Half Moon Bay High basketball team uses yoga to reduce injuries, teach – USA TODAY

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — John William Parsons is an old-school coach with New Age ideas. He believes in Xs and Os, of course, but also in Ys and Ps — as in yoga and Pilates.
And so here are the Cougars of Half Moon Bay High School’s boys basketball team, performing poses in a wood-beamed yoga studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the night before their first league game.
Soothing music trills. A wood-burning stove offers atmosphere, mood and winter warmth. Players execute backbends and supine twists under high ceilings in low light.
Yoga teacher Amy Outman urges them, at various points, to stretch, breathe, and even relax to the point of sleep. The idea, she says, is to promote strength and flexibility, encourage concentration and relaxation, and nurture the body and soul.
Twenty hours later, Half Moon Bay beats South City 79-43. The Cougars lead 22-8 after one quarter, 48-21 after two, and 67-32 after three. Third-stringers play a feel-good fourth quarter in which special-needs student Coleman Syme banks in a free throw, his first varsity point, all while the starters and second-stringers whoop and holler on the bench.
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Loudest is sophomore guard Zeke Syme, Coleman’s brother. Their mother adopted them from Liberia, along with another brother from there and three from Sierra Leone.
“Yoga is pretty fun,” Zeke says. “Relaxing, chill. It makes me not stress so much and brings our team chemistry together.”
Some players tell Parsons that yoga helps clear their heads when it comes time to concentrate on their studies. Outman says she teaches the boys yoga not to win games but to yield happiness and ease in their lives.
The embrace of yoga, an out-of-the-box activity that promotes health, is one big reason why Half Moon Bay was honored by the Aspen Institute and Hospital for Special Surgery as the boys basketball winner in the Healthy Sport Index national search for exemplary teams. Research suggests that yoga offers benefits in the three areas of health measured in the Healthy Sports Index: physical activity, psychosocial benefits and injury prevention.
Healthy Sport Index Contest
Half Moon Bay High School is the Aspen Institute’s Healthy Sport Index award winner for high school boys basketball. The Healthy Sport Index, developed in partnership with Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), helps the public make informed decisions about sport activities that meet the needs of youth. The Aspen Institute is searching over the next year for additional exemplary and innovative high school teams from many sports. The national search seeks teams that embrace best practices and innovate new ways to encourage physical activity, minimize injury risk, and support athletes’ emotional, social and mental well-being. High school teams may be nominated here.
The National Institutes of Health cites research that suggests yoga may relieve stress and improve emotional health. And a 2014 study by researchers at George Mason University suggests that activities promoting mindfulness, such as yoga, may be more effective for athletes than traditional sports psychology.
The late Kobe Bryant, whose recommendations on complementary activities were noted in the Healthy Sport Index, touted the performance benefits of meditation. Parsons says he can’t be sure if yoga does the same. His main objective, he says, is to give his players a life experience — to expand their horizons and instill healthy habits. And if it helps to win games, well, that’s cool too.
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“It’s very out-of-the-box, especially for 15- or 16-year-old males,” Parsons says. “When I first mentioned it, they looked at me sideways, like, ‘Isn’t that the stretching old ladies do?’ But once they got in class and started sweating, they realized this is really challenging, mentally and physically.
“Now they really like it. Some of the stretches are hard; they’re uncomfortable. That translates to sports. Sports are hard. And yoga helps them to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.”
It also helps them maintain flexibility and limit injuries. Parsons says he offered only a few yoga sessions in his first season at Half Moon Bay and two of his best players missed games with ankle injuries. He says that in the two seasons since, with more frequent yoga sessions, his team has suffered fewer injuries.
Ric Bucher, who is an NBA writer for Bleacher Report and analyst for FOX Sports, says out-of-the-box thinking is part of the culture in the Bay area, where Steve Kerr coaches the Golden State Warriors and Tara VanDerveer coaches the Stanford women’s basketball team. Kerr says he finds humor and irony in the nonsense of everyday life, allowing him to offer his team a sense of fun. VanDerveer says she maintains her team’s unity and focus with honesty and positive reinforcement.
