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, after making the playoffs last season, having a rising star at quarterback, and playing 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 USC Trojans 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 by Alyssa Roenigk in a recent article in ESPN the Magazine, Carroll has gone to extraordinary lengths to create a culture of happiness and wellbeing 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.
    CarrotsPositive 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 wellbeing 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 but also adding the mental side. “It’s important to develop positive thought processes, getting accustomed to uncomfortable positions and situations. When they get into difficult situations on the field, they are prepared and stay relaxed.”

YogaTally 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 field goal with 8 seconds remaining.

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.

Wide receiver on grass football fieldI 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.

What do you think? Is this approach to the wellbeing of professional football players helpful? Could it be counterproductive? Is it a philosophy you would like to see implemented in other sports? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the September 13, 2013 issue of The Post and Courier.

3 Responses to Can a happier, healthier football team win in the NFL?

  1. Hi Dr. Geier,
    This is music to my ears! I have often thought that mindful exercise Rx like yoga was often missing in professional sports. I know there are various athletes out there that embrace yoga or Pilates or some other form of movement based therapy. As a physical therapist, i often use different yoga postures in my treatment to enhance my manual techniques. The breathwork that is required with yoga and meditation really down regulates the nervous system which only enhances well being and ultimately performance.
    Love the blog and the podcasts!
    Erica Meloe

  2. It’s definitely a story worth tracking! My thought is that if more NFL teams get on board and introduce things like yoga, more holistic fitness regimes, and think about food as part of the overall sport than maybe that attitude will trickle down into college, high school, and youth sports as well.

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david-headshot I am an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.

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