Yale Athletics

“Ninety percent of the game is half mental,” Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra famously quipped. For some Yale athletes, however, 90 percent of the game has become half mindful.

More Yale athletes are meditating than ever before, a phenomenon spawned from a growing initiative led by Tracy George SPH ’15, Yale’s health educator for student wellness. After introducing the women’s track and cross country teams to the routine last year, George now visits the Eli runners at practice each week, leading an optional meditation session. The men’s track and cross country teams, the sailing team and the fencing team have also taken to pregame mindfulness, and the tennis teams have reached out to George as well.

“There’s such an interest for it, which is great,” George said. “[Mindfulness] really helps with getting into the flow state. You hear artists, musicians, athletes just spontaneously arriving in this flow state, where things start going really smoothly and you’re in the moment. Science is showing that mindfulness can help you get to flow easier — if you practice it, the more readily available it is, so it’s really applicable for athletes.”

George started an undergraduate mindfulness program at Yale after joining the wellness office and partnered with Brian Tompkins, the former men’s soccer coach and current senior associate athletic director of student services, to bring mindfulness to Bulldog athletics.

After George spoke at a training session for Eli captains last year and led a short meditation, some captains approached her to see if she would introduce their teams to mindfulness. She also conducts a drop-in meditation session designed for only athletes once per week.

“Mindfulness has helped me as a runner because racing is an intensely mental experience,” said Adam Houston ’18, the captain of the men’s track and cross country teams. “We spend hours training our bodies as well as we can, but oftentimes the most crucial moments in races are split-second decisions that determine the outcome of races and whole seasons. Mindfulness has helped me separate the physical sensation of running fast from the mental experience … Everyone knows the voice that says to slow down and stop trying; mindfulness has taught me to recognize and then ignore that voice and focus on what I am experiencing in my body, not my head.”

At a typical track practice, George leads interested team members in a 10-minute “body scan.” Starting from the toes and feet and moving upwards, the meditators tune out everything but a specific part of the body.

According to Emma Lower ’19, a member of the women’s track and cross country teams, the body scan not only helps with one’s body awareness but also eases the daily strains of being a student-athlete.

“I think it’s really mental, more than physical for me,” Lower said. “I’ll have a stressful day and then I’ll go and do this body scan, and I just feel so much calmer. It feels like you took a brain shower — when you’re going through the body scan you have to focus all your attention on one part of your body. It gives you this intense focus, and I think carries over into daily life and my practice.”

Lower estimated that 15 of the 27 cross-country runners participated in George’s pre-practice exercise at her latest visit. Last year, Lower meditated on her own. But working with George in person has been much more effective, she said.

Houston’s embrace of mindfulness went beyond the day-to-day benefits for training. He said that the mental exercises aided him in his prolonged recovery from a leg injury before the track championship season.

“I was not able to train as hard as I wanted because I was injured,” Houston said. “But I was able to train my mind to handle long races and workouts and to focus on the moment-to-moment experience of running. A lot of runners take great confidence in a long series of successful workouts and high mileage, but I didn’t have that. Instead, I used the limited time I had to prepare for championship season through focusing on a few good workouts and using mindfulness and meditation as a tool to get me to the start line feeling relaxed and ready.”

Recently, mindful running in particular has grown in popularity, spreading through blogs across the Internet. Still, George said mindfulness is no more applicable to running than it is to any other sport, especially since most teams incorporate some element of running into their training.

Practicing mindfulness can reduce the mental wandering that may interfere with athletic performance, according to George. She cited the work of George Mumford, who now works for the NBA and in the past has taught meditation to basketball stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

“Meditation was really helpful in making sure that I focused before my games, even the night before, so that I’m in the right mindset,” said Larissa Nguyen ’20, who played on the women’s rugby team last year. “If I’m a little too anxious, my focus goes towards my schoolwork, [and] I’m a lot more likely to be in bad form, to possibly get injured, to not perform.”

Student Wellness offers a Yale-wide meditation session at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu