How professional sports have sought to harness mystical 'powers' for profit

Issue 

The Men on Magic Carpets: Searching for the Superhuman Sports Star
By Ed Hawkins
Bloomsbury, 2019
296 pp., $29.99

This book is effectively a sequel to Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, which inspired a hilarious film of the same name. That book exposed the US military's serious experimentation with New Age, mind-altering techniques to produce better killers.

Ed Hawkins investigates how many of the same psychic warriors who pioneered telepathy for the military have segued into coaching elite athletes. What he uncovers is certainly strange, but not bizarre enough to be entertaining.

Many participants in 1960s avant-garde psychological explorations in California's Esalen Institute, sometimes sharing group hugs in hot tubs while tripping on acid, studied what Hawkins calls “Siddhi powers”. Siddhis are supposedly superhuman practitioners of various Asian religious and meditative traditions.

Some of these psychic voyagers progressed, after collaboration with the CIA, into sports psychology. Some of their methods have proven successful, both financially and possibly militarily.

For example, Pete Carroll coached the Seattle Seahawks from the bottom to the top of the US National Football League, from losers to rolling in the dollars, using Esalen techniques.

His practices included not abusing his players as other coaches do — motivating players individually while getting them to identify with the whole team, physically training them to peak performance while immersing them in studying their opponents’ team moves. This is hardly rocket science, but it impresses Hawkins.

Some players say that in the middle of games, they feel like time moves slowly for them and they can read plays before they happen. For Hawkins, this is proof of Siddhi powers.

Having experienced precisely such an event myself I can report that it has nothing to do with being superhuman. 

While hitch-hiking in the 1970s, a car I was in collided with a slow-moving truck. As the truck’s tray moved through the windscreen to within centimetres of my face I experienced time slowing down. Hours later, I discovered that, without being aware of it, I had eaten an entire loaf of bread intended to last me a couple of days.

Hawkins would say that I had transported into a Siddhi universe and the bread had magically “disappeared”.

Where this book gets interesting is hints that the US military is encouraging sports coaches’ experimentation so they can harvest ideas for military training. But Hawkins doesn’t follow up on this angle.

Siddhi powers is a wishful Orientalist cultural projection. Up close it looks like the rear end of a truck. Hawkins should look more closely.

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