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Mindful : February 2016
“ Skinner wasn’t sure what to expect, but he was moved by the way George worked. “ He didn’t force his teachings on anyone,” he says. “The only way it works is if you’re receptive. This isn’t something you bring for a few days and then it’s done. This is a slow process, but once you embrace it, it becomes part of you.” The Eagles finished 6-21 that first year, but Mumford found the work gratifying because the players had the gift of desperation and devoted themselves to learning. They made improve- ments the next season, but it wasn’t until the start of the third season, when he overheard some of the players predicting that they were going to beat everybody at home by 20 points that he knew they had finally gelled into a team. Sometimes, Mumford says, “ you have to forget yourself in order to find yourself. It’s a paradox.” When you focus not on how you’re doing but what you’re doing, he adds, you may not get your name in lights, but the result is far more valuable: being part of something greater than yourself. For the record, the team went 27-5, winning every home game by an average of 22.5 points. 3. MINDFULNESS ALONE ISN’T ENOUGH Not long ago, meditation teacher Sharon Salz- berg did a forum with Mumford in New York City and asked him if he used the word “mind- fulness” when talking with players. “Now I can,” he said, referring to the movement’s growing popularity. But when she asked him whether he ever mentioned “compassion,” he replied, “No, that’s too much.” The phrase he preferred, he said, was “Don’t be hating on yourself.” Many people think of mindfulness as a simple technique for enhancing performance. But Mumford has a much broader view. “ Mindful- ness alone isn’t enough,” he says. “ It has to be supported by steadiness of mind, right effort, and wisdom. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puz- zle. You have to have all the pieces and then you can start fitting them together. That’s how mind- fulness works. It stitches everything together.” The key is a continuous balanced application of energy. “It’s like tuning the string of a guitar,” he says. “If you string it too tight or not tight enough, you won’t get the right sound. Most people are trying too hard. There’s too much tension. You cannot have good rhythm if your butthole is too tight.” One aspect of mindfulness that often gets overlooked is the importance of making smart ethical judgments. “ You have to include the morality piece,” says Mumford, “because doing right and living in harmony have an impact on your ability to be concentrated and mindful.” That means developing the wisdom to know what’s skillful and unskillful and being able to tell the difference between a conflicted mind and one that’s seeing things clearly. “I don’t think you can be a mindful athlete,” he adds, “without being a mindful person.” Some critics argue that mindfulness and competition are antithetical. But, in Mumford’s view, what’s critical is the quality of intention. “If your intention is to dominate and humili- ate, that’s different from seeing how much you can take the game to another level,” he says. “ You’re saying, ‘It doesn’t matter who I’m play- ing against, I just want to be better than I was yesterday.’ The thing is there’s no limit to how mindful you can be. As good as Michael Jordan was, there’s always another level.” Which brings us back to George’s journey. When he was younger, he says, “I had greed in my mind and my effort was geared toward trying to force things to happen. But then I real- ized that the game I was playing was pursuing excellence with grace and ease. Hoagie Carmi- chael said that slow motion gets you there faster. It’s more about intending and allowing. I see my practice now as allowing things to happen rather than trying to make them happen. It’s the ease of letting things speak to me and telling me what I need to do.” Then he grins and adds, “But don’t listen to what George says. See if it’s true. That’s the thing. Whatever the teaching is, can you experi- ence it yourself?” ● Facing page: Steve Hailey, whom Mum- ford mentored as an athlete at Boston Col- lege, shares a relaxed moment with his old coach and friend. Hugh Delehanty is a former editor for Sports Illustrated, People, Utne Reader, and AARP The Magazine, and co-author with NBA coach Phil Jackson of the bestseller Eleven Rings. He profiled coach Pete Carroll for Mindful in December 2014. George talked me off the ledge of anger and frustration.” Michael Jordan, the highest points-per-game scorer in NBA history 54 mindful February 2016 peak performance