Chad McGehee innovates mental training for Wisconsin Athletics

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- Everyday athletes of all ages search for the latest training to make them bigger, faster and stronger. At the University of Wisconsin, they're adding "thinking more clearly" to that list by hiring Chad McGehee as the Director of Meditation Training.

"How many times have we heard coaches say things like you know, 'One play at a time, one point at a time? Just this swing. Just focus on this race.' But how are they teaching that? So this is the how to teach that." McGehee told me over Zoom.

When previously working for the Center for Healthy Minds in Madison, McGehee began meditation training four years ago with a group of retired NFL players. At first Chad was a skeptic himself, fearing that meditation wouldn't resonate with former athletes of one of the most aggressive sports.

"When we did it, we didn’t know if it's possible to train retired NFL guys in mindfulness and meditation. We just didn’t know if they would think its 'hippy dippy.' Out there, not OK stuff for them to be able to be doing. But for them to do it, and benefit from it, some of those guys were still on staff or had connections in the (Wisconsin) athletic department. They said, 'hey this is something that we’re benefiting from that they think current student athletes could benefit from.'

That led to to McGehee training Wisconsin's football, men's basketball and women's volleyball teams, who all saw an improvement in their game.

"That really helped me on the field when we had just got off from a long drive and I'm on the bench really tired. It slows down my breathing, I reset. I forget about anything that happened that last drive and really move forward with a clear mind." said former Badger linebacker, now rookie for the NFL's New Orleans Saints, Zack Baun.

On the offensive side of the ball, meditation training helped former offensive lineman David Moorman.

"It locked me into like the task at hand, what my assignment was. What the defense was doing. And honestly it really started to help me in my game. It just became a habit. Just became something I needed to do in order to win."

For athletes to latch on once they overcame doubt was no surprise for McGehee, as he knew they already had the most important tool. The want to get better.

"I see meditation is training the mind and athletes are really good at training. Typically what they’re training is they’re training their bodies. Or they’re training in technique or physical development. And it always seemed to me that there was this missing element of how are they training their minds? In particular how are they training their minds not just for performance but for well being? So the two are intertwined."

"To use the framework of bigger, faster, stronger. We’re training the mind to be more focused, more resilient and a better teammate. We’re not hoping for those things, we’re training for those things."

Chad also preached to his athletes to "be the eye of the storm". To simply be calm among the chaos of competition.

Senior libero and defensive specialist for Wisconsin volleyball, Lauren Barnes echoed her meditation trainer's advice.

"Knowing where you are, and being present in the moment. Not letting the future or the past get to you. Always being present and kind of just being mindful of where you are, who you're with and the job you have at hand."

As meditation is normally done the night before a game or race, McGehee achieves mindfulness with his athletes first.

"If meditation is training the mind, then the first step in any meditation process is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the capacity to be present with what is happening in a nonreactive, non-judgmental way."

Moorman who's since graduating from Wisconsin has retired from football still applies mindfulness and meditation to his everyday life. Now as Chad officially works with Wisconsin full-time, he looks forward to all the athletes and coaches it will benefit.

"I’m just excited to see the impact he has on all the other sports teams. Obviously he’s worked with volleyball and he’s worked with football, but I think he can be beneficial to any athlete at the university of Wisconsin."

Chad feels that innovation today will lead to becoming an asset for all athletes in the future.

"30-40 years ago, looking at the history of weight lifting, most elite athletes weren’t lifting weights. They feared it would make them too bulky, too heavy, kind of tire their bodies out. Now of course, strength and conditioning and weightlifting is seen as essential to performing at your best. "

"I think this work that we’re doing is going to have a similar trajectory. Right now it's a first of its kind position but we’ll look back 10-15 years and training the mind this way will be business as normal as how we train the body today."