Lotus pose on two
Alyssa Roenigk [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
August 23, 2013
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"IT'S DIFFERENT HERE," Pete Carroll says. "Have you noticed?" It's hard not to. At 9 a.m. on the first Sunday of training camp in Renton, Wash., high-performance sports psychologist Mike Gervais, dressed in a navy Seahawks hoodie and white baseball cap and flashing more enthusiasm than is rational at this hour, welcomes players into a meeting room at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. This place used to be the site of a coal tar refinery; now it's the happiest, greenest campsite in the history of the NFL. Gervais is about to lead a meditation session and, as he always does, instructs the players to hit record on their phone voice-recorder apps and to close their eyes. Then he starts guiding them: "Quiet your minds," "Focus your attention inwardly" and "Visualize success."

This is the Pete Carroll experience we always hear about. After flaming out as an NFL head coach, Carroll rebuilt his rep as an ultracompetitive buddy coach at USC. But beneath the perpetual smile was a guy who thought, more than anything, there was a better way to win. Meditation is only part of it. After Carroll was fired by the Patriots following the 1999 season, he agonized over what he'd do differently if he landed another NFL head-coaching job. Almost every day for the better part of a decade, while leading Southern Cal to seven top-10 finishes and one BCS title, he jotted down do-over notes. His dream was to fundamentally change the way players are coached. The timeworn strategy is, of course, to be a hard-ass -- think Bear Bryant banning water breaks, Vince Lombardi screaming and yelling, Mike Rice throwing basketballs at players' heads, Nick Saban berating his team on the sideline. Carroll craved a chance to reimagine the coaching role in the NFL. "I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?"

Now, three and a half years into his tenure with the Seahawks -- with a 91-man roster that includes only four players who have been with the team longer -- he can truly start to answer that question.

On this Sunday morning, it starts with meditation with Gervais, whom Carroll began to integrate into the program in 2011, at first working on the fringes as a consultant, then becoming a sideline regular last year. For the newcomers to his sessions, Gervais keeps them short, about six minutes. For those with some experience, he prepares longer, more individualized meditations. No one is required to be here, yet about 20 players show up at various times every week to breathe in, breathe out and open their minds. The entire roster also participates in yoga class, which players enjoyed so much last year as an optional activity that the staff decided to make it a mandated part of player workouts this year.

The big idea is that happy players make for better players. Everyone in the facility, from coaches and players to personal assistants and valets, is expected to follow Carroll's mantras regarding positivity of thought, words and actions. "Do your job better than it has ever been done before," he tells them. Yelling and swearing are frowned upon, and every media interview with a player or coach ends with a thank-you to the reporter. And in a trial program entering its second year, a group of 15 to 20 players is undergoing Neurotopia brain-performance testing and has worked with Gervais to create status profiles -- updated every week on an iPad app -- of what's going on in their lives, how much sleep they're getting, their goals and how they're dealing with stressors.

Even as we re-examine the mental health of players in this kinder, gentler era of the sport, this is a bizarro football world. It certainly helps that Carroll has found a kindred spirit and advocate in second-year star QB Russell Wilson, who schedules individual weekly sessions with Gervais. "We do imagery work and talk about having that innovative mindset of being special," Wilson says. "We talk about being in the moment and increasing chaos throughout practice, so when I go into the game, everything is relaxed."

Then he repeats what Carroll says all the time, what everyone around here says: "I talk to guys on other teams, and other teams aren't like this. We do stuff different here."

AT THE NFL Rookie Symposium in June, Chris Ballard steps to the podium. Ballard, the director of player personnel for the Chiefs, has a harsh message for the recent draft picks. "Most of you will not be in this league three years from now," he begins. Later, he adds, "Nobody cares about your problems. The fans don't care. The media doesn't care. And ownership doesn't care. They care about results."

These words are spoken seven months after a Kansas City player, Jovan Belcher, shot his girlfriend nine times, then drove to the team facility and killed himself in the parking lot. But in what remains a suck-it-up NFL culture, that speech could have been delivered by almost anybody in the league.

"He was treating them exactly how they feel, like objects," says Jimmy Stewart, a licensed family therapist who works with athletes and military personnel dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Stewart is a former defensive back with the Saints and Lions, and when he left the league in 1980 he was an emotional wreck and an alcoholic. "The four years I played pro football were some of the most horrendous of my life," he says. "I cried alone. I was frightened. I badly needed somebody to talk to, and I know so many guys today who feel the same way."

After retiring, Stewart earned a master's degree in counseling and went on a crusade to improve the mental health of athletes. In the past few years, he has lobbied the NFL and several teams, including the Chiefs and Saints, to embed psychologists within their coaching staffs, similar to what the military does. He says that his calls largely go unreturned and that even when teams do call him back, he is often met with arrogance and a "we're doing enough" attitude. So when Stewart hears details of what's happening in Seattle, he begins to cry.

"Talking about concussions is important, but players are not committing suicide just because they have CTE," he says. "They are committing suicide because they refuse to be vulnerable. CTE can cause symptoms of depression, but it's isolation and invulnerability that causes you to commit suicide. With Belcher, the only way you have a chance with him is if every day you have a coach and a psychologist asking, 'How are you feeling today?'"

In Seattle, there's an entire staff expressly designed to look out for players. It's headed by Sam Ramsden, the team's longtime trainer who's now the Seahawks' director of player health and performance. The staff also includes Maurice "Mo" Kelly, the director of player...
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