MADISON – The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on Chad McGehee.
Wisconsin’s volleyball team was playing in the NCAA tournament a few years ago. It was the night before a match and the team was going through its final preparations, getting its last film study and some final points from the coaches.
Then, Badgers coach Kelly Sheffield gave him the floor.
“The first time he did it three or four years ago and I remember feeling he’s giving me the keys to his Ferrari,” McGehee said. “This is precious. You just don’t let anybody get into the head space of your elite athletes the night before competition. So, I felt very fortunate to have that opportunity.”
With four straight Big Ten championships, three straight Final Four appearances (and a fourth trip in a row still possible), the defending national champion is setting the standard for the UW athletic department these days.
The players and coaches are on the front line of that success. Behind them is a support team with the usual staffers: the trainer, a director of strength and conditioning, a nutritionist.
And then there is McGehee. As UW's Director of Meditation training, he helps the players keep their minds focused by integrating meditation into the team’s training.
Few athletic departments have leaned into meditation to develop mindfulness like Wisconsin has and perhaps no team within the department has woven the process into its day-to-day operation as much as volleyball.
It has become essential.
“What we’ve come to realize is that it’s not just about training the body, it’s also equally about training the mind and how you’re intentionally going about reps,” senior Danielle Hart said. “What you’re doing physically, if you have the power of the mind behind it, you can enhance that skill or that rep.”
This season the practice helped the Badgers (27-3) earn a top-four seed overall for the NCAA Tournament and advance to the Sweet 16 this week. UW will play Big Ten rival Penn State (26-7) at approximately 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the UW Field House. A win puts the Badgers in the regional final against Pittsburgh or Florida for a spot in the Final Four at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The art of mindfulness
To be mindful is to give something your full attention and not let your mind wander. It is to be relaxed.
This time of year is a test of that for the Badgers. There is the attention and pressure of the tournament. How do you handle the pre-game jitters? How do you shake off a bad point or avoid getting too caught up in success? How do you balance the most important time of the season with the most important time of the semester?
Consider mindfulness, strength and conditioning for the mind.
“No elite athlete would ever take the field of competition without training their bodies, yet all the time we talk about the importance of the mental game yet we don’t set aside time to train for it,” McGehee said.
That’s not true for Wisconsin. Last summer Kevin Schultz, the team's director of Olympic strength and conditioning, gave 30 minutes per week of his time with the team to McGehee for work on mindfulness meditation.
During the season it's common for McGehee to come to practice and meet with the team as it faces unique challenges. He spoke to the group about handling the hoopla of the NCAA championship banner reveal and ring ceremony and then taking the floor minutes later against Marquette. He talked to the team before its match with Florida at the Kohl Center in September. Those were special dates on the schedule, but something special doesn't have to be going on for him to visit the team.
“We want to give our players tools on the court and off the court and so from an on-the-court perspective how can you quiet your mind when you’re in the eye of the hurricane,” Sheffield said. “How can you quiet your mind when everything else around you is nuts, crazy. … How do you quiet your mind and get yourself into a place where you can perform at your best.”
How did this start?
McGehee is a trail blazer. In March 2020, he was named UW's Director of Meditation Training, and according to UW, was the first full-time meditation specialist dedicated to a college athletic department.
His work with the athletic department started a year earlier after he ran a training for retired NFL players on campus at the Center for Healthy Minds. Athletic director Chris McIntosh, then the deputy AD, and Ross Kolodzieg, an assistant football coach, were there and asked McGehee would he be interested in working with the university's student athletes.
At around the same time, Sheffield was looking for a way to help his players calm themselves and McIntosh directed him to the Center for Healthy Minds and McGehee. He has been working with the volleyball team since 2019 and help the lay the ground work for him to eventually join the athletic department.
“I think it’s common for athletes who haven’t been around it to question its value,” Hart said. “I think what was cool and what really grabbed the team’s attention was in one of the first meetings he showed actual statistics that showed how quickly people’s heart rate got back to normal after something caught them off guard.”
That study showed that individuals who practiced mindfulness were able to return to their resting heart rate after being caught off guard faster than someone who did not practice it.
Sophomore Sarah Franklin and junior Caroline Crawford, transfers new to the program this year, had never done mindfulness meditation before getting to Wisconsin but quickly found it beneficial.
Junior Devyn Robinson, initially a skeptic, has used it to help with social anxiety and the night before the national championship last year, she used it to help her get to sleep. Hart sometimes journals as part of her mindfulness exercises and during a match might wipe her feet to help her move on from one play to the next.
That ability to lock in and focus can pay off in major ways.
In the fifth set of the national final with Nebraska, the Badgers had the unique experience of clinching the title twice. The first time it scored match point, a replay review overturned the call. The call added to a furious comeback the Cornhuskers were making, but rather than dwell on a tough call, UW refocused and won the title.
It is the kind of adversity that could face the Badgers this week as they go for their fourth straight Final Four appearance.
“They had to reset from the highest of highs - they had just won the first national championship in program history – to 'Oh we have to take the floor again',” McGehee recalled. “Emotions all over the place. Thoughts racing through the mind. The athletes talked how they found ways to use this training in that moment, to be aware of it, not suppress it, not run from it.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Meditation helps Wisconsin volleyball focus on NCAA tournament run