“Success is a state of mind. If you want success start thinking of yourself as a success.” – Joyce Brothers
With the evolution of technology and access to industry professionals literally at the click of a button. This current generation of athletes are destined to be bigger, stronger, faster, and more athletic than we have ever seen before.
From sports scientists to strength and conditioning coaches to nutritionists, and even sleep coaches – athletes have the ability to train like a professional from a very young age.
The flipside of the coin is that these same athletes are exposed to the larger audience of society from very early on. As kids search to find their place in the world and learn the lessons of life along the way – they are also exposed to greater judgment, criticism, bullying, expectation, and comparison in the virtual world of social media – through their journey of adolescence. This evokes a whole other issue of mental health and mental performance.
It is these same athletes that will break records and reach new heights in their respective sports, that will also be the most vulnerable that we have ever seen. This is why the development of a mental skillet is critical, not only for performance but to manage the pressures of life as well.
The role of a sports psychologist or mental performance coach is to help athletes become more mindful of their thoughts. Based on the thought model T.F.A.R. – Our thoughts trigger our feelings, which drive our actions, creating a result. This process occurs in every situation during performance and in life as well.
The challenge for most is that many of those thoughts have become a program in the subconscious mind. In the same way you don’t have to think about brushing your teeth or making breakfast – they are automated habits. This means we are not consciously aware of the thought that leads to a specific result. Like any skill set, practice makes permanent. The more you practice being mindful of your thoughts, the more you can change the outcome.
“Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface in this moment with full awareness.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
The impact and significance of meditation in sports these days are hard to ignore. When George Mumford brought meditation to the Chicago Bulls of the late ’90s and the Los Angeles Lakers of the early 2000s… many thought he was crazy. With the mantra “One team. One mind.” the result speak for themselves. With the Bulls winning the NBA championship in 1996, ’97,’98, and the Lakers in 2000, ’01, ’02 the evolution of mindfulness in sport become much more than an ideology.
The basic practice of meditation is sitting in stillness, observing our thoughts without attachment or judgment. Anytime we recognize our mind ruminating or chasing after a thought we bring the attention back to our breath. With practice, this process of catching our thoughts occurs quicker and quicker. This same practice translates to a competition setting. It allows athletes to recognize hindering or unhelpful thoughts that trigger feelings, drive actions and lead to less desirable results.
Here are some more ways in which meditation benefits athletes:
- Helps Manage Fear & Anxiety:
Our minds are super sensitive to physical or psychological danger. Anytime the mind feels at risk, the amygdala is alerted which sends a message to the conscious mind to prepare to fight or flee. This also affects our body as well. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin are released. The muscles tighten up. The heart rate increases. The breath becomes shorter and faster. And even our blood flow changes.
Meditation has been shown to help calm the fear centre of the brain known as the amygdala even when you’re not meditating. With practice, our mind becomes more rational to what is or isn’t a risk to our safety. This is extremely valuable to athletes because of the amount of stress or pressure competition can create.
2. Develops Mental Resilience:
Failure is a necessary part of life and sports. Failure helps us understand how to succeed and therefore is a vital part of the recipe for success. Even the greatest athletes in the world have failed at some point in their careers.
Meditation has been shown to help develop mental toughness and resilience. The practice of meditation helps us detach from the negative thoughts that keep us from achieving our goals making the process easier to dust ourselves off and try again. And this time we are not starting from scratch but from experience.
3. Reduces Rumination:
No matter how hard you try, you can’t actually turn the mind off. Even when we are sleeping our mind is still working through a recovery process. As humans, we have a negative bias. 80% of our thoughts have a negative connotation and 95% of those thoughts are a thought we have had before – a subconscious program.
When we have negative thoughts about competition or performance, we can run these thoughts obsessively through our minds over and over, till the thought becomes bigger than life itself. This is called mind rumination.
Meditation has been proven to reduce rumination by helping us reset our minds to focus on the present moment.
4. Helps Recognize Blind Spots:
One of the biggest reasons coaches exist is to help athletes see their blind spots. Bringing faults or bad habits they are not consciously aware of to light, in order to fast-track an athlete’s development. Our blind spots have the ability to hinder our performance.
Meditation helps us bring subconscious thoughts to the surface and can help us recognize our blind spots. By firstly becoming aware of these blind spots, we can then adapt and work on becoming better.
5. Increased Spans of Focus:
Focus is an undeniable factor in winning or losing a competition. It is an athlete’s ability to focus that separates the best from the rest. A team can have the most confident athletes but unless they are locked in, the results will go the wrong way more often than not. Focus is a skill that can be developed just like a muscle, technique, or any other skill set.
Meditation has been proven to increase states of focus within the brain. Not only the attention to detail but the length of attention span as well. Every athlete, no matter what sport they are playing could work on bettering their focus.
6. Helps Manage Pain:
The majority of athletes deal with pain at some point in their careers. An athlete’s body is always under duress and high endurance sports can do a number on our vessel. The biggest cause of sickness and injury is stress and since the body is always under stress, it is vital to have recovery strategies to keep the mind and body healthy.
Meditation is a great stress reliever, and studies have shown it is a great tool for pain management.
“If a person’s basic state of mind is serene and calm, then it is possible to overwhelm a painful physical experience.” – Dalai Lama
7. Strengthens Immune System:
They say sometimes the best ability is availability. Especially at elite levels, athletes cannot afford to get sick. If they’re sick they can’t compete.
Athletes are always looking for ways to avoid becoming sick and stay healthy, and meditation has been proven to strengthen our immune system. Always injured or sick? Why not try meditation?
8. Reduces Stress:
As mentioned, an athlete’s body is always under stress. Pressure in a sports setting is stress in reality. Elite athletes pride themselves on their ability to meet the challenge of a high-pressure environment.
Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and keep athletes mentally balanced even when the biggest stakes are on the line. Meditation is a great tool to calm yourself down and create clarity on the process of performance. Incorporating mediation into performance preparation is a great strategy to lock into the zone of performance.
9. Emotional Balance:
A study on the impact of meditation in high-performing environments showed that people with more mindful traits are able to stabilize their emotions and have better control over their moods. The competitive nature of sports causes athletes to have to deal with a roller coaster of emotions during and outside of competition.
Meditation allows athletes to become more mindful of the thoughts that trigger emotion. With this superpower, athletes can distinguish which thoughts and emotions are helpful and which ones are not. Allowing them to better perform at a consistently elite level.
10. Better Sleep:
Mentally, sleep deprivation reduces an athlete’s ability to react quickly and think clearly. A lack of sleep also increases anxiety and risks for depression. Sleep not only helps the body recover but the mind as well. One night of lost sleep affects focus and can ultimately be the deciding factor in individual performance, and winning or losing.
Meditation can be used as a relaxation technique before bed that can help athletes improve both length and quality of sleep. The more quality of sleep, the better the recovery process.
An athlete’s ability to perform in the present moment also increases their opportunity of entering a flow state (or as we like to call it in the athletic world – ‘in a zone’). It is where an athlete completely trusts their skillset and performs from instinct rather than from conscious thought.
This is the foundation for peak performance. All those training reps have been lodged into muscle memory and our central nervous system through practice. With practice, these reps become automated habits. The challenge for many is when we are challenged with any type of adversity, our mind tries to take control of the situation and we consciously try and think our way through a performance. The problem with this is that our mind can’t