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George Mumford: Minding Athletes One Basket At A Time

Well-known for his meditation work with the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers during their championship seasons in the late 90s and early 2000s, George Mumford’s name is synonymous with the power of mindfulness in human performance. Michael Jordan and countless other NBA stars credit him with their successes.

Mumford's start wasn't easy. After a longtime addiction to heroin, he finally got clean through Vipassana and other types of meditation, as well as yoga and Tai Chi. He then teamed up with star coach and meditator Phil Jackson to help teach his players these skills, which gave him a whole new focus.

In his new book, The Mindful Athlete, he shares his stories and strategies for knowing and forgetting the self. YogaCity NYC's Kathleen Kraft caught up with Mumford to learn more about his background, his work, and his love of the written word.

Kathleen Kraft: Much has been written about how you’ve helped athletes change their game. Can you speak about how the mindfulness practice has changed their lives off the court?

George Mumford: We operate in duality—we have this idea that there’s practice and there’s daily life. In order to be a mindful athlete, you need to be a mindful person. In sports, there’s a beginning, middle, and end. In life it’s not so clear.

The more mindful you are, the more you can relate your consciousness into an activity,if you can be more present and compassionate you will get in the habit of seeing things as they are. I teach athletes to make more skillful choices that lead to harmony and peace, rather than stress and confusion. Learning how to relate to your mind and body has a ripple effect. Even with a highly developed person, there’s always another level.

KK: You said that you’ve worked with athletes on changing their mindset before a game, specifically with those who were distracted by obligations to get tickets last minute for friends and family...

GM: Yes, I spoke with them about managing the moment. Maybe you hire someone to do that type of work for you, or you get to the game two hours before the game instead of the required 90 minutes. It’s possible to go from one thing to another multiple times, if you are present the whole time and allow yourself preparation time. There was one player, a rookie, who had so many tickets to get that he would get overwhelmed and it had a negative effect on his game.

KK: You came to this work through your own struggles with addiction. Can you talk about how your mindful path evolved?

GM: I was injury-prone growing up, and in college I injured my ankle playing basketball and I realized it was not possible for me to play. I was an addict for a number of years, and when I got clean and sober, I had chronic pain—back pain and migraine headaches, as well as emotional pain. The HMO I was in suggested I go into an experimental program, a study, led by Joan Borysenko, who at the time was one of three known psycho-neuro immunologists who was looking at how stress affected the immune system. I was taught how to meditate and modalities like yoga and tai chi, as well as philosophy, Zen, and Buddhism. The idea was that, through education and lifestyle change, one could have more control over one’s life. This was all very new to me at the time. I had so many questions. What happens when there’s love in the mind? What happens when there’s anger? How does it affect the body? How do we get back as one?

It became a journey of discovery for me, and I wanted to bring it to others. When I first got into this, I was all “grin and bear it.” Eventually I learned how to honor my limits, and gradually push them out with ease.

KK: Do you ever teach yoga to the athletes?

GM: I do. I used to teach it, and qi gong, a lot in the prisons. I’m very kinesthetic, so when I first got into this, the walking meditation and yoga really resonated with me. It took longer for me to drop into silence in sitting meditation.

KK: You work with executives as well. What is that like?

GM: It’s interesting because I’ve worked with many populations, but I’m known for working with athletes. It makes executives feel comfortable because they can use sports metaphors with me. “How did so and so deal with putting the we before me?” And so on.

KK: Who has been influential in your development?

GM: Some of them are no longer with us: Joseph Campbell, Bill Russell, the Buddha, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Norman Vincent Peale. My list is always changing. In the last several years, Neville Goddard, who used the Bible and Kabbalah to develop a spiritual way of life, and the list goes on. I’ve been averaging a book a week for the last 31 years.

I grew up Baptist, and I’m amazed by how much I quote from the Bible now. I used to think my father didn’t know anything, but the older I get I realize how wise he was. Women have had a huge impact on me too—my mom and my grandmother.

KK: And you’re a fan of poetry.

GM: Yes, and I use it when I teach, too. I’m interested in how the writing process makes us feel whole, gives us a sense of unity. T.S. Eliot said “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

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