“People here are open to new ideas,” Bucher says. “We’re a little beach town and we need to stick together in order to have success. That’s a mentality that Half Moon Bay espouses in a variety of ways and John brings it to basketball.”
Half Moon Bay High School is a public school of nearly 1,000 students in Half Moon Bay, Calif., a pretty coastal city of nearly 13,000 residents some 30 miles south of San Francisco. Parsons, 35, is a favorite son who has lived almost all of his life on the California coast and who himself played basketball at Half Moon Bay High School, where he is enshrined in the athletics hall of fame as the program’s all-time leading scorer.
“John’s approach to coaching exemplifies the culture of our community,” Half Moon Bay Principal John Nazar says. “One of the things thematically that the school tries to teach is kindness, and John brings that to the fore. He’s very competitive, too, and that’s good. We teach that kindness is not about being a pushover or being weak. Kindness is a kind of strength.”
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Location: Half Moon Bay, California
Team budget: Nearly $25,000; school provides $6,000 and team raises the rest
Roster size: 18 varsity, 14 junior varsity, 14 freshmen
History: Five league championships, one sectional title in past six seasons 
Coach: John William Parsons
Athletic trainer: One, full time 
Parsons was hired in 2017 when Half Moon Bay did not renew the contract of Rich Forslund, who had a highly successful seven-season run as head coach of the Cougars. His teams won five Peninsula Athletic League championships, including four in a row before he was let go.
“Forslund is notorious for his blunt-force coaching style,” the Daily Peninsula said in its story reporting that he would not return. Forslund told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time that he believed parent complaints did him in: “If they are not happy with you or their son’s playing time or if you are trying to correct a player, they couch it as if you’re being a bully.”
Nazar, the principal, says he respects Forslund and appreciates his time as coach at Half Moon Bay. Nazar would not comment on why Forslund was let go other than to say the school decided to go in a different direction.
In Parsons’ first season, the Cougars won a league championship plus the school’s first sectional title in more than 20 years. Last season, the Cougars finished third in their league.
This season, at practice on the night before the first league game, Parsons gathers his players and assistant coaches and tells them what will happen if they should win a league title this season: The number “20” — for the 2019-20 season — would go up on a high banner in the bandbox of a gym where the Cougars play.
“Years from now, when you come back,” Parsons tells his team, “you’ll see your year up there.”
That resonates with forward Lukas Meighen. “We’ve been talking about it since we were in fourth or fifth grade,” he says. “It would be really cool to bring one back.”
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Other innovative health ideas by Healthy Sport Index boys basketball finalists:
Holy Innocents Episcopal School (Atlanta): The team uses weekly commitment cards in which players pair up and write their goals for conditioning and practices so that the partners can hold each other accountable. Parents are invited to observe practices on Wednesdays in an initiative called State of the Bears. Players and coaches are free to say what they please and how they are feeling on Open-Mic Mondays. Coach Cabral Huff sends two texts after every practice — one to a player who shined that day and one to a player who needs encouragement. “We must love them as hard as we coach them,” Huff says.
Lakota East High School (Liberty Township, Ohio): Coach Clint Adkins calls injury prevention a major point of emphasis in his program. Practices start and end with significant time spent on stretching and flexibility. Before each season, Adkins gives parents and guardians tips on nutrition and sleep habits. Players have access to compression therapy and hot and cold therapies after practices. The team does not do loose-ball drills or full-speed take-a-charge drills at practices. “We still want our kids to go after loose balls and to take charges in games,” Adkins says, “but you don’t need 15 minutes’ worth of those drills” at practices.
This night, as a prelude to practice, health and fitness guru Matthew Adams puts the Cougars through movement exercises — large, exaggerated steps, for example, or moving across the court with elastic bands around their legs. And then he asks players to look one another in the eye, and growl.
That’s right — growl. The players giggle through their growls at first. But, as this exercise roars on, their growls grow louder, fiercer.
“You are lions!” Adams shouts. “You are not lambs. You are lions!”
Well, they’re Cougars, actually — though, to be fair, cougars are mountain lions. And, besides, the oversized scoreboards in their gym are a gift of the local Lions Club.
“I’m helping them build cohesion as a team through somatic body movements,” Adams says. “The roars help them to evoke a capacity for aggression.”
