Sports psychologist Mumford reflects on his career teaching mindfulness to NBA greats including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Mumford’s talk last Thursday, sponsored by Lesley’s Mindfulness Studies Program, was held in the University Hall Amphitheater.
Mumford, who holds a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Cambridge College, is a recognized leader in developing and implementing strategies for enhancing individual and team performance and synergy through mindfulness.
Asked how he got started in the practice, Mumford said he was introduced to meditation by Dr. Joan Borysenko at a Boston based mind/body program. His motive was seeking relief from migraine headaches and sports injuries. But before long, Mumford was a changed man. He left the Fortune 500 company where he had been a financial analyst. He went into detox and kicked the drugs and alcohol he had been using for 17 years, initially as self-medication for physical pain, and then to zone out.
After getting clean 29 years ago and finding a new way to deal with his stress, Mumford began what he calls “a joyful journey in self-discovery.” He moved into Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, did long retreats, and, in 1990, began training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at UMass Medical Center.
While living at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, Mumford spotted a request on the bulletin board for mindfulness teachers to work with inmates in Massachusetts prisons. He jumped at the chance. “The inmates could relate to me as a former addict and an inner city guy,” Mumford said.
Later, in the early 1990s, legendary Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson contacted Kabat-Zinn in search of a mindful coach for his team, to help them deal with the stress of success. Kabat-Zinn knew Mumford was the man for the job. Mumford helped the Bulls, and then the LA Lakers, win six NBA championships in seven years.
The secret? “It’s being awake, being clear, being in the zone, being in flow,” said Mumford. “Meditation is a way to get into the zone, into a flow state.” Being in such a state optimizes athletic performance and well-being on and off the court or the playing field, he explained.
“Michael [Jordan] thrives when it gets really tough; Kobe [Bryant] thrives on challenge too. The pros are comfortable with the uncomfortable, so they can develop more skills and knowledge. That’s what we’re doing with mindfulness, being with everything as it is, working with it, and growing in wisdom.”
Synergy, along with concentration, is crucial, Mumford noted. Jordan had more concentration than anyone he has ever worked with, he said. “But before the Bulls started winning championships, Michael wasn’t playing as a team player and the team wasn’t meshing.” The missing winning ingredient was synergy.
“The best way to get what you want is to help other people get what they want. You gotta’ be on the same page, have a shared vision,” Mumford said. “When the Celtics were winning a lot of championships, guys from Philly and New York were telling me they had better teams. I said, ‘yeah, but the Celtics play as a team. They put the we before the me.’”
“What I say to my athletes is, Catch your teammates doing something right. Catch yourself doing something right.’” Another Mumford strategy: gratitude. “Every day, think of three new things to be grateful for. Train your mind to see what’s right. That will help you focus and stay on an even keel.”
Mumford emphasized that meditation doesn’t just take place on the cushion. “Sitting meditation is one thing, but taking the practice out into the world is crucial. It lifts anxiety; it brings joy and puts a smile on your face. Practice is an all-day thing, he said. “How’s my mind? Skillful or unskillful? How’s my speech? Harsh, or gentle and harmonious?”
Asked how you can be competitive and mindful at the same time, Mumford said, “You gotta’ be in touch with your humanity. Be competitive in the right way. There’s no enemy. You are competing with your previous best self, rather than seeing the opponent as other.”
Added Mumford, “When you are creating a wholesome state of mind, it affects the whole planet. We are all connected, although we don’t usually realize it. When you are practicing mindfulness, you are practicing for everyone.”
- Nancy Waring, Ph.D., Faculty Coordinator, Lesley University Mindfulness Studies Program
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