Can a happier, healthier football team win in the NFL?
It should come as no surprise to diehard NFL fans that the Seattle Seahawks are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl this season. They made the playoffs last year, have a rising star at quarterback, and play in front of an imposing home crowd.
How the team has gone from league doormat to title contender, though, might be the real surprise.
When Pete Carroll left the University of Southern California to become the Seahawks’ head coach three years ago, he implemented a philosophy within the organization radically different from most professional sports teams. As described in a recent article in ESPN The Magazine, Carroll has gone to extraordinary lengths to create a culture of happiness and well-being for his players.
While it was initially optional, the team’s yoga classes were so popular among players that they are now mandatory for everyone on the roster.
About 20 players work with team sports psychologist Mike Gervais in meditation sessions focusing on imagery and mental relaxation.
Positive words and actions are expected from players and the coaching staff in every practice, meeting and even media interview.
Seahawks’ director of player health and performance Sam Ramsden tracks each player’s sleep. He plans to have players wear GPS wristbands in practice to monitor physical effort and adjust their rest accordingly.
The team chef prepares meals that include fruits and vegetables from organic farms. All leftover food then feeds the chickens raised specifically for team meals.
The Seahawks employ an addiction counselor and life skills consultant to help players adjust to the NFL and prepare for life after football.
Carroll explained his holistic approach to player well-being in the article.
“I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?”
An emphasis on mental and emotional health can likely benefit athletes, even in a physically demanding sport like football. Maybe yoga, counseling and better diets can prevent some of the off-the-field issues that seem so common in today’s game and the physical and mental health problems many former players exhibit later in life.
Can this philosophy truly lead to success on the field, though?
Lyn Tally, a yoga therapy practitioner and co-owner of Charleston Wellness Group and Go Interactive Wellness, says she is thrilled that the Seahawks are addressing the players’ physical needs through yoga as well as the mental aspects.
“It’s important to develop positive thought processes, getting accustomed to uncomfortable positions and situations,” Tally said. “When they get into difficult situations on the field, they are prepared and stay relaxed.”
Tally has worked with the football team at The Citadel for four seasons as well as the basketball and baseball teams.
“College and professional athletes have used their bodies as tools for so long, and they are under a lot of stress. This mindful approach is so helpful because it can provide mental clarity that could allow them to become better athletes on the field than they were before.”
In the Seahawks’ case, one can simply look at recent performance. Only four current players joined the team before Carroll arrived, so it’s safe to assume that the coach has assembled a roster whose players buy into this approach. The Seahawks finished the 2009 season 5-11 before Carroll arrived. Last year, they went 11-5 and made the divisional round of the playoffs before losing to the Atlanta Falcons on a last-minute field goal.
It is worth noting that there could be a more sinister explanation for the team’s ascension. Since 2011, the Seahawks have had five players suspended for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, more than any other team in the league. PED use is likely not a problem limited to the Seahawks, though. Meditation and sleep monitoring, on the other hand, seem to be novel to everyone else.
I hear from readers occasionally who think that I’m against football. That isn’t the case at all. I love watching it every Saturday and Sunday. I just want to see athletes healthy enough to play now and able to lead productive lives after their careers are over. I think the Seahawks’ approach is a step in the right direction.
Maybe old-school fans will call Carroll’s “happy players make for better players” philosophy another example of changes that will make athletes softer. If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, I doubt fans in Seattle will mind.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston. For more information about football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to his blog at drdavidgeier.com.