Wisdom 2.0 2014: How the Seattle Seahawks Won the Super Bowl with Mindfulness
Wisdom 2.0 2014 was liveblogged by our friends at MediaShower.
Dr. Michael Gervais is a sports psychologist and mindfulness coach who helped guide the Seattle Seahawks to a national championship at Super Bowl XLVIII. In a dialogue with conference founder Soren Gordhamer, Michael started by explaining how far professional sports have come in accepting the concept of mindfulness. When he first started working with a professional hockey team fifteen years ago, the coach introduced him to the players by announcing, “All right, if you’re f’ed up in the head, you can see this guy.”
Fast forward to his first meeting with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll over dinner, when he felt like they were already in sync. Carroll ended the dinner by asking him, “What do you say we build a masterpiece together?” “I was able to lean into it and say, ‘Okay, let’s see what’s here.’ And that’s how our relationship began.”
Soren asked Michael to elaborate on what Carroll meant by a “masterpiece,” and Michael used another of Carroll’s analogies. “A masterpiece in sports is like having ‘one heartbeat.’ Bringing all the players and coaches together to have them in sync.” Mindfulness, Michael explained, is key to getting there.
"What is possible?"
Asked about the specific techniques that he uses with players … Michael emphasized the importance of first having the right culture in place: “You need a culture of people being able to be mindful and explore.” Once again, he pointed to Carroll’s conscious creation of a culture that values personal excellence, constantly challenging players to be their best.
Then he talked about how he works with athletes in a group, or an individual basis. “We start with ‘What is possible?’” He emphasized this question is difficult for many athletes, since they don’t want to underreach or overreach. “We have that conversation, then we try to calibrate on, ‘Great, so that’s what’s possible. From there, what are the strategies we can create — physical, mental, nutritional — for you to achieve that?’”
Another question he asks is, what is it like to be your best? “Let’s articulate what it feels like,” he tells athletes, “when you’re at your best.” They figure out ways of getting to that moment of peak performance, even in difficult situations. “We don’t talk about winning, or being in the zone: those are aftereffects. We ask, ‘What’s getting in the way of you being in an ideal mindset?’ And we figure out strategies to work through that.”
"Fear is really central to what we do"
Much of Michael’s work is helping athletes cope with incredible physical and mental pressure. He pointed out that athletes are frequently afraid of getting physically or emotionally hurt, and talked about the importance of this discomfort and fear. “There’s nothing better than an uncomfortable moment,” he said, “because in that moment we’re incredibly aware of ourselves. Then we can ask, ‘What can we do with this?’”
Once fear is part of your experience, Michael explains, there is a predictable “fight or flight” physical response. He emphasizes that we need the tools in order to be able to manage that fear in moments of stress. “We need to get a platform in place that allows fear to be part of it, to be comfortable with it, even to have fun with it, and that allows us to master it. Then we get some tools, like breathing or self-talk. That’s how to thrive in situations we’re not proficient in. Fear is really central to what we do.”
In those moments, he ultimately wants his athletes to have a high level of mindfulness. When that happens, and their technical skills are precise, they can be in a moment that most people would define as intense, and they can dissolve that intensity. “There is no pressure,” he says. “It’s the moment. And being lost in the moment is so rewarding and so engaging, people become so interested in that moment, that we don’t have to challenge them. They become naturally interested. Asking, ‘What is it like to be your best?’ gets them there.”
"Every moment has equal value"
To reinforce the importance of mindfulness, the Seahawks treat every game as if it were a “championship opportunity.” Game 1 of the preseason, Michael explains, is typically not a very important game, but they tell players to treat it like a championship opportunity. Game 4 is a championship opportunity, Game 10 is a championship opportunity, and so on, all the way to the Super Bowl, which is also a championship opportunity.
Not only does this help reduce the pressure from “big games,” but by learning that each game has equal value, athletes can also learn that each moment has equal value. There’s not a defining moment, because every moment defines us.
"Competition is an important word to honor"
When Soren asked what lessons we can learn for the workplace or other non-athletic environments, Michael said the main questions he asks his athletes apply to all of us. Can you create a sense of confidence in any situation? Can you refocus better in this moment than you ever have before?
Michael also talked about working with coaches, and how to manage their frustrations with players. “Do you think the game can be played perfectly? No. Will mistakes happen? Yes. So the issue becomes, how quickly can you recover from mistakes?” He talked about the importance of “failing fast,” so coaches can help the team learn and quickly recalibrate.
"Competition is an important word to honor," Michael said. "The modern idea of the word is that we’re trying to dominate, but the way we understand it is akin to the origin of the word: to strive together. To strive together with people across the line, and with our own team, to be what we are called to be."
In other words, to live our full potential. It worked for the Seahawks, and it can work for all of us.