Winning With Yoga

SBCC men's volleyball team attributes success to weekly sessions

Practice for the Santa Barbara City College men's volleyball team this year hasn't just been setting, hitting and passing.

There have been downward-facing dogs, warriors and relaxation poses too.

A once a week yoga practice designed to improve their focus, reduce injuries and heighten their mind-body awareness has been part of coach Melody Parker's team plan this year, and it has been part of the most successful regular season campaign the men's program has ever had.

As the Vaqueros enter the state regional playoffs on Wednesday against Grossmont with a 12-4 record, they will depend on its mental toughness to carry them through.

Their leader throughout the process has been yoga teacher John Patrick Sullivan, a former NFL linebacker with the New York Jets, who is anxious to spread the word about the benefits yoga can have for competitive teams.

His own practice has helped him overcome alcohol and drug addiction, and brought a new centeredness to his life after football, Sullivan said. A teacher of private students, at La Casa de Maria, Golden Tree Yoga Center and Santa Barbara Athletic Club, Sullivan is especially enthusiastic about his work with the members of the volleyball team,
who gradually warmed to the idea after some initial trepidation.

"When the guys got in there, and saw how difficult it was their first time, even with just basic poses, that really made them want to come back. It challenged them. It probably took three or four sessions to really get them to be believers," said Parker, who has found that her own yoga practice has allowed to her to continue to play beach volleyball without injury.

Some yoga practice can be very focused on the individual, requiring internal concentration while muscles are stretched to their limits. But it can be a communal experience too, Sullivan explains.

"Yoga means union, the bringing together of the body and the mind," he said. In the final relaxation pose that traditionally concludes each yoga session, he guides the players through a visualization of performing their best at their next game.

Parker said that she can see the results. Her players have better core strength, several have stopped complaining about nagging injuries, and they anticipate the sessions with eagerness.

Plus, it gives a rare opportunity for silence and meditation, a rarity for 18- to 20- year-old men.

"We all know sports is probably more mental than it is physical," said Parker, a former professional beach volleyball player. "Yoga hits it all. Strength, balancing, the healing of injuries, and helping to heal not just the physical but the mental. Anything in the body that hurts."

Sullivan, who spoke to the retired NFL Football Players Association last year and will do so again this summer, likens the process to alchemy, turning lead to gold.

He went from an overly muscled playing weight of 220 pounds to a svelte 180 and said he has never felt stronger overall than he does now.

"This is the future of sports," he said of the team's yoga practice.

"Team unity, and the ability to have discipline in all aspect's of one's life."

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