LAS VEGAS — As morning turns to afternoon at Allegiant Stadium on Sunday, George Kittle will sit on the bench.
Kickoff will still be several steps away. The San Francisco 49ers tight end will have completed his individual pregame warmup but not yet the team’s final group drills.
Even so, Kittle will take stock of the field. The stadium. The moment. Six to eight affirmations will follow.
Breathe in confidence. Kittle will take in a generous breath of air. Exhale doubt. He will release even more generously.
Breathe in belief. A second gulp. Exhale fear. A second release.
Breathe in strength; exhale weakness. Breathe in health; exhale pain.
“It just kind of sets my tone and my mindset for the whole gameday,” Kittle told Yahoo Sports. “Just being able to calm your breath and recenter yourself to just be in the present moment.”
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The breathwork is part of the latest iteration of Kittle’s eight-year journey with mindfulness. It’s also far from the only element he currently embraces. Positive affirmations, visualizations and his favorite tactile reset (more on that in a minute) cycle through Kittle’s day. He believes they help explain how a player who notched 737 yards and 10 touchdowns across 48 college games has gone on to 6,274 yards, 37 touchdowns and unquantifiable-but-impactful blocking in seven dominant pro seasons.
The 49ers as a team don’t rely on only one player for energy, but they undoubtedly look to Kittle as one of their key sources of it. Quarterback Brock Purdy trusts that Kittle will lower his shoulder and drag defenders along for yards after the catch if he targets him. Linebacker Fred Warner, arguably the defense’s heartbeat, knows Kittle can be for the offense what Warner is for the D.
So as the 49ers bring their loaded roster to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Kittle’s impact will go beyond his stat sheet. And his mindfulness will be driving much of it.
“The competitive nature that he brings every single day, the love for the game, a love for life — I’m really happy that he’s on our team,” Warner said of Kittle, “because he does bring up the level of play for everybody.”
George Kittle’s ‘reset button’
Kittle began investing in his mindfulness as a senior at the University of Iowa. He was struggling to play consistently in practice, much less games. So he visited a sports psychologist.
“I would let one play snowball into the next play,” Kittle said. “So if I had one mess-up, I’d have two. If I had two, then I’d have three and then it’d snowballs and then all of a sudden I’d have a bad practice or a bad game.
“She just said, ‘Hey, have you ever tried a reset button?’”
After that, Kittle did.
The reset button wasn’t simply a visualization. For the rest of Kittle’s college career, he literally drew a button in red or black marker on his wrist tape. Before each play, he would physically hit it to drill into his mind the reset. He continued doing so after the 49ers selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 draft and into his 1,377-yard Pro Bowl second year. Then, Kittle found another outlet: Why not a permanent reset button?
Kittle now has a black-and-white tattoo of the Joker on his left forearm, complete with red lips. The red lips have become his red button.
“It’s been working really well for me,” Kittle said. “I would say the reset button has been my favorite thing.”
The reset button works because Kittle has laid the foundation by the time he arrives at kickoff and wants to use it.
He’s already, at that point, canvassed his days of the week with breathwork and affirmation. He knows which intentions match his morning breaths and which precede the brightest lights — which he does individually and which with his teammates; which on the bench and which at his locker.
Running back Christian McCaffrey, whose locker is next to Kittle’s, says each gameday he hears Kittle yell: “Be great today.”
The third word is — surprise — intentional, Kittle’s father Bruce told Yahoo Sports on Friday over coffee.
“You don’t have to worry about tomorrow and if you weren’t great yesterday, it doesn’t matter,” said Bruce Kittle, who works as a mindful awareness and performance coach. “Today is the day to be great.”
Kittle’s mindfulness key on Super Bowl gameday
At no game will Kittle need his mindfulness rituals more than Sunday’s.
The stakes are the highest. The noise is the loudest. In seven pro seasons, this is his second appearance. He knows, thanks to the Chiefs whom he’ll again face, what losing at this stage feels like. Cue the nerves.
“If you’re not a little nervous before you walk into the Super Bowl, like, what the hell, you gotta be dead,” Bruce said. “So it’s OK. You just own it. Embrace it.”
Bruce paints a picture of an entry point for nerves. “Invite them over for coffee,” Bruce says, and “let’s talk it out.”
He guides George to tell the nerves: “I really appreciate you being here. I just want you to know on gameday, I can’t pay a lot of attention to you. But I know you’re part of the family.”
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Like activating different gears and speeds on a car, Bruce coaches George to pick the ones that are right for gameday — the ones that allow him to transition from happy-go-lucky, goofy George to locked-in, ready-for-violence George.
“He’s learned pretty well how to be authentic but at the same time, understanding what energy needs to be easy as he’s entering into those situations,” Bruce said. “One thing we work on is like, ‘How do you need to show up in that situation? Who do you want to be?’
“The more clarity you have around how you’re going to show up when you do show up [the better].”
George passes that message along to his teammates.
Fellow 49ers tight ends Ross Dwelley and Charlie Woerner said they, too, now join George in breathwork and affirmations at the conclusion of individual pregame warmups. The tight ends complete their final faux run block, after which George gathers their group and position coach Brian Fleury for a moment that Woerner says is “pretty vulnerable.”
“George kind of gets us all together and usually he says something like that that takes 30 seconds,” Dwelley told Yahoo Sports. “Kind of midway through the year, he just started doing like ‘inhale success, exhale doubt,’ ‘inhale positivity, exhale negativity.’ I don’t know. I mean, I was breathing with them.”
“We all do,” Woerner said.
“And we’re here now,” Dwelley finished.