NIU football team approaching mental, physical aspects of game with offseason yoga regimen

In a year filled with mental hardships due to the strain of dealing with a COVID-19 world, Northern Illinois University coach Thomas Hammock came up with a plan.

A plan that also addressed another area that he and the coaching staff wanted to work on – getting more flexible.

So the school reached out to Johnique Davis, a Kemetic yoga instructor.

“After the season, we looked at our team and looked at ways we can continue to develop,” Hammock said. “For us, flexibility and pliability are two areas we felt like that’s where guys can make jumps. We can become a more athletic football team if we keep our flexibility and continue to increase our strength and conditioning.”

Davis said that she felt Hammock’s decision to integrate yoga into an offseason regime was progressive and innovative.

“He definitely recognized how it would impact them from a physical perspective as well as mental perspective,” Davis said. “Even if there is just a couple of poses they do throughout the week, it positively impacts them.”

Davis said she’s been working with football players, both individually and teams, for about five years. She said Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights was one of the teams she’s worked with.

Based out of Chicago Heights, Davis said growing up around boys gave her a love of football from a young age, and she’s been relishing the chance to work with football players – she said she played powder puff football in high school.

Physically, she said yoga can help the muscles sometimes overlooked by football players.

“A lot of time with our football players, they bulk up rather quickly and become very strong,” Davis said. “But they’re stabilizer muscles are underdeveloped and that’s where we see injuries to the hip flexor, the groin, the hamstring. Those areas are typically underdeveloped when they do their strength training.”

Davis said it also helps mentally. Players can have thousands of people watching them, plus 11 players on the other side of the field trying to stop them. Yoga helps with focus and concentration in those situations.

“When I teach them four-point breathing, that directly helps with the sympathetic nervous system, which controls fight or flight,” Davis said. “It also controls whether or not you’ll remain focused and be able to concentrate in high-stress situations.”

Hammock also said the mental health aspect of practicing yoga was key as well. So NIU defensive ends coach Travis Moore suggested Davis.

Now the team is in an 8-week course learning yoga.

“I think yoga is a great avenue for young men for flexibility, for breathing, for mental health,” Hammock said. “We have a young lady that coach Moore knew. She’s got two Masters. She’s very thorough in her approach and understands all the movements, all the breathing techniques, and I think it’s going to help our young men. Like I said, it’s been a hard year and mental health is a big thing, and we want to make sure when we’re building our team, we want to build them physically, but we also want to build them up mentally.”

Hammock, a former running backs coach with the Baltimore Ravens, said yoga is more widespread in the NFL than at the college level, but still is somewhat more common at the Power 5 level.

“In the NFL, yoga is a big thing,” Hammock said. “You realize the importance of it from building yourself up to keeping yourself healthy. And that’s the thing. We want to be able to bend, be able to move, be able to maintain our core. I think all those things help on the football team. Our young men are taking it very, very seriously.”

And while the flexibility is one thing, Hammock stressed the mental aspect as well, especially with players having to deal with the realities of a pandemic world, including quarantines and an ever-shifting schedule both in school and on the field.

“One thing that gets overlooked in this COVID situation is we’ve had a number of guys on our team have to go into quarantine situations multiple times,” Hammock said. “Whether it was contact tracing or the virus. Going into a 14-day quarantine, what that does to you mentally, and then having to do it multiple times. That plays with you I think.

“Obviously, you’re starting to see more mental health situations in athletics. ... We want to be proactive to it more than reactive. And I think the more we help our young men in areas outside of football with talking and communicating, we’ll be better long term.”

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