Mindfulness and Basketball: An interview with George Mumford

Soren April 4, 2011

(This is an interview I did some years ago while working with the Lineage Project in New York City.)

George Mumford is a meditation teacher, consultant, and sports psychologist. For five years he worked with the NBA Championship team, the Chicago Bulls during the Jordan years. He currently is a sports psychologist and meditation teacher to many athletes and sports teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers. In the interview he talks about how he uses meditation, also called mindfulness or awareness, with professional athletes.

Lineage Project: When you teach mindfulness to the Chicago Bulls or the Los
Angeles Lakers, what do you feel that you are offering?

George Mumford: The opportunity to be in the moment. In sports, what gets
people's attention is this idea of being in the zone, or playing in the zone.
When they are playing their best, they can do no wrong, and no matter what
happens they are always a step quicker, a step ahead. That happens when we
are in the moment, when we are mindful of what is going on. There's a lack of
self-consciousness, there's a relaxed concentration, and there's this sense
of effortlessness, of being in the flow. We have that experience in other
parts of our life, but we equate it with sports because there are rules and
guidelines, and it is a situation where you get immediate feedback. When we
are in the moment and absorbed with the activity, we play our best. That
happens once and awhile, but it happens more often if we learn how to be more
mindful. By mindful, I mean being aware, being engaged with the present
moment.
Mindfulness is useful because it is through this that we can see what
is going on. It means knowing what needs to happen and doing it.

LP: Do you encourage the players you work with to do meditation practice?

GM: Oh, you can't do it without the meditation practice. This is not just
about being good in sports, this is warrior training. You can't just be
focused in a basketball game; it's a full-time job. Warriors have known this
for a long time. When you go into combat, you cannot be afraid. You have to
be able to deal with your emotions and be clear about what you are attempting
to do and how you're going to do it. Alot of people go out and play
basketball and don't think much about it. That's fine, but when you get into
organized basketball and other team sports, you've got to know what your
teammates are doing. Mindfulness teaches you how to develop certain skills
and possibilities. When it comes to sports, you've got to know what you are
doing and its impact.
So you can look at a basketball game as just going out
there and playing or you can look at it as understanding the science of
basketball, understanding how to be the most effective basketball team. On
one level, you have to bring in your personal skills, but on the other hand,
you have to blend your skills with your teammates' skills.

For example, if you are in a game and shooting a free throw, you have to pay
attention. If it is short, you need to shoot longer next time. If it goes
straight and hits the front rim, you need to get more of an arc on the shot.
Now, what informs you to do that? Alot of this stuff we do automatically, but
there is a process to it. Do you go in and say, "I'm going to make this
shot"? No, ideally, you have practiced so much that all you have to do is
step up to the line without thinking about it, and shoot.

LP: Without self-consciousness?

GM: Yes, without self-consciousness. Sometimes you can do that, sometimes you
can't. If the person fouls you pretty hard or if the official missed three
other fouls or if you just had a shot blocked or if your girlfriend or
boyfriend is in the stands, it might be harder. But the bottom line is that
when you go to the line, you cannot have distractions. One of the main
abilities to playing well is concentration or focus.

LP: Do some of the players give you a hard time when you come in and have
them meditate?

GM: No, they don't give me a hard time because I come with an impressive
resume. I've worked with MJ (Michael Jordan), the Bulls, and Phil Jackson. I
come in and I'm supported by the power structure. I first just get them to
the table. I try to get them interested. I have got about ten seconds to get
their attention. Once I get their attention, I tell them the benefits. When I
talk about being in the zone, they understand that. After that, I have them
try it. I tell them that if they try to get in the zone, they can't. But if
they pay attention, the zone will happen as a by-product.
There are other
elements involved, but that is the main part. It's about the ability to be
both relaxed and alert.

LP: Do you have athletes who do mediation before a game?

GM: I encourage them to do meditation all the time. This may include before a
game but is not limited to this.

LP: How long a meditation do you do?

GM: It depends on the team. I find the balance that is right for the group.
The amount of time is not as important as the quality.

LP: And the response?

GM: Some are into it, others are not. But even if they don't like it, they
will benefit from it. So the real question is, are they teachable? I get
resistance from some people, but I never got any overt resistance from the
Bulls that I was aware of. When you are a team, you do what is good for the
team.

LP: We have kids who often relate the mindfulness meditation practice to drug
experiences, that the feeling of being relaxed and peaceful is similar to
what they seek in drugs.

GM: You don't have to explain it to me. I was a heroin addict for a long
time, so I know. It's a similar kind of high, but different. When you first
meditate, you may feel good but it is not likely going to give you the same
experience as certain drugs. When you take drugs, the drugs have an impact on
your receptors and your endorphins. They are helping you experience something
that you already have. They ignite and sensitize you to feeling your own
endorphins. It's internal. So the question is, how to develop that so you
have other ways to access it? That's when you have the experience of being in
the zone.

However, some people try to get a certain high as a means of getting away
from their current emotional state. Mindfulness teaches you that it is by
opening to your experience that you get freedom from it. It does not work to
try to get away from a particular experience. It is about opening rather than
pushing away.

LP: For a young person who is in a situation where they have done alot of
harm both to themselves and others, and they are wanting to change from a
more violent warrior to a spiritual warrior, what do you think can help bring
that about?

GM: Oh, very simple. You have to understand that your actions have
consequences. It's important to notice your intention. Sometimes we do not
know that we intend to hurt people until afterwards. If you realize that you
have hurt people, this is a spiritual undertaking. All the spiritual
traditions talk about this. You have to take personal responsibility, and not
say the drugs made me do it or my friend made me do it. Then you have to make
amends. But the main thing is to learn from your mistakes and not do it
again.

You can say that my friend made me do it or the person pissed me off, but you
made a choice to act in a certain way. You can make another choice. You can
walk away next time. But you think, "I'll be a chump if I walk away." Well,
that's an idea you have. You do the act so you will not be thought of as a
chump but then you are a jailbird. Would you rather be a chump or a jailbird?
It takes more courage to walk away than to stay and get involved. If you
shoot someone, that person has relatives, they have homies. Actions always
have consequences.

You have got to focus on yourself. It is a lot harder to conquer yourself
than it is to conquer others. This is the hardest thing we have to do, but it
is also the most beneficial.
And it all happens in the present moment. This
moment is all we've got. It is only in the present moment that we can make
changes. And you are not just making these changes for yourself; you are
doing it for everyone. Everyone will benefit.