NATIONALLY-RECOGNIZED BASEBALL PROGRAM TRIES ON YOGA
Division III's most successful program reaches back 5,000 years in effort to maintain future success
By Lindsay Shafer
Sports Information Office
Strolling through the Eastern Sports Center very early on a Wednesday morning, you wouldn’t think you could find much going on. Perhaps you would find a few professors preparing for the day ahead or the cleaning crew beating the morning gym rat rush. However, this past fall, you may have been surprised at what you stumbled upon at six thirty in the morning: Eastern Connecticut State University baseball players -- among a roomfull of other students -- practicing yoga. Yes, nearly the whole team, and even the coach.
At the end of last summer, Eastern head baseball coach Bill Holowaty approached Dr. Nanette Tummers, an assistant professor in the Health and Physical Education Department. He proposed to Tummers the idea of offering to all Eastern students a yoga program.
Holowaty says, “I heard everyone talking about yoga. My wife (Jan) was raving about the benefits of it.” His daughter, Jennifer, has also been involved with yoga for several years. Shortly thereafter, Tummers put together a program entitled “A Seven Week Strength and Conditioning Program for the Spirit, Mind, and Body: Training the Whole Athlete with Yoga.”
On October 19, the program – available to Eastern baseball players on a voluntary basis -- began. It continued throughout the fall, and, on a voluntary basis, remained part of the pre-season program when the team returned to campus following the holiday break in late January. Before being implemented, the program was advertised and made available to the entire Eastern student body at a nominal fee. A number of Eastern students have taken advantage of the offering.
Through the fall, the Eastern baseball program was found to be the only athletic program in the eight-team Little East Conference to have instituted yoga into its conditioning program. In view of the baseball program’s positive experience, word has spread to other Eastern intercollegiate programs, several of which have begun instituting similar training.
The weekly, hour-long program was designed to help individuals connect with their whole bodies. Too often, athletes tend to focus too much on the physical aspects of a game like baseball. The drills become monotonous and the players just go through the motions. Batting practice, fielding drills, and pitches – they all mesh into an off-season practice.
Holowaty, installed as the 2006 America Baseball Coaches’ Association (ABCA) president this past January, felt that his players were not connecting the way they should. Not too often do you find the winningest coach in New England Division III athletic history -- with an NCAA Division III record four national titles and over 1,000 victories to his credit in 37 seasons – willing to change his ways. But he was.
Tummers has been practicing yoga for about seven years. What began as an alternative training for triathlons in Miami is now both a passion and hobby for her. Coupled with her extensive background in kinesiology and movement, Tummers has been able to incorporate her enthusiasm for yoga into part of her stress management course, working with athletes, and in her research. She has been able to share her love with children, athletes, menopausal women, and women from the Next Step Perception House in Willimantic, who have recently been released from prison. Tummers says, “part of the reason we are in higher education is to bring to people new things, I just want to share what I love.”
According to the American Yoga Association, no one knows exactly when yoga began, but it predates written history. The classical techniques of yoga date back more than 5,000 years. The word Yoga means “to join or yoke together,” and it brings the body and mind together into one harmonious experience. The formal techniques that are now known as yoga are based on the collective experiences of many individuals over many thousands of years.
Yoga probably arrived in the United States in the late 1800s, but it did not become widely known until the 1960s, as part of the youth culture’s growing interest in anything Eastern. As more became known about the beneficial effects of yoga, it gained acceptance and respect as a valuable method for helping in the management of stress and improving health and well-being. The whole system of Yoga is built on three main structures: exercise, breathing, and meditation. Regular daily practice of all three parts of this structure of Yoga produce a clear, bright mind and a strong, capable body.
Tummers came to Eastern in 2001 from the University of Miami, where she had overseen the health and wellness curriculum to third-year medical students for the previous four years. She had also taught personal nutrition in the University of Miami School of Nursing and exercise physiology, among other courses, at Barry University in Florida. Over the years, Tummers has written extensively for national publications, with articles focusing upon yoga, the connection between mind and body, fitness and resistance training.
