Maryland football players, coaches hope yoga will help team strike a balance

The University of Maryland football team has been using yoga to prepare themselves for the upcoming 2011 season.
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

For nearly an hour twice a week over the past two months, members of the Maryland football team have gathered in a sparsely lit defensive meeting room at the Gossett Team House and were asked to release from their minds the numbers that have defined them ever since they concluded a dismal 2009 campaign.

Sure, the YogaChai exercises the players endured were meant to increase their functional flexibility -- which in turn, Maryland coaches hope, will improve speed and agility, not to mention help prevent injury -- but the various poses they've practiced are meant to discipline their awareness as much as stretch their bodies.

And so, one by one, the players walked barefoot into Room 1114 on a recent Wednesday afternoon, grabbed a rolled-up foam mat off the cart in the middle of the floor and found a vacant spot against the wall to lay it out. That day's class centered on hip flexibility and gratitude, a juxtaposition made even odder by the massive bodies trying to grasp the lessons.

The desks were pushed to one end of the room, which left just enough space for two dozen offensive and defensive linemen to lie with their backs flat against their respective mats. A wiry man wearing an army green tank top and black cloth shorts provided continuous instruction.

Legs up the wall, join your ankles, join your knees, feet flat, close your eyes, make the back of your neck long, draw the shoulder blades toward the wall, press your inner thighs to the wall, press up through the heels, join the big toes. . . . At some point you'll start feeling tingling in your legs. It's not loss of sensation. It's hormones. It's healing. . . . I want you to think about one word: gratitude. What does it mean to you? Bring the soles of the feet together. Think about gratitude.

"Out on the field, it's intense; you get to it," said redshirt sophomore Justin Gilbert, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound tackle. "Even in the weight room, you throw the weight up and get going. But in there, we're kind of working on our minds as much as our bodies. We're trying to focus in and get the workout done, as opposed to just all-out working out."

The messages -- mental and physical -- were not always so well understood or received. Maryland head strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt incorporated yoga into the football team's offseason training program four years ago, but until January it had been an optional supplement. Sessions were held early in the morning and class sizes remained small.

When the team's seven-week winter training period began Jan. 26, each player was required to participate in 55-minute yoga workouts twice a week. The yoga program resumed during June and July.

"I just felt that we were lacking something," Galt said. "I felt that all the training that we were doing, we were getting pretty good transfer to the field, but I didn't feel it was optimal. And I really wanted to optimize every aspect of our training."

Through assistant strength coach Barry Kagan, Galt found Alex Paraskevas, a Washington-based instructor, and hired him to lead the team's yoga training. Paraskevas previously had attempted to teach yoga to the Maryland women's lacrosse team, but he said "it wasn't very effective. They weren't responsive to it." Initially, the football players displayed a similar reaction.

"I had heard of NFL players doing [yoga], but when I heard we were doing it, I was like, 'That's kind of weird,' " said sophomore Zach Kerr, a 6-2, 320-pound defensive tackle. "I didn't know what to think about it. The only thing I knew was that it's not fun. Yoga's not fun at all. But it definitely helps you out."

Gilbert said none of the players liked the yoga sessions at first, but most have since come around to its virtues. He noted the added hip flexibility has enabled him to get lower in his stance on the offensive line and make more explosive pushes off the snap of the ball.

Kerr said being more flexible in the lower body has made the team faster. The defense could start as many as 10 players who ran the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds during spring testing, according to Kerr.

"That's one of the things that's been plaguing us as a football team is our speed," Kerr said. "We've been able to compete strength-wise with the best of 'em, but we haven't been as fast as we've been in the past."

A matrix drawn on a dry-erase board hangs on one of the walls in the room where the yoga sessions take place. The 11 goals the defense set for itself for each game during the 2009 season take up the vertical strip on the far left. The top horizontal strip contains a square for each game.

The top goal listed is "WIN!!!" and to its right on the matrix are 10 boxes marked with "NO" and two marked with "YES." Maryland went 2-10 last season and is looking to claim any edge that might help prevent a similar performance this fall, even if that means adopting a practice completely foreign to the players' inner wiring.

"Football is very much a sport that is goal-oriented," Paraskevas said. "How much can you push in how much time? And we track it all, and I see them practicing, and it's all scientifically done. And in here I'm asking them not to be goal-oriented. Be present. Be here.

"I'm teaching them to engage this muscle while stretching this one. Hips, hamstrings, inner thigh, outer hip flexor, quads. You can basically prevent injury. Everything's connected, man. You don't think about it, but it's all connected. And the focus that's required of them to do all these things, it focuses their mind so they're not thinking about their girlfriend, food, this, that. You're focused, which is a good thing to have on the field. If you're present here, you're going to be present on the field."

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