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Head Games: Derrick Morgan’s mindfulness in the NFL

by Kelton Wright

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As a young football player, Derrick Morgan was feeling the pressure to perform. Practice meant 15-hour days, sometimes 2-a-days, with every team always looking to get 1% better than the day before. And Morgan kept hearing meditation could be that leg up.


“I didn’t know how to meditate, I had the traditional view that you have to sit cross-legged — I can’t even do that, my legs don’t even go like that,” he said.

 

I can’t meditate, he thought.

He could play football. Astonishingly well. A first-round draft pick in 2010, Morgan has been a starter on the Tennessee Titans’ defense ever since. On the field, he’s known for his discipline and reliably strong performance, and off the field, he’s known for his innovation, and cutting edge thinking around getting the competitive advantage, which is exactly how he came to mindfulness.

How it began

Morgan’s rookie year was punctuated by injuries and, frustrated by his options, he went on a journey to learn about the body. In almost every book he read, they talked about meditation. When a nutritionist recommended Headspace to him, Morgan started like a lot of people — listening to the meditations in bed before sleep.

“I wasn’t routine with it, I just did it when I had time. I didn’t make a habit of it, and then the more books I read, the more articles I read, everybody who I was reading about that was successful practiced meditation in some form.”

Then things changed

So in 2017, he started every day with a meditation. He noticed the difference at home first.

“Kids will push you to your max, they’ll test your patience, and I noticed how I was dealing with them,” he said, after meditating, “I was a lot more patient, and slow to anger and just kinda — not saying I was a saint— but I was a little bit more patient with them.”

Even his wife noticed.

Then, those benefits began to carryover to the field. First, when he trained, he noticed he was more mindful when lifting: he was more aware of how his muscles were firing and the positioning of his feet in a squat.

“When you’re working out, your brain has to be involved to make sure you’re firing your muscles in the right sequence, to make sure you’re not in a compensation pattern,” he said.

Morgan now incorporates meditation whenever he can: pre-game, in the locker room, on the bus.

“There are so many distractions,” he said. Noting that it’s easy to just to fall down a hole looking at Instagram, comparing yourself to everyone else when you’re in the locker room getting physical therapy or sitting in the ice bath. So instead, he turns on a meditation.

When the pressure’s on

“When you’re playing as a kid, when you’re just playing for fun, you’re able to play more freely. But the higher you rise in the sport, the more business-oriented it becomes, the more performance and results-oriented it becomes, so to counteract those things, you need meditation,” Morgan says.

Now, when that pressure builds, he has a toolkit. “The moments where I noticed I was just like,” Morgan takes a deep breath, his eyes closing, body relaxing, “where my feet were in the moment, focused on my breath, not what’s gonna happen or what type of look the offense is gonna come out with. I thought “OK, I’m just gonna play” and then I played better, I noticed a significant difference in how I played. It was more of reaction, instinctual type play as opposed to trying to control everything.”

 We can create all the storylines we want, but that doesn’t mean they’re true.

When negative thoughts pop up now, Morgan lets it pass and keeps perspective on life and on the game. He holds onto an idea from the Headspace Motivation series: “don’t take your thoughts too seriously, and don’t always believe them.” We can create all the storylines we want, but that doesn’t mean they’re true.

“That’s what makes the great ones great,” he says.

“I’ve had games this year where I’ve jumped offsides or had a penalty, but you can either go in the hole, or you can just keep going and rise above it,” he said. Meditation helps.

Staying in the zone mentally

Morgan meditates every day now. You can often find him in the training room, hood up, headphones in, focusing on his mind.

Football is a demanding, physical sport, but when his mindset is in the right place, it allows his body “to heal more effortlessly, as opposed to being rigid.” Instead of stressing his body with the worry and anxiety to to get back on the field, he can focus on the work necessary to do just that.

“People default back to habit and what they’ve always known, and so, I think especially when you have a professional athlete, you’ve gotta be open to learning, because you can feel like you’ve arrived, and you don’t have to keep bettering yourself. If you get trapped in that mindset, you’re not evolving.”

But Morgan is evolving, and many athletes are following in his footsteps. Because as he says, “we neglect the mind so much. How can you neglect the most important part of all of this?”

Kelton Wright

Kelton Wright has been working with Headspace since early 2015. She is the author of Anonymous Asked: Life Lessons from the Internet’s Big Sister, as well as the guidebooks City Cycling Los Angeles and City Cycling San Francisco. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @keltonwrites.

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