Tuesday, April 06, 2021

A meditation experiment with an NFL player who retired at 24 over concussion fears led to cutting-edge mental training for college athletes


Jackson Thompson 

April 5, 2021

Montee Ball and Chris Borland helped Wisconsin win the inaugural Big Ten championship in 2012. Five years later, they helped the university make a groundbreaking addition to its athletic training staffGregory Shamus/Getty Images


Graham Mertz felt more mindful on every snap last season.

The University of Wisconsin quarterback had a unique advantage over every other passer in 2020: The only full-time meditation coach in college sports.

Chad McGehee became the first person in the world to earn the title of Director of Meditation Training last May, when Wisconsin's athletic department approved the groundbreaking hire.

"As soon as he got on staff, you could see a difference in guys just being more in the moment." Mertz told Insider.

McGehee joined Wisconsin just in time for Mertz's redshirt freshman season, a hiring that Mertz said was critical to the team coping mentally during the COVID-19 pandemic. The added mindfulness training helped Mertz lead the Badgers to a Duke's Mayo Bowl victory over Wake Forest in his first year as the starter. 

For Mertz, the training has helped him keep a short memory on the field and build a new layer into his relationships with teammates. 

"It's a little reset for me," Mertz said. "How can you reset every play to be ready for the next coverage, the next blitz? Chad always talks about being in the eye of the hurricane, and that's his metaphor for 'you got a lot of uncontrollable stuff going on around you, and how can you ground yourself in how you think and how you act?' And that's truly just being in the moment."

Now, with a year of meditation experience under their belts, Mertz and his teammates are becoming an example that other programs might follow soon. 

"Lots of people have reached out, and I think there's growing interest," McGehee told Insider. 

"Sixty years ago, most athletes weren't lifting weights. They thought it would wear their bodies out. Now, of course, it's central to every athletic training program at every level," he added. "I see what we're doing at Wisconsin as being on a similar trajectory, where we'll look back in five, 10, 15 years, and training the mind in this way will be just as normal as training the body."

Chris Borland's shocking NFL retirement set the stage for a key experiment 

The university's decision to invest in McGehee was based on a 2017 pilot program conducted by the Center for Healthy Minds – a research institute at Wisconsin focused on studying the mind and emotions. The program involved 17 former football players recruited by Wisconsin football alum and former NFL player Chris Borland, who devised and planned the program.

Borland, a third-round draft pick out of  Wisconsin in 2014, stepped into a starting linebacker role for the San Francisco 49ers as a rookie. But after his first NFL season, Borland retired at 23 due to concussion concerns – making him the highest-profile NFL player to quit the sport at a young age because of worries about head injuries.

Borland pitched his vision for a group meditation experiment with athletes to Richard Davidson, the founder and chair for the Center for Healthy Minds. 

"Athletes will do anything that works ... whatever gives you that 1% edge," Borland told Insider. "Thanks to Richie's groundbreaking research, I didn't have to do a lot of that transitional work. I said, 'look, it might sound funny or strike you as strange or sound entirely new to you, but here are the brain scans, here are the testimony from people that have gone through similar work ... It's physiological. It's effective.'"

Chris Borland Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images


Borland and Davidson spent the next year planning a first-of-its-kind experiment that would train former the former football players unlike any physical training regimen ever devised for athletes. 

"It was almost like a rookie class or a freshman class because 14 out of 17 guys were completely new to the practice and never formally meditated," Borland said

McGehee, a former Division III soccer player turned meditation specialist, was assigned as the main instructor. 

McGehee's passion for the practice stemmed from experience during his own athletic career in college, when he struggled to balance it with his ongoing grief for his father, who'd died during McGehee's senior year of high school. 

"It was a tremendous amount of suffering I was dealt with, and then I go off to college, and I was playing soccer," McGehee told Insider. "How do I manage my life? Manage the demands of being a college athlete, including the academic demands? It just kind of all felt like too much. I really wished I would have had someone who could have been slowly working with me to develop skills to deal with those things."

McGehee first took a step toward specializing in meditation training for athletes with a session for field hockey players at Kent State University and his experience as an athlete made him an ideal candidate for what Borland and Richardson were looking to achieve. Borland said McGehee could relate to athletes better than other meditation specialists.

Athletes were unprepared for the program's surface-level exercises

After the program's second session, McGehee wasn't sure if the participants would be back for a third. 

"I was asking these guys to do practices, to kind of get closer to the experience of what was happening in their own minds and bodies," McGehee said. "Which is a radical thing for most athletes to train to do, especially if there's any level of pain or difficulty."

For McGehee, the goal was to help the participants build endurance mentally, just as they already had for physical challenges. All 17 returned in week three. 

"Pain plus resistance is suffering. So it's the mind that has a whole lot of that resistance, and by seeing that, by shifting our relationship to it, then a lot less suffering happens," he said.

Former running back Montee Ball, a Heisman candidate for Wisconsin in 2011, was one of the participants who came to the program without prior meditation experience.

Chris Borland and Montee Ball Dan Sanger/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


"My first ever time doing a meditation practice was in that group." Ball said. "We lied down in the middle of the floor and just looked up at the ceiling ... we were then instructed to focus on parts of our body that were in pain, and it was actually my left knee. And after about five minutes, the pain had significantly decreased."

After Ball's NFL career ended in 2016, his post-retirement commitment to mental health and a friendship with Borland from their playing days at Wisconsin led Ball to delve into mindfulness.

"When I was in college, I would not have been receptive to it," Ball said. "I wish I would have; I wish it was available then, but unfortunately, it wasn't."

Meditation could spread to more athletes and schools

Wisconsin's incoming classes will have McGehee as a resource, as well as athletes like Mertz who've gotten a year of their own meditation experience to share. 

"I will definitely try to get everybody on it," Mertz said. "It won't be really forced on anyone, but it's an option, and it's a great option, and a lot of guys will go with it." 

Mertz admitted he would even be willing to participate in programs similar to the one led by Borland to help spread meditation training to more athletic programs in the future.

Meanwhile, the 17 members of the original 2017 pilot program are scheduled to meet for a Q&A with The Center for Healthy Minds later this month to reflect on their experiences.

"We want the center to keep working in sports, so we're just checking in on the guys and just having a Q&A about what they think was good, what could be improved, and how to continue," Borland said. "As it gets more press and people realize the benefits, I see that being replicated elsewhere. I just think they've started something that will catch on."


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