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Namaste: Duke baseball adds yoga into practice routine

Under the direction of Kathy Sell Smith, the Blue Devils have embraced yoga as part of their practice routine.
Under the direction of Kathy Sell Smith, the Blue Devils have embraced yoga as part of their practice routine.

For a typical baseball team, the end of practice means clearing off the field, listening to a brief talk from the coaching staff and tossing around a few jokes in the dugout.

For the Blue Devils, it signals the beginning of a new workout—yoga.

After an afternoon of practice, a marching line of players make their way out of the dugout at Jack Coombs Field, all carrying their own yoga mats under their arms. Before long, the entire roster—coaches and players alike—sprawls out in the outfield attempting to hold a tree pose, or whatever other challenges the day’s workout brings.

The new exercise regimen began as a trial run this past summer, following multiple tips from graduating seniors that the team might benefit from regular yoga sessions. About 15 players who were in Durham taking summer classes participated in weekly yoga to get a feel for how it would affect them.

When the results of the summer experiment came back overwhelmingly positive, head coach Chris Pollard knew yoga would have to be integrated into the team’s routine. But he wasn’t going to let his players have all the fun.

Duke players and coaches have incorporated yoga sessions into part of their after-practice routine after a successful test run of the program last summer.

“My wife had done yoga, and she talked about the benefits of it, but having gone through it for an entire fall, I know firsthand what it did for me, and therefore I know what it can do in terms of how it can help our guys,” Pollard said. “I’m looking forward to next fall getting back into it with our guys again. I really try to push myself at it, just to see if I could maximize the benefits I was getting from it.”

The main goals of the program were twofold—to increase the players’ flexibility and to improve their ability to focus the entirety of their energy on the next play. Much of Pollard’s coaching philosophy revolves around a process-oriented approach, making the mental discipline and breathing techniques required in yoga a natural complement to the methods he preaches.

Putting the coaching staff on the yoga mats right alongside the players adds a unique element to the experience that instructor Kathy Sell Smith said made a huge difference in getting the players to buy into the change.

In addition to the camaraderie it helps to foster, Pollard said personally participating in yoga helps him to ensure his players are getting the most they can out of the exercise.

“They were wiling to try to slow down, do things that they weren’t used to doing,” Smith said. “Actually, quite a few of them had done yoga before so I don’t think it was brand new to everyone, but the ones who it was brand new for were very open-minded—I think because their coaches were into it.”

Now in the midst of a busy regular season slate, Duke has not been able to keep the weekly team yoga session as a consistent staple of its regimen. The Blue Devils have shifted to individual yoga exercises to accommodate players’ different in-season needs, but will switch back to the full-team version again in the fall.

According to Pollard, Smith’s athletic pedigree was a crucial factor in getting the team to embrace a workout program not often found in college programs. Smith—the wife of current men’s tennis head coach Ramsey Smith—was a Duke athlete herself during her college days, earning All-American honors on the women's tennis team before graduating with the class of 2001. She then moved into the ranks of coaching, becoming an assistant coach at Oregon for two seasons before taking the head job at Princeton in 2004.

Smith also works with the men’s tennis and women’s lacrosse teams on campus, as well as several squads a few miles down the road at North Carolina. Across all the different sports she has worked with, Smith said she has encountered a growing acceptance of yoga as a legitimate means for players to improve their performance.

The baseball team presented a bit of a different challenge for Smith, though, because the players’ backgrounds in yoga were so different. She took a slow, introductory approach to make sure everyone was having a good time, mixing up the routines and always making sure there was a laugh or two shared.

“One day we set up where they were facing each other. So there were three rows of guys on one side, the other three rows here looking at each other. So that brought a new element to the practice because you are trying these balancing poses and having to look at a teammate right across from you,” Smith said. “There’s always something to laugh at. Usually it comes from a comment from one of the guys or someone falling out of a pose, but for the most part we try to keep it lighthearted.”

The players have bought in and are now big fans of yoga, using it as another avenue through which they can channel their competitive spirits. Captain Andy Perez—who includes himself in “the handful of guys who aren’t too good at it”—picked out fellow senior Grant McCabe as the team’s weakest link and pegged freshman Chris Koppenhaver as the squad’s model yoga participant.

Although their successes in executing the poses have varied quite a bit, all the players can agree on the positives yoga has brought them, both as individuals and as a team.

“We call [McCabe] “Grandpa” because of how inflexible he is and how kind of immobile he is at times. He can barely sit down criss-cross applesauce. Me, I’m pretty bad too,” Perez said. “I think as it went on, we came to appreciate how it’s helping our bodies, how it’s helping our minds, and using it on the baseball field has been very beneficial.”