Cook: Float like a butterfly, play like a kid

photo David Cook

Over the years as a player, coach and athletic director, Sam Parfitt's seen it all.

Once, a mother from the losing team dumped Powerade all over the first-place trophies. Then the police came.

There was that tennis player who lost and slammed his racket around like a lumberjack.

Another time, this one coach ... well, I'll let Parfitt tell you.

"He mooned his players," Parfitt said.

Dads who stare daggers at kids when they mess up. Coaches who holler like drill sergeants. Kids who stop playing at age 10 because of the thousand little sadnesses that steal the joy from sports.

Thankfully, Parfitt's also seen other things.

The chest-swelling happiness and beat-the-band smile that comes from playing sports just to play them. The way sports can align happiness and athleticism in grand and joyful ways.

"Transcendence," he said. "When it's done well, it's beautiful."

Parfitt may be one of the most important and influential local athletes you've never heard of. A tennis star from England -- played Division 1 college, trained with Grand Slam winners, a British Tour winner -- he's coached at all levels, and is now the athletic director at St. Peter's Episcopal School, where he's creating a culture that transforms youth sports through one of the most intriguing topics of our time.

"Mindfulness," he said.

Mindfulness teaches an awareness of the present moment: the feel of our cleats in the grass, the sound of the ball hitting our glove, the taste of ball field sweat. By grounding us in the here and now, mindfulness helps ward off all those mind-thieves -- worry, anxiety, fear -- that can cripple our performance.

When we think clearly, we play better and have more fun.

When the thoughts in our mind are relaxed and calm, we play in more relaxed and composed ways.

"What you do on the sports field doesn't happen in a vaccum," Parfitt said. "It is absolutely integral to how we exist in the world."

But this must be taught and coached, just like proper tackling and running form.

Cue Parfitt.

In 2014, he gathered together a group of international experts and athletes to create curriculum and programming for schools, coaches, athletes and parents. This spring, he presented at the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools; his talk was called "Float Like a Butterfly -- Mindfulness Practices for Sport and Life."

At St. Peter's, he's teaches visualization. Parkour. Mindful sitting. Tai chi.

His kids play soccer, blindfolded. They dance. He does goofy games that teach awareness of body language, and the way we talk to ourselves -- positively and negatively -- during games.

During the U.N.'s International Day of Sport for Development of Peace, his students had white cards -- the opposite of soccer's yellow or red card -- with the message: I pledge I will always use sports for good and to be a good sport.

They study the principles of Muhammad Ali. The poems of Rudyard Kipling. The history and spirituality of sports. Its heroes, ethics and ability to effect social change.

"My son is eating it up," one parent said.

(Cheers to Meredith Ruffner, school head, for her support of this.)

His tennis players wrap tiny pieces of tape around their rackets as a cue: When they see that tape during the match, it reminds them to slow down, breathe and relax.

"It's the 20-second weapon," he said.

Those 20 seconds between points? That's when his players regroup mentally and compose themselves through mindful breathing.

"To think about only now," said Parfitt. "To wipe away what's gone before."

This translates into more relaxed players. More wins. Thicker team camaraderie. Sweeter sportsmanship. Higher rates of after-school participation. Parents tell Parfitt that their kids beg to do family tai chi after dinner. They make parkour courses in the backyard. They do impromptu footwork drills while walking through the shopping mall.

They're free. And joyous. And mindful.

"I'd love for people to contact me so we can start a movement. It's urgent and it's needed," said Parfitt, who offers consulting and workshops and can be reached at

Not long ago, he was talking to one of his players, a young boy who has tremendous skills as a tennis player. Somebody asked the kid: When you grow up, do you want to go pro? Travel the world? Earn limos full of money?

The kid said no.

"Why would I want to do that?" he said. "I just want to play."

Contact David Cook at dcook@times or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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