If all of this sounds a tad too California cool for you, the players want you to know it works for them.
“Don’t knock it,” Meighen says, “until you try it.”
“I wouldn’t have done it on my own — I mean, you know, just try yoga,” says guard Mykola Ediger, the team’s leading scorer. “And now I think I’ll do it all my life.”
Cougars assistant Tom Longaker, who has been coaching at the high school and college levels since 1986, says he has never known a basketball team to incorporate yoga into its regular training schedule.
“I did things a certain way for 30 years,” he says. “It used to be just, ‘Get in the weight room, and let’s go play basketball.’ There’s so much more to coaching nowadays. I guess ‘refreshing’ is the word.”
Parsons takes his team to occasional Pilates sessions. (Yoga is about flexibility and stability while Pilates is more about strength and stability.) Sometimes the team runs barefoot on the beach, like the stirring title sequence of “Chariots of Fire,” the 1981 movie about 1920s British Olympians.
At practice the night after that first league game, Parsons takes his Cougars to a jiujitsu class. This is something Parsons has never tried before, but he wants them to play more assertively and hopes this will help.
The Cougars spend an hour in a cinderblock gym where Raul Castillo puts them through a rigorous workout that is part pep talk and part punches — into the air at first, and then rapid-fire into the padded hands of their partners. The players grin gamely through it all.
“I’m always trying to think of different things,” Parsons says. “If you can give them benefits in a lot of different areas, I think that helps them in ways beyond sports. I’m trying to have good basketball players, but I also want them to be good young men so they can go out in the world and be good people.”
Parsons was a four-year starter at Claremont-McKenna College, where he led the Division III team to a conference championship in his senior season. He graduated with a dual major in accounting (this helps in his career as an investment advisor) and psychology (this helps in his career as a coach). He also minored in leadership sequence, which helps in both careers.
Parsons and wife Polina Pavlova bought their ocean-view home through an appearance on HGTV’s House Hunters in 2013. He takes Muggsy, their pug-French bulldog mix, for daily walks on the beach. And he also runs Coastside Basketball, which has more than 100 youth players enrolled through the local Boys and Girls Club.
“He’s been coaching most of us since third grade,” Ediger says. “We know him really well. I really like the way he coaches. He doesn’t just scream at us. He teaches us.”
Bucher, the NBA writer, has coached with Parsons in the local youth programs that he credits Parsons with creating.
“I have always admired his demeanor,” Bucher says. “I see coaches who are yelling, screaming, all kinds of histrionics. You will never see that with John.”
The high school team has 18 members, which is large for a basketball team, where playing time is at a premium. Three prospective players were cut during tryouts, all seniors who had never played on the school’s junior varsity or freshmen teams.
“I want as many players as we can have, because I know the benefits of being on a team,” Parsons says. “If these guys aren’t still friends in 30 years, I’m not doing my job right.”
The school system pays Parsons $3,500 and his JV coach $2,500 for the season. The team raises the rest of the money for a budget that approaches $25,000. That includes costs for transportation, uniforms, stipends for four varsity assistant coaches — and, of course, extras such as yoga and jiujitsu. Much of the money comes from a pancake breakfast that the basketball team runs each October as part of the community’s annual pumpkin festival.
“We get nice discounts for yoga and for other things,” Parsons says. “Our community is very good to us.”
Outman, the yoga teacher, says schools that can’t afford yoga lessons could have coaches learn some of the basics and teach their own classes. “Or they could ask yoga teachers in their communities if they would be willing to work with their teams,” she says. “I do it as a commitment to the community and to young people.”
Outman often comes to the games. She feels as if these boys are her players, too.
“I think they get tremendous benefit from yoga,” she says. “Balance, focus, connectedness, and helping the guys find a state where they can relax really deeply, where they can be really powerful and competitive.”
The oceanfront studio where she teaches is called Enso, for a Zen symbol that means circle of togetherness.
The Cougars gather in a circle around their coach before games. Then they put a round ball through the circle of a hoop. It all comes full circle, you might say.
Erik Brady, a longtime journalist and former USA Today reporter, is a freelance writer for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Follow the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program on Twitter at @AspenInstSports.


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