LANCASTER — It’s Thursday afternoon. The Antelope Valley High School football team just finished four days of rigorous mental and physical preparation for today’s second round CIF Southern Section Division 9 playoff game.
Right after the team’s walk-through, the players – dressed in T-shirts, sweat pants and socks – file into the weight room, each grabbing a brightly colored mat from a bin. Instead of pumping iron, they lay down their mats among the machines, turn off two rows of lights and prepare for a different type of exercise.
“Dial in, dial in,” one player says in a normal but authoritative voice just loud enough for his teammates to hear.
The Antelopes are about to embark on their weekly yoga session, in which they eschew warrior-like war cries for inhales and exhales in unison, and work on extending their muscles rather than hardening them.
If it seems a bit hokey, don’t sweat it: The players once agreed.
“(There) was a time when we thought it was silly,” senior tight end Moses Robinson-Carr said. “We didn’t take it serious because it was yoga. We don’t ‘do’ yoga every day in our life. It ain’t something that we wake up thinking about.”
But it didn’t take long for the players to completely buy in. Junior quarterback Devon Williams thought the idea of yoga sessions was “a joke” when he first heard of it. But now, he does poses every day and said it helps him calm himself.
“It helps me a lot,” Williams said. “Coming off of every game, I’m sore. It helps open up everything and gets me ready for every Friday night.
“Namaste” won’t be heard at Antelopes yoga sessions, and there’s a reason. Football operations coordinator Desiree Heller, who has practiced yoga for about 10 years and leads the team’s weekly sessions, said the point of all those poses is to prevent muscle-related injuries and enhance muscle recovery.
Since the start of last season, no Antelope Valley players have missed time due to a strain, sprain or ligament tear, Heller said.
Senior outside linebacker Zapre McClain’s muscles have reaped the benefits of yoga. He used to battle calf and groin pulls. But with regular yoga, McClain has been injury-free.
McClain admitted that he thought yoga was “weird” and a “feminine thing.” But once he saw the difference in his health and the way it brought his team closer together, he bought in.
“It turned out to be better than I thought,” McClain said.
Heller introduced the idea of regular yoga sessions four years ago, when head coach Ron Wilson arrived. At first, Wilson was skeptical, but he decided to give it a try after some lobbying from Heller, who pushed the importance of yoga’s influence on injury prevention and its psychological benefits for student-athletes.
At first, things got off to a rocky start. The team held only a few sessions in the school cafeteria and had to use the cheerleaders’ practice mats because there were no yoga mats.
A year later, after a successful social media campaign that resulted in donated mats for every player, Heller decided to start earlier in the summer and make the sessions more regular.
Since then, the practice has become so popular that Heller leads yoga sessions with the boys and girls basketball teams, wrestling team and track teams.
Heller said she conducts her sessions based on what sport the athletes play, and what player she has in front of her at the time. Robinson-Carr spoke to how the football team has applied its yoga sessions.
“We do stretches that help us out with catching, stretching to be able to go get the ball, to be able to stretch your arms out to go out and tackle,” Robinson-Carr said.
But perhaps the biggest difference-maker has been the relaxation portion of the sessions. After the sequences of yoga poses, the players lay down on their mats – some face-down, others on their backs – while Heller instructs them to sequentially tighten and then release certain parts of their body.
As the players oblige, Heller plays specific songs by Katy Perry, Wiz Khalifa and Michael Jackson with lyrics meant to put the team in a certain mindset. Many players fall asleep during relaxation, said Heller, who also encourages the players to declutter their minds during this time.
“I told them that this is their time to kind of have minutes to themselves where no one is expecting anything of them other than being themselves,” Heller said, adding that the musical component was added this season. “They can just breathe. There’s no assignment due, there’s no miles to run. There’s nothing. It’s just breathe and relax and kind of let your mind go.”
Wilson said he’s seen a different side of his players when he witnesses them in relaxation.
“It’s kind of like a safe zone,” Wilson said. “It’s a relaxation time where they can clear their mind. And I did see a big difference in the kids, and they enjoyed it.”
Other than the physical benefits, the Antelopes have experienced mental advantages resulting from regular yoga sessions. McClain said it calms him down when he has an important things to do at school. Robinson-Carr said it helps him think better and make better decisions in the classroom and when playing football.
“It’s helped me mentally to just learn from what I do in yoga and bring it out on the field,” Robinson-Carr said.
The team says Antelope Valley is the only high school with yoga as part of its sports program, and that a big reason why is because colleges and professional teams use it for their teams.
“We’re the flagship school in a lot of ways,” Heller said. “We like to keep it next-level.”
It’s clear that yoga is here to stay at Antelope Valley High School, and it could be the secret to the program’s recent success.
“The more we kind of supplement these guys with things that’s not just football, but life lessons and things that’s going to help them become better young men and better students and better athletes and future great alumni,” Wilson said, “we’re all for it.”