Jan 29, 2015Breathing Easy
When Carlos Valenzuela, Head Football Coach at Yerba Buena High School in San Jose, Calif., took part in a yoga session as part of a school-wide freshman physical education program last year, he figured it would be a waste of time. He was wrong. Now, his team is using it–and feeling all right.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” Valenzuela says. “I’m used to the yoga stuff you see on TV, and this was more about the focus and relaxation aspect of it. We did some stretching and got our hearts pumping. After we finished, the trainer told us to slow our breathing by visualizing our stomachs and breathing from them and releasing air out. It sounded like mumbo-jumbo to me.
“Then all of a sudden, I stopped breathing hard,” he continues. “People always tell you to control your breathing, but no one teaches you how to do it.”
Once he’d experienced the benefits first hand, Valenzuela realized how much yoga could help his players. “When you’re at practice, the players are usually running or trying to catch their breath,” he says. “So what I say goes in one ear and out the other. I saw that these exercises would be a good way to get the players calmed down so they could listen better.”
The yoga trainer agreed to work with the team for an hour after school on Mondays during the season, and Valenzuela admits the players didn’t take the sessions seriously at first. “I think they were concerned about their friends teasing them,” he says. “So they were in the room laughing and joking around. As a result, a lot of them couldn’t do the exercises properly.”
But like their coach, once the players began seeing results, they bought into the training. “After a couple of weeks, we started doing the breathing exercises before games,” Valenzuela says. “The first time we used it, we had a pretty good game. Then the guys came back on Monday for practice and they were zoned in.”
The rewards aren’t limited to the playing field either. “Some of these kids have a lot going on at home, and they tell me they do the breathing exercises at night to help them get to sleep,” Valenzuela says.
While Valenzuela appreciates the way yoga helped his team perform better as a group, the long-term benefits mean even more. “I did this to provide an opportunity for my players that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” he says. “In football, you’re always stressing the team concept, but you have to focus on the individual as well. Yoga gives each player time when it’s just about him, and teaches him how to be relaxed and calm.”
Yerba Buena High dropped funding for the yoga program last year, but Valenzuela worked with a new instructor to continue the training this year. He also says by devoting a few weeks worth of time with a yoga trainer, any coach can learn how to teach the breathing exercises to their athletes on their own.
While some athletes may balk at the idea, Valenzuela says, as a coach, you simply have to make sure players understand yoga is an important component of your program. “I don’t give my players a choice about doing it,” he says. “You need to tell your athletes that they’re in a program, and yoga is a part of that program just like running, lifting, and film study. Once the older guys buy into it, they’ll help keep the younger players focused on it as well.”
Patrick Bohn is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.