Understandably, Tummers was flabbergasted, yet ecstatic, when the veteran coach approached her. She says, “He’s the person that I least expected to come up to me and that’s why I was so thrilled.” Holowaty himself says, “I am always willing to try anything that I think will make the program better.” Throughout his career, Holowaty has always preached the necessity of his players controlling their minds. If they can’t, “they will never be able to perform at crunch time,” he says. His goal, as a coach, is to make everyone a little bit better during the preseason and throughout the season. In turn, this should vastly improve the team as a whole.
The purpose of yoga isn’t just to sit in odd-looking positions like some may think. Rather, yoga is about training every aspect of the body and not compartmentalizing. Today, student athletes find themselves juggling so many different responsibilities. They must have enough mental strength and stamina to study, work hard as an athlete, and have a social life. As Tummers puts it, the spirituality behind yoga is about “that desire to meet your best potential and do it because you love it. That’s part of who you are and what you value. At this level, it’s not about getting a (professional) contract or full scholarship – you really have to love the sport you play.”
Tummers points out that yoga is not designed to be a competition; it is about stepping away from the large picture and into your own body. To her, and many others, yoga is not about comparing yourself to someone else. However, it is about reaching your own potential.
The study of yoga has been picking up steam for many in today’s society. Professional athletes like basketball players Kevin Garnett and Emeka Okafor, baseball’s Al Leiter, hockey players Eric Lindros and Tie Domi, racecar driver Danica Patrick, and former football players Eddie George and Shannon Sharpe have all embraced the idea of yoga. With the help of an experienced and successful coach like Holowaty, it won’t be long before it is a common trend for teams at all levels, of all sports.
During a yoga session, the baseball players begin with breath exercises. Breathing is the essence of yoga. While the players are inhaling, Tummers will ask them questions such as “What are you bringing to this team? What are your strengths?” The questions are focused on gaining a certain mental attitude about oneself and not what others expect of you. Everything envisioned in yoga is positive; failure, off the field problems, and excuses are put aside while you focus on why you are here. The breath exercises that the team does are geared towards developing core strength from the hips to the shoulders. Fatigue is a big factor during a baseball season, and even a baseball game. This core strength helps with posture and knowing where your body is at all times.
Next, the players work on their strength and balance. An alternative to weight training, this is a very challenging activity because so many athletes are often unbalanced. While some are more dominant with their right hand versus their left, many are also abdominally strong with a weak lower back. Being unbalanced makes an athlete prone to injury. While the athletes are physically trying to improve their balance, they are also mentally focusing on balancing their life and strengthening their attitudes about themselves. Tummers is constantly challenging the athletes so they can grow. However, she is always careful to not go beyond their comfort level.
Greg Sullivan, a senior tri-captain from Needham, Mass. raves about the results he’s already seen since starting the yoga program. Sullivan explained that both on and off the field, he seems to be more composed, with increased flexibility. Although the sessions are challenging, he says, “Yoga gives you the opportunity to include the mental aspect of the game without having to play it.”
The mental imagery that is practiced during the breath exercises allows the players to picture in their head what they are trying to do before they do it. If during a game, practice, or lifting session things get rocky, yoga has taught the players to take a deep breath and take a moment to collect themselves. Sullivan notes an improved focus – both in baseball and in other aspects of the college lifestyle.
While many in the baseball program were skeptical at first, it seems as though the whole team has recognized the long-range results of yoga. With such an enthusiastic response to the program, the team plans on continuing to practice yoga throughout the preseason once or twice a week. Sullivan boasts that the benefits of yoga are “unbelievable.” Holowaty has encouraged other coaches at Eastern to institute a similar program. Yoga would “bring teams together and help to build a positive, respectful relationship with one another,” he predicts.