Meditation apps such as Headspace, MindSport and Sanvello, and programs like mPEAK developed by the University of California San Diego are seeking a more technological approach to reducing stress through mindfulness.
This is the second story in a series about mental health awareness in sports. The first part covered how college sports can help both draw attention to and drive innovation that addresses problems like depression and anxiety. This article looks at how mindfulness is being embraced by sports as a way to improve mental health and win on the field.
One of the NFL’s biggest—and smallest—signings last season may have been Zoë, a French bulldog adopted by Austin Moss II, the San Francisco 49ers director of player engagement, and embraced by 49ers players as the first emotional support animal in the league.
Moss adopted Zoë in October 2018 at the urging of defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. That January, Thomas’s older sister, Ella, had taken her own life. Ella had struggled with anxiety and depression for years following the death of close friends in high school and college. She was raped while a student at the University of Arkansas, and eventually dropped out of school. Thomas was deeply affected by the loss of his sister, and dictated an emotional letter about her to ESPN’s Molly Knight.
Zoë quickly became a popular staffer at the 49ers training facility, and players relied on her to “brighten their day,” a team spokesperson told CNN last month. “Meetings, practice, and workouts can make for a long day. Zoë acts as a stress reliever.” The team struggled on the field last season, recording a 4-12 record, but much has changed over the last year. San Francisco is now the only undefeated team remaining across the entire league, holding an 8-0 record.
Zoë’s arrival is a sign of how much the attitude towards mental health is changing across sports. Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star center and power forward Kevin Love has openly discussed his own struggles. In a November 2017 home game against the Atlanta Hawks, Love suffered a panic attack. The following March, he wrote a column on The Players’ Tribune to share how that experience had changed his own perception of mental health. The article was titled “Everyone Is Going Through Something.”
In a world where athletes must dedicate large percentages of their lives to sport in order to succeed, events such as the loss of a close friend or relative, or a career-altering injury, can easily overwhelm them. According to NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline, injury is a leading risk factor for depression. “When an athlete becomes ill or injured and there’s no game plan in place, that’s when there’s really a risk for depression,” he says. “The biggest risk to an athlete is when someone transitions out of sport, especially suddenly. If they develop clinical depression in the post-injury phase, that athlete’s physical injury is going to take longer to recover from.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, other risk factors for depression, relevant especially to Thomas’s plea for Zoë, include a family history of the disorder and major life trauma.
One of the biggest areas of innovation in improving athlete mental health is the topic of “mindfulness.” The goal of this is to find ways to stay present in the moment, rather than to worry about the past or the future, and to accept both positive and negative emotions, without feeling pushed towards action by them. Emotional support animals like Zoë can be a way to find stress release, with small bundles of fur offering unconditional love and not judging players for that missed play in last week’s game, or worrying about how they’ll handle the offensive line in the next matchup.
And a growth of meditation apps such as Headspace, MindSport and Sanvello, and programs like mPEAK (mindfulness performance enhancement, awareness and knowledge) developed by the University of California San Diego, are seeking a more technological approach to reducing stress through mindfulness.
At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in early March, NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed that Love is far from the only pro basketball player to struggle with negative emotions. “The outside world sees the fame, the money, all the trappings that go with it, and they say: ‘How is it possible they even can be complaining?’ “ Silver said. “But a lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy.”
When reviewing academic studies on male athletes in elite sport, Gary Souter, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Leicester in the U.K., found a lack of acceptance for mental health problems. In an article published in the journal Sports Medicine in 2018, Souter wrote that “despite the prevalence of common mental disorders in male athletes, stigma still exists, and although some athletes discuss their issues publicly after their career has ended, the majority of athletes prefer to remain silent.”
Souter is currently studying the mental health of professional soccer players in the U.K. “Some football clubs have psychologists but not all buy into it because it’s still seen as a sign of weakness,” he says. “You can’t force yourself on the players, they have to come to you. And we’re a long distance away from embracing a culture of sport where players are regularly seeking help.”
