For the past two months, while some members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team traveled on the bus to games, they would plug in earbuds and meditate. When the adrenaline was high after playing in crazed stadiums, several players would do the same to relax on the journey back.
These have been a few of the uses from a new partnership between meditation app Headspace and both U.S. Soccer and MLS. All athletes and employees of the national federation and the North American pro league will receive access to Headspace, mirroring a previous partnership with the NBA.
The difference here, however, is Headspace’s first construction of daily, personalized mental training programs for the U.S. women’s team for the five months leading up to and through this summer’s France 2019 World Cup.
“We often focus on the neck-down in order to get improvements in the game and try to get those marginal gains, whether it be strength and conditioning, tracking, monitoring, sports science,” said James Bunce, U.S. Soccer’s high performance director. “Less time is often spent looking at the neck-up and, as we all know, the neck-up is where the magic happens. That’s where the decisions are made, the emotions are felt, those crucial moments are decided.”
Every member of the women’s national team received questionnaires about personal stresses and experiences that served as the foundation for the custom meditation plans. The resulting program was integrated into the Teamworks app U.S. Soccer already provides each player, enabling quick-click access to each day’s meditation.
“Being able to seamlessly integrate your mental training into the rest of your routine is something that, I think, college athletic departments and pro teams are quickly being attracted to,” said Lindsay Shaffer, Headspace’s head of sport and fitness.
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In the athletic realm, Headspace has already partnered not only with the NBA (including the WNBA, the G-League, and the NBA 2K League) but also with Nike, USA Swimming, and UCLA athletics through the Kevin Love Fund. Headspace has conducted a feasibility study with Arsenal in the English Premier League and worked with dozens of individual athletes such as the Cavaliers’ Love, Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, and Olympic runner Colleen Quigley.
Headspace counts support from 20 published studies that have shown reduced stress and improved focus, among other benefits. Shaffer said she often receives the feedback from athletes who say meditation helps them “play more instinctually”—in other words, not let their mind get in the way of what their body can do. One study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement in 2017 reported that Headspace helped subjects improve focus by 14 percent after 10 days of use.
“Throughout the history of sport,” Shaffer said, “we have kind of completely neglected the mind even though the mind underlies everything that we do.”
Shaffer said a key component of programs like the one being rolled out with U.S. Soccer and MLS is education. She said most athletes don’t realize they can proactively work on mental training or that there is a body of science supporting meditation’s ability to boost preparation, performance, and recovery.
“We liken it to a muscle,” Shaffer said. “We talk about, if you want a stronger biceps, you do biceps curls. We point out to athletes that the science behind meditation shows that it increases the thickness of the gray matter of the prefrontal cortex, which is where focus comes from, and decreases the size of the amygdala, which is where stress and fear comes from. You are actually physically changing the structure of your brain.”
Headspace has partnered with MLS and U.S. Soccer. (Courtesy of MLS)
Jamil Northcutt, VP of player engagement at MLS, said the league’s wellness program includes pledges that it will provide a wide variety of resources to create a proper work-life balance. Headspace fits in as a supplement to what already exists in this area.
Northcutt, who most recently worked in administration at the NCAA and NFL, said he often gives the analogy of a three-legged table where each leg represents health, finances, and relationships. Headspace will offer more concerted support to health but will also offer some benefit to the other two.
“If one leg is wobbly and might collapse,” Northcutt said, “it’s going to allow the whole table to collapse.”
Bunce said Headspace will work as an additional support tool to the work done by the national team’s sports psychologists, whose efforts can be limited by the short time the whole roster is in camp together.
“I do think the area of mental conditioning now is really, really taking off,” Bunce said. “I do think it will be the next push point in the sport in regards to people trying to get that edge because we are grinding out every bit of knowledge we have in the medical area and the physical area.”