Milan Markovic via iStock
After years of training and demanding workouts, a small group of former football players sought to master a new playing field – their minds.
Through an eight-week workshop, offered by Healthy Minds Innovations, a nonprofit associated with the Center for Healthy Minds at UW–Madison, former NFL and college football players learned mindfulness-based practices such as meditation, mindful movements and mindful breathing to see if they might be useful in their daily lives.
Post-survey responses from former athletes suggested they experienced improvements in sleep, a positive shift in how they related to physical pain as well as increased feelings of gratitude during their day-to-day activities.
Like other groups such as veterans and law enforcement where mindfulness-based practices are being investigated, former professional football players experience stress and injury at a higher rate.
“This was an important first step to determine if a more formal research project should be launched to assess whether mental trainings could be useful,” says Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds who served as the lead advisor for the project. “We found that mental trainings seem to be useful and accessible to former football players. Yet feasibility is just the first step – these are self-report surveys and are not considered research-based recommendations put through the scrutiny of scientific peer-review.”
“Many former football players leave the sport with physical pain and cognitive impairment. Mindfulness is a promising tool in improving former players’ well-being.”
One survey conducted by Newsday and the National Football Players Association found that 61 percent of former players said it was difficult to adjust to daily life after leaving the sport and 42 percent reported daily challenges from injuries from their playing career. After moving on from the sport, players may lose the social networks they’ve relied on for years, leaving them suddenly faced with integrating into everyday life outside of their profession with little guidance or assistance.
Chris Borland – a former UW–Madison and NFL football player and mental health advocate – is aware of these challenges and collaborated on the development and delivery of the program in Madison. Borland has actively pursued evidence-based ways to help athletes and match them with contemplative research that could be tailored to athletes and the unique challenges they face.
“Many former football players leave the sport with physical pain and cognitive impairment,” Borland says. “Mindfulness is a promising tool in improving former players’ well-being.”
In the future, experts working on the project hope to broaden athletes’ exposure to the program to include current student athletes in a variety of sports on college campuses.
"These athletes have trained their bodies at elite levels and achieved tremendous success,” says Chad McGehee, Learning and Development Program Lead at Healthy Minds Innovations, who co-developed and taught the program for former football players. “We're curious how the contemplative practices we explore in our work resonate with athletes and may be helpful during emotional and physical transitions in their lives.”