How mindfulness training quietly gives elite athletes an edge

Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Zach Hyman. (Nathan Denette/CP)

“It’s the moment, man. It’s the moment. You gotta get in the moment and stay in it. Just stay in the moment.” — Michael Jordan

In an enduring scene from the ultimate episode of The Last Dance, Michael Jordan is fresh off victory and still in the flow. The greatest basketball player is decked out in a tilted ballcap and crisp T-shirt, both commemorating the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat, as he sits joyfully at a grand piano inside his Salt Lake City hotel suite, encircled by cameras and lights and hangers-on.

He puffs a cigar.

He laughs.

He tinkles the ivories.

He shares a message and a secret: “It’s in the moment.”

“Michael Jordan absolutely had formal ongoing mindfulness training,” says Dr. Amy Saltzman, a mindfulness coach who has worked with scores of elite amateur and professional athletes and author of A Still Quiet Place for Athletes: Mindfulness Skills for Achieving Peak Performance and Finding Flow in Sports and Life.

“The Bulls and the Lakers and the teams that were coached by Phil Jackson absolutely practised mindfulness, and it was taught by my friend George Mumford. It was ongoing training for the entire team.”

Speaking over the phone from California, Dr. Saltzman, a holistic physician and former gymnast herself, rattles off a list of teams and athletes who have incorporated meditation into their training and felt the benefits. There’s the Golden State Warriors, coached by Jackson disciple Steve Kerr. Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks. Derek Jeter. Kobe Bryant. Tim Lincecum. The 2016 curse-curing Chicago Cubs. Tennis champs Novak Djokovic and Bianca Andreescu, who, after upsetting Serena Williams for the U.S. Open crown, dropped this jewel: “At this level everyone knows how to play tennis. The thing that separates the best from the rest is just the mindset.”

Knowing my beat is the NHL, Dr. Saltzman highlights a Barry Trotz philosophy that guided his 2018 Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup.

“Coach Trotz says, ‘One game, one minute, one puck at a time.’ So that’s the practice of being in the moment,” Dr. Saltzman says.

“For a long time, teams didn’t have formal strength and conditioning coaches. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a team that doesn’t have a specific strength and conditioning coach. We can think about mindfulness as strength and conditioning of the mind and the heart, meaning your emotional responses to things.”

Toronto Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman perks up when I raise the subject. He’s never been asked about it, how quieting the mind helps in the noisiest arenas.

“I actually took a meditation class in college. They offered it. It was pretty interesting,” says Hyman, whose father also finds benefit from stillness. “Especially in today’s society, where we’re always on our phones and have access to any information we want. To be able to get away and separate yourself from the online world, I think is very important for how it relates to my game. Something I do find very helpful, especially before games, is visualization and just kind of visualizing plays and scenarios that can happen in the game, so that your mind is kind of pre-preparing.”

Dr. Saltzman alludes to the way Wayne Gretzky imagined the rhythms of hockey: “Know not only where the puck is going to be but where your teammate’s going to be and where your opponent’s going to be. There are actually practices you can do to widen the lens of your attention, and also narrow your attention.”

Alex Killorn has enjoyed his greatest individual season (26 goals, 49 points in 68 games) at age 30. The Tampa Bay Lightning winger partially credits his newfound meditation practice for the improvement, a routine he incorporated after Bolts psychologist Ryan Hamilton recommend he read Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, by Tim Ferriss.

“He basically interviewed the most successful businesspeople, athletes, everything in the world,” Killorn said on a recent Spittin’ Chiclets episode. “Eighty per cent of them meditated. So, I started doing it last year. It just keeps you balanced. I remember when I used to score, I used to get so happy; when I had three bad games, I’d get so down on myself. And now I’m just kind of like: I score? Whatever. I don’t? Like, just play well.”

For 10 minutes a day, Killorn would to fire up his Headspace meditation app, focus on his breathing and be present.

“I didn’t have terrible anxiety, but I had trouble sleeping a lot, especially after games. I would do it before I go to sleep. It just helps you. I’d sleep a lot better,” Killorn explained. “Guys will give you a hard time, but I think it helps.”

Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.

Capitals starter Braden Holtby is a big proponent. Montreal’s Jordan Weal mediates before every game. Senators defenceman Nick Paul uses the practices to free himself from the self-induced stress of making a mistake on ice. Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi opened up to colleague Iain MacIntyre at training camp about how daily mindfulness sessions of 10 to 45 minutes dragged him out of a dark pit of anxiety.

“As humans, we spend so much time in the future and the past. We worry. We think ahead. We look backwards. But we’re never in the right now. We forget to enjoy the moment,” Baertschi said. “You go into a quiet room and go through certain body scans and just sit there and focus on breathing. That really puts you in that present moment, and that’s when your brain functions the best. In sports, people call it the zone.”

At the elite athletic level — where everyone is fit, everyone is technically skilled, and everyone is eating right — a sharp, worry-free mind can provide a competitive advantage.

“We know what makes the difference is our mental, emotional capabilities. But then we don’t necessarily build that into our training. We don’t train our minds and our hearts the way we train our bodies. That said, I would say more and more athletes are starting to understand the value of that and the need for that,” Dr. Saltzman says.

“What if these amateur athletes can learn these skills before they got to a professional team? And in a way, it might help them get to a professional team.”

Advanced mindfulness skills can take an athlete beyond awareness of breath, of thoughts and emotions. Applied properly, they can help an athlete know when to push through the physical pain of training or stop; how to deal with pre-competition nerves; how to maintain your love for the game; how to be a true teammate; how to quit dwelling on mistakes; and how to hasten a stint on the IR.

“There is some data to show that mindfulness (a) decreases injury and (b) enhances rehab,” Dr. Saltzman states. “I think mindfulness training is actually becoming more of a fixture.”

Jealousy among teammates, coping with a benching or a demotion in playing time, butting heads with the coach, responding to a ref’s blown call — mindfulness skills can quicken a reset and lead to a more positive response.

“So, it’s not just listening to the practices. It’s how do I apply it in the heat of the moment, in the run of play? Maybe there’s defeating self-talk. Or maybe you’re busy comparing yourself to a teammate or a competitor rather than actually focused on your event. Or you’re distracted by an argument you had with your boyfriend or girlfriend or something else going on in your outside life rather than literally having your head in the game,” Dr. Saltzman says.

“As important as the sports part is, what’s more important to me is that the same skills that we learned through mindfulness in sports can be applied to the rest of our lives.”

The pandemic and its inherent restrictions on training have wrought new challenges for the athlete’s mind, but Dr. Satlzman is encouraging her clients to spin quarantine into an opportunity.

“Some are anxious. Some are depressed. Some are rediscovering their true love of their sport. Some of them are able to train pretty much normally,” says Dr. Saltzman, who has been offering free online sessions and short courses for athletes searching for flow while stuck at home.

“It’s a great time to cross-train. It’s a great time to rehab your injuries. It’s an awesome time to develop your mental, emotional game, which is what I’m encouraging people to do.”

For more information on mindfulness in sport, please visit Dr. Amy Salzman’s website here.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.