BAR HARBOR — Mark Shields wasn’t sure what to expect when he came to football practice at Mount Desert Island High School one Thursday morning in September for the team’s first yoga session with Jackie Carroll.
Shields, the head coach of the football team, usually is the one directing his team through drills and workouts rather than participating in them himself.
The workout, Shields recalled, lasted no more than 20 minutes, but for him, it was a long 20 minutes. Like his players, Shields walked away from the workout with a new appreciation for yoga.
“I was shocked,” Shields said. “That was about as much as I’ve sweated in my life.”
Yoga sessions have been a boon for the school’s football program, which implemented them for the first time this past season. Coaches say the result has been a team that’s stronger, healthier and more nimble than ever before.
“It’s hard to describe how much of a boost those yoga sessions were for our team,” Shields said. “From conditioning to overall health and our mental state, it had so many benefits for our football team.”
The yoga sessions, Shields and Assistant Coach Mark Arnold said, helped MDI make significant improvements in flexibility. That kept the Trojans healthy throughout the season, during which few players were injured.
“I would say the lack of injuries we had is because of the yoga workouts, definitely,” Arnold said. “It was a great way to strengthen the players’ muscles and joints and give them that added edge.”
It was Arnold who first came up with the idea. He had spent much of the spring searching for ways to help MDI get ahead of the competition that went outside of traditional workouts.
Arnold did hours of research on the internet and eventually came across an article about yoga and its athletic benefits. He showed it to Shields, and the two began looking into ways they could incorporate the activity into their team’s weekly routine.
“Last year, we were emphasizing things like pushups and sit-ups to help us deal with muscle atrophy,” Arnold said. “This year, I was thinking, ‘What if we could use that time even more effectively?’ and everything I read and heard about yoga made me think it could work.”
In June, Arnold began asking on social media if someone would be willing to lead a series of yoga sessions for the team once the season started. Jackie Carroll, a fitness trainer from Southwest Harbor, responded.
The two exchanged messages throughout the summer, and Arnold decided Carroll was the right person for the project. The sessions began with the start of the regular season, and although the intensity of the workout was a lot to handle at first, MDI’s players soon got the hang of it.
“They were excited and eager to learn from the start,” Carroll said. “They learned the names of the poses almost instantly, and they were able to adapt and expand their capabilities every day.”
Depending on the weather and practice plan, MDI players either went to the gym and used cheerleading mats or did the exercises on the football field. All healthy players participated in the exercises, which were held during the team’s Monday and Thursday practices.
The two sessions were very different. Although the team’s Monday sessions served as a practice warm-up and focused more on dynamic stretching, the Thursday sessions placed more emphasis on learning various poses and proper breathing techniques.
“One of the most important things was getting them to be more mindful of their stretching instead of focusing on their surroundings,” Carroll said. “The more sessions they did, the more they were able to get their bodies and minds in tune and focus on inhaling and exhaling intentionally.”
Other coaches have taken notice. Carroll said the girls’ soccer and competition cheer teams have approached her about implementing the same routines into their programs.
As for the football team, the experiment has clearly paid off. And as MDI prepares for 2018, it will have a full season — and offseason — of yoga workouts under its belt.
“We’ve seen that it works for us,” Arnold said. “Mentally and physically, our players made so many strides this year. It was rewarding to see, and we can’t thank Jackie enough.”