In one example, Souter says a soccer goalkeeper had a panic attack during a pre-match warmup and did not feel that he could play. The player faked an injury because he feared admitting to struggles with anxiety could impact his career far more than a physical injury would.
“Sometimes athletes are perceived as modern day gladiators,” says Scott Goldman, who has served as the director of performance psychology for both the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins, and has worked with the athletic departments at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona. “They’re heroes. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast. It’s easy to forget their humanity.”
One key to improving mental health within sports may be to target performance instead of problems. “It’s very common for an athlete to come into treatment or care and he might start with an issue of, say, shooting a free throw,” Goldman says. “It evolves into some family dynamic, then goes back to free throws.”
Clinical psychologist Matthew Love spent two years coordinating student-athlete mental health programs at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and his current areas of focus include sports psychology. Love says that emphasizing performance can help sell the concept of mindfulness to athletes.
“I like to call it ‘enhancing your awareness,’ ” he says. “A lot of times people come in for performance anxiety so doing visualizations of the course, or of themselves running or playing in the match, can help. Then, when they’re going into that arena, they might not have as heightened of an anxiety response because they’re more familiar with it.
“You see it with downhill skiers before a run. You’ll see them close their eyes and move back and forth, visualizing the run, getting mindful and tuning into the present moment. By becoming more aware of [stress] responses, athletes can help to redirect their point of view back to the here and now,” Matthew Love explains. “And when you’re in the here and now, that’s the flow state, or the runner’s high, because everything falls away and the athlete allows their body and mind to sync up.”
Partnerships between scientists, entrepreneurs and sports have played a major role in the recent embrace of mindfulness. In 2014, a group of neuroscientists and psychologists from the University of California San Diego collaborated with Team USA’s BMX cycling team to develop mPEAK. In a pilot study published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience in 2015, the cyclists reported improved mindfulness and awareness of bodily signals, and those results appeared to be backed up by functional MRI scans of their brains. Courses in mPEAK are now offered by UCSD’s Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute, or MBPTI-certified instructors, and are targeted at both athletes and the wider population.
In March 2018, the NBA partnered with Headspace to give players across the NBA, WNBA and G League access to the meditation app. Headspace is also now incorporated into the NBA’s rookie transition program, and an NBA-branded track of recordings on Headspace features pros such as Phoenix Suns guard Ricky Rubio and Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird. Last week, Rubio tweetedthat Headspace helped him win the 2019 FIBA World Cup with Spain in September.
“We want players to know there are resources out there for them no matter what it is that they’re particularly struggling with,” says Jamila Wideman, the NBA’s vice president of player development, and a former WNBA player. “Since we’ll never be able to guess at any one time what those issues may be, our effort is to make sure we create a diverse set of resources for them. Most importantly, our work has focused on making sure athletes have access to programs that are specifically catered toward wellness and their ability to proactively take care of themselves.”
Ultimately, as with almost everything in sports, performance still remains a central focus. One of Headspace’s newer initiatives is building customized programs to help athletes prepare for major competition. As part of a partnership with U.S. Soccer (and MLS), the company constructed daily, personalized mental health training programs for players on the U.S. women’s national team over the five months leading up to and through this summer’s World Cup. The program was accessible directly through the team’s app, which players were already using for team news and communication. On July 7, the USWNT defeated the Netherlands to secure its fourth title.
In 2018, Clemson’s football team also introduced Headspace into their weekly schedules, using the app to guide a meditation exercise for the team—though Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney joked in a press conference that defensive coordinator Brent Venables has drawn plays in the back of the room during sessions. Clemson went on to defeat Alabama in the 2019 College Football Playoff in January, and is undefeated so far this season.
“We talk to athletes about meditation being strength training for the brain,” says Lindsay Shaffer, Headspace’s head of sports and fitness. “Our goal is to not have teams, leagues and athletes think about their mind reactively, but to shift the culture to be proactive and think about it as a performance tool and then be more prepared when a mental challenge does arrive.”