who has worked with football teams dating to 2001 in Jacksonville), that “has been fairly stagnant for a variety of reasons” in terms of its embrace of mental conditioning.
Baseball and the NBA have embraced performance psychology for some decades (with the Red Sox in some ways at the current vanguard of that movement), with names such as Harvey Dorfman, Don Kalkstein, and Bob Tewksbury becoming familiar around leagues, and the Zenmaster label of Phil Jackson reflecting a keen interest in the mind-athlete connection. But in the NFL, the idea of team-instituted sessions of focused meditation and breathing exercises to control heart rates, mindfulness, and individuality is a bit … different.
“It took me about six months to get used to it and to understand how it works, to be honest with you. It took me a while to embrace the coaching,” said defensive end Cliff Avril, who came to the Seahawks from the Lions in 2013. “Everything that we do is a little bit different, from how we approach games, meetings, practice, everything.”
The integration of Gervais into the work of the coaching staff is very real. Coaches consult with him about the sets of thoughts that might be on a player’s mind at the snap of the ball; from that basis, the coaches feel better able to do their jobs of communicating to the players about the elements on the field about which they need to be aware.
“[Mindfulness is] a big factor, and one that we all take advantage of. Everyone reaches out to [Gervais] quite a bit. For us to have that kind of expertise, just from the mental training and the mindset of what it takes to be a competitor, that’s been big for us,” said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. “If there’s a better way to do it, if we can find a competitive edge in any way, we want to do that.”
The merits of that competitive edge — and the joy of the nontraditional football culture in Seattle — have become apparent to the players, in a way that has achieved team-wide buy-in.
That doesn’t mean the players sat on the sidelines during the last week of practice in team-wide meditation (a couple of players admitted that they didn’t even realize that the team offered meditation instruction until recent weeks). Still, the players recognize that more than sheer physicality has kept them competing at a championship level over the past two years.
“Everybody has their type of mental training and mental preparation. We have guys on our staff that we can talk to and work with that,” receiver Jermaine Kearse said. “I think that the mental aspect of our team, I feel like that’s what makes us special.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter @alexspeier.