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Mind Games: How Meditation Made Ryan Tannehill a Better Quarterback

The veteran took up the practice before he joined the Tennessee Titans and finds it has benefits at work and at home.

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Titans’ starting quarterback and a father of two young children, Ryan Tannehill has to find time for himself whenever – and wherever – he can.

That explains why teammates strolling past his Tesla in the early morning hours sometimes witness a surprising sight: It’s Tannehill, eyes closed as he relaxes in the driver’s seat, looking for all the world as if he’s trying to catch a few last-minute winks before the workday begins.

Often times it’s back-up quarterback Logan Woodside who has to explain to his teammates exactly what is going on, and why they need not worry about their two-year team captain.

“There have been guys who come (into the practice facility) and say, `Hey, Ryan’s out there sleeping in his car,’” Woodside said. “I tell them, `No, no, it’s OK. He’s not sleeping. He’s just meditating.’”

Anyone familiar with Tennessee over the past few years has seen Tannehill display an impressive poise and presence in the pocket, one that shows up with great frequency in the most critical of times. In fact, since he became the starter in 2019, Tannehill has guided the Titans on 12 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime – most in the NFL during that stretch, and two more than the next-closest player, Las Vegas’ Derek Carr.

One reason Tannehill believes he’s able to keep his focus so well in those types of situations, filtering out distractions and noise?

It’s meditation, a practice he began about five years ago and – as the evidence indicates – has found increasingly beneficial.

“A lot of what’s going on with meditation is acknowledging a thought or a feeling, and then moving past it,” Tannehill said. “Obviously within a football game, there are a lot of things that are going on – a lot of thoughts, a lot of actions, a lot of plays.

“Whether they’re good or bad, you have to be able to put them aside and get ready for the next play. That’s something I tried to do even before I was meditating, just be able to move on – whether it was good or bad – and get ready for the next play, the next drive. But I definitely feel like that skill has gotten stronger since I began meditating.”

Locked in before games

Tannehill’s interest in meditation was sparked in the latter stages of his tenure in Miami, when a friend – knowing Tannehill was a big reader – gave him a book titled “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works -- A True Story.” It was written by former ABC news anchor Dan Harris, who, after suffering through a nationally televised panic attack, sought to figuratively re-wire his brain through meditation.

That was also about the same time one of Tannehill’s former teammates, wide receiver Kenny Stills, introduced him to the “Head Space” app, which offers access to hundreds of meditations and exercises for everything from stress to focus to sleep.

“I read the book and figured, `Hey, whatever, I’ll give this a try,’” Tannehill said. “I think it was during one of the offseasons when I first started doing it, just for overall mental health, really. I kind of liked what it brought to my life and so I carried it forward. So, I started using it during the season after that.”

Tannehill uses Head Space to try different types of meditation, sometimes doing a routine “check-in and be present in the moment,” and other times working his way through a semi-guided meditation – one without a lot of instructions to follow. He said he’s found his sweet spot doing basic meditations, simply focusing on his breathing. But there are other options as well.

“Sometimes you can do a body check-in, or I’ve also done some in the sports section on there, where there are pre-competition ones or practice ones,” Tannehill said. “There are 10 or so meditations you can go through, and I’ve done several of those in the past.”

With the long hours he keeps at the practice facility and the responsibilities of fatherhood, it’s all Tannehill can do to squeeze in about 10 minutes of meditation per day.

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On Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, he does it at home. On Wednesdays and Thursdays – the team’s busiest practice days – it’s usually in his car before he heads into the facility. On Saturdays, it’s often at the team hotel.

And yes, Tannehill makes time to meditate on gamedays as well.

“Sometimes before games, I’ll try to talk to him and look over and he’s got his eyes shut,” Woodside said. “And I just know that he’s locked in getting his meditation in before he goes out and gets to work.”

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) warms up before facing the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021 in Indianapolis, Ind.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) warms up before facing the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021 in Indianapolis, Ind.

Calm at all times

Already this season, Tannehill has led the Titans on three game-winning drives, propelling them to victories over Seattle, Buffalo and Indianapolis. In the final march against the Bills, Tannehill completed five-of-five passes for 58 yards before Derrick Henry won the contest with a 13-yard run. His best Titans comeback might have been against Tampa Bay in October of 2019, when Tannehill connected on nine of 11 passes for 85 yards, hitting A.J. Brown for an 8-yard touchdown to win it.

“He’s very calm at all times,” Brown said. “Sometimes he makes little jokes here and there in the huddle, trying to keep everybody calm and getting everybody on track in those situations.”

Added offensive coordinator Todd Downing: “It’s impressive to watch him stay in phase and focused, no matter what’s going on in the game. He’s just on to the next drive or the next play, and that’s a very contagious mentality for the offense.”

No one is suggesting meditation is the sole reason Tannehill has performed so well in those pressure situations. But he believes it has been a factor, part of the reason Tannehill is 25-10 as the Titans’ starter heading into Sunday’s game against New Orleans.

“I’d like to think it has, yeah,” Tannehill said. “I feel like I’ve put a lot of work into it, so hopefully it’s paying dividends. In those high-stress situations, all the guys are looking to me to set the tone and set the mood. I have a ton of belief and confidence in those guys, and I try to exude that sense of confidence and calmness that we’re going to go make something happen.”

A more patient parent

Tannehill touts the benefits of meditation off the field as well.

He believes it helps him as he tries to be the best husband to wife Lauren and father – to son Steel and daughter Stella – possible, even after days spent sweating on the practice field or taking hits from punishing defenders.

“Sometimes being a parent can be trying at times, patience-wise,” Tannehill said. “I think any parent can understand that. But definitely I think it helps me try to remain patient and calm in frustrating situations, which I feel way more than I’d like to admit. So yeah, I do try to take that home as well.”

Tannehill said he’s talked to teammates about giving meditation a try but isn’t quite sure how many have jumped on board.

Woodside is one who has taken up the practice from time to time, though not to the extent of meditating in his car before practice. In fact, Woodside still gets a chuckle when he sees Tannehill going that route.

“I’ve wanted to go over and knock on his window really hard, and try to scare the crap out of him,” Woodside said. “But I figured I’d let him stay in his zone. It seems to be working pretty well.”