How a mindfulness retreat inspired modern sports psychology


June 02, 2019 07:30:00

The 1960s was a fertile time for subscribing to new ideas, and at a new sports centre set up to help athletes achieve their best, the wackier the idea, the better.

The Esalen Institute, in the United States, was one the cornerstones of the counterculture movement.

In sports, it promoted the idea of applying psychic powers to performance, inspired by a 5th century Buddhist doctrine describing supernatural powers attained through spiritual advancement.

But the ideas weren’t isolated to the US; in the Soviet Union, too, there was great interest in “superhuman experiences” to achieve athletic greatness.

“During the Cold War both America and the Soviets were trying to find any way to win or any way to prove that their life was superior,” British author Ed Hawkins tells RN’s Sporty.

Both countries began promoting relaxation techniques to improve sporting performance, but also “really bonkers stuff” like walking through walls and levitating.

He says, while some of the ideas might seem esoteric today, they were influential.

“These ideas in the 60s formed the basis for modern day sports psychology.”

The Esalen Institute’s philosophy for good

In 1962 a devout Buddhist student and young Californian, Mike Murphy, founded the Esalen Institute.

He wanted to help people harness the “superhuman” power of mind control he’d spent time observing in India — for example, the ability to walk through walls, levitate, endure enormous pain or see into the future.

As the hippie movement was taking hold in the US, many were receptive to the idea “that a superhuman could be created basically through yoga and meditation”, says Hawkins, who has explored the topic in his book, The Men on Magic Carpets.

Murphy soon branched out into the Esalen Sports Centre, which sought to counteract a prevailing “macho and aggressive win-at-all-costs attitude” in professional American sport at the time.

“[He] felt it was very damaging and could lead to depression, substance abuse and all manner of other issues, which we read about all the time with professional athletes,” he says.

The school also taught that the mind, if left uncontrolled, can stop the body from doing what it’s naturally able to.

“That’s sports psychology 101,” Hawkins says.

“If you allow your mind to get worried or fret about making mistakes, or overthink, then your muscles are going to tense up and you’re not going to be able to play a natural game.

“It’s about preventing the mind getting in the way.”

These ideas were also being practised in Australia, where legendary Australian athletics coach Percy Cerutty — who purportedly put champion distance runner Herb Elliott in a trance for many of his races — was known to give talks at Esalen.

Hawkins says Cerutty took Elliott “away to a hut in Ireland and had him in a trance for two or three days, basically, to get him to the start line in a trance, to run the race that he wanted him to run”.

Mysticism and the Cold War

The Esalen Institute wasn’t the only group looking to harness mind control techniques in the 1960s and 70s.

The defence forces of both the Soviet Union and the US were trying to master the concepts in their bids for Cold War supremacy.

“Soviets and Americans were egging each other on at this time,” says Hawkins.

“Sport was a training ground, where they tested a lot of their theories and practices.”

The Soviet Union set up a program called Hidden Human Reserves, in an effort to create superhuman athletes and soldiers.

They went on a nationwide hunt for psychic talent and recruited former soldier Nina Kulagina, who appeared to stop the heart of a frog on live TV using only the power of her mind.

Another recruit, KGB mind-control expert Vladimir Zoukhar, famously sat in the front row of the 1978 world chess championship in an effort to place negative thoughts in the mind of Viktor Korchnoi.

“There was also talk about people in the stands at tennis matches willing the opponent they didn’t want to win to believe he had ants in his muscles,” Hawkins says.

“But a lot of it was their own athletes training to control the levels of pain they felt, control their heart rate, control blood flow — essentially trying to calm down so they could have a quiet mind to perform at their best to achieve sporting perfection.”

Today we’d refer to such a technique as mindfulness, says Hawkins.

Still searching for the superhuman

As doping took hold in international sport, Soviet and US government enthusiasm for the superhuman athlete search appeared to peter out.

But those early ideas of mind control linger still.

In the 1990s AFL team the Adelaide Crows engaged a motivational speaker who instructed players to walk on hot coals. It was an experiment with mind control — though one quickly abandoned when the first player to try seriously burnt his feet.

Current Seattle Seahawks NFL coach Pete Carroll — a protege of Mike Murphy and coach of the 2014 Super Bowl championship team — puts Buddhist spiritual philosophy at the centre of his work.

He teaches his players that the human body is continuous with the larger environment around it — and that every member of the team is continuous with every other member, and can positively reinforce them.

While it’s probably safe to say mind control to achieve levitation has gone out of favour in sports, mind control to “quieten the mind” hasn’t.

“Any sports psychologist would be talking about trying to get the athlete to … stop the chatter of the mind getting in the way of the crunching forehand or the conversion kick,” Hawkins says.

“If you can quieten your mind and prevent stress impacting your performance than you’re almost halfway there.”














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