For a first-time starting quarterback, Wilton Speight is noticeably measured on the football field. Whether completing a touchdown pass or an interception, the redshirt sophomore often reacts in a similar way. If he throws a pick, he’ll usually jog to the sidelines with his head down, but he won’t throw a temper tantrum. If he throws a touchdown, he’ll usually greet his receiver in the end zone, but he won’t celebrate much more than that. The most you’ll see is an emphatic fist pump.
When asked if he has a chill personality though, he responded in a way that might surprise many.
“It’s funny, because no, not at all.”
Despite his calm demeanor on the field, Speight admitted that his competitive spirit gets the best of him in other aspects of his life. He says his temper can flare when playing a game of table tennis, where he’s been known to break the ping pong paddle. When he was younger, he would sulk and even refuse to talk to his mom if she beat him in a game of “HORSE” in the backyard.
Though that competitive drive is still in him, he has a better way of controlling that intensity now. While he may release that energy when losing a no-stakes game of table tennis, Speight learned long ago how to avoid doing the same during a football game.
The 22-year-old first learned how to remain grounded during his freshman year of high school at Richmond (Va.) Collegiate, when he started working with his varsity basketball coach Alex Peavey — who also doubles as a mindfulness teacher.
Though Speight was a three-sport varsity athlete at Collegiate — he also played basketball and lacrosse — it became clear early on that Speight’s greatest talent lied in football. In order to work on what was holding him back, Speight went to Peavey to learn more about how mindfulness could translate to football. To this day, Speight still texts Peavey every week.
Speight slowly started to implement the technique he learned after realizing the effect it could have on himself and his team.
“(Speight) has always been as competitive as anybody on the court, on the field, at the bowling alley,” Peavey said in December. “Wherever you are, he’s going to be the most competitive person in that setting. Where I’ve seen growth is how he funnels that competitive energy to maximize his peak performance. Some of us get so competitive, it’s to our own demise, where the competition undermines our own performance.”
As Speight grew up, he fit the mold of many young athletes, allowing his competitiveness to be a detriment. The frustration from a bad game would affect his performance, but because he was so much more talented than many of his high school teammates, it never changed the outcome of the game. Still, Speight knew that making himself miserable would catch up to him if he didn’t learn how to control it, and the Michigan quarterback has come a long way.
“I remember in middle school basketball camp, having to calm him down in situations and again, it’s literally like a week-long middle school basketball camp, but he’s treating it like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals,” Peavey said. “Which is a good thing, but again, it’s how you funnel your energy so it’s not to your detriment.”
From Peavey’s perspective, if an athlete practices mindfulness, there’s a better chance of being able to play from a set of skills instead of a set of emotions. It’s a process that helps Speight stay centered after game-changing plays, and it’s an essential component of his success with the Wolverines.
If you see Speight clicking and unclicking his helmet strap between plays, there might be more to it than you would think.
Peavey was introduced to mindfulness as a form of stress management through Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who taught a training course in stress reduction at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. According to Peavey, Kabat-Zinn encourages people to find things they do in their everyday life that they can bring mindfulness to, like washing dishes or brushing their teeth. Peavey teaches mindfulness to all of the freshmen at Richmond Collegiate, but he also teaches his athletes how to utilize mindfulness in order to play at the highest level.
Mindfulness is used in many professions, Peavey said — even the medical field. Kabat-Zinn trained doctors to practice mindfulness before their performance, which can be a high-stakes situation in which the performance is surgery itself. Doctors already have to scrub in prior to surgery, so focusing on the act of scrubbing in and staying in the present moment acts as a tool for some doctors to release stress before performing.
It may not be surgery, but Speight’s responsibilities on the gridiron carry their own kind of stress.
Though Peavey doesn’t force any of his students to utilize mindfulness in sports, Speight always seemed particularly interested in it. When Speight was in high school, Peavey asked him what he did that was similar to a doctor scrubbing in, and he said that he has to click his helmet’s chinstrap.
“I practiced a ton with (Peavey), almost like a meditation-type thing,” Speight said in November. “We figured out whenever I click my buckle in my helmet or lick my fingers before a snap, that kind of brings me back to this chill mode. In football, I feel like I’ve kind of mastered it, but I’m still working on the other stuff.”
Added Peavey: “What he’s doing when he unsnaps and resnaps his helmet is he’s tapped in fully to the sensory experience of that two-second activity. And you’re getting the mind not to ignore everything that just happened, but to see it, to feel it, to experience it, to let it go and refocus yourself on something that’s here in this present moment.”
All of Peavey’s students have different ways of refocusing. For some, it’s squirting a green Gatorade water bottle, and for others, it’s wiping off their face with a towel. The common thread is that it stops a person’s internal alarm from going off.
One of the first athletes that Peavey coached at Collegiate was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson was Peavey’s point guard for three years, and at the time, Peavey wasn’t yet calling it mindfulness. But he taught his players different ways to funnel their competitive drive into a purposeful place rather than toward anger or excitement from the previous play.
“(Wilson) uses the sense of sight,” Peavey said. “Where Wilton unsnaps and resnaps his chin strap, Russell picks something out in the stadium and he just kind of looks at it.”
As Peavey explains it, if you practice your technique every time you make a mistake, you’ll get stronger. From a neurological standpoint, neurons are fired that predispose you to make it easier to stay mindful each time you practice. If it becomes a routine, it should work during the game.
Rather than lament the mistake that was made, that error becomes an opportunity to get better.
After seeing his former student throw an interception on his very first play of 2016, Peavey couldn’t wait to see what Speight would do. He desperately wanted the camera to pan to the sidelines so he could watch Speight’s reaction to the pick.
Throughout the season, Speight faced multiple situations where he had to bounce back, and it all began with the interception that started his career as a Michigan quarterback. In stark contrast to his first play, he ended the game 10-for-13 for three touchdowns. He played the next three games without throwing a pick.
Speight faced more adversity against Wisconsin and Michigan State, but he cruised throughout the middle half of the season with relative ease. His next biggest challenge came at Iowa, where he had his worst performance of the season. In the electric atmosphere of Kinnick Stadium, he not only threw for just 103 yards but also injured his shoulder late in the fourth quarter. He was sidelined for Michigan’s next game against Indiana.
When Speight did return, he had to battle both his injury and the weight of the Iowa loss. Making it all the more difficult was that his return would be “The Game” at the Horseshoe against the second-ranked Buckeyes. He sputtered at times — throwing a pick-six and fumbling on Ohio State’s one-yard line — but the Wolverines scored touchdowns immediately after both turnovers. Though it wasn’t pretty, and Michigan ended up losing in double overtime, Speight finished 23-for-36 for two touchdowns.
Speight then headed to the Orange Bowl to play the Seminoles, and following a poor first half where the Wolverines posted just 83 yards of total offense, he rallied to lead two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and give his team the lead.
“I couldn’t sit in here in halftime and be all stressed and mad about what happened in the first half,” Speight said in the locker room after the game. “That does no good for anybody. In the moment of halftime and in the moment of the plays we were going to run going out into the second half, I completely forgot about the first half, and that’s what I did all year.”
But Florida State took the lead back with 36 seconds to go, and on the next drive, Speight’s season ended where it began — with an interception.
Now, heading into 2017, he’ll have to bounce back again — not just from that final play, but from a 10-3 season that caused disappointment among fans and players who expected a College Football Playoff berth out of the Wolverines. Next season will present new challenges that the quarterback hasn’t yet seen, including taking on a larger leadership role as a second-year starting quarterback (assuming he retains his job). And when that time comes, he might need to lean on his high school coach’s teachings more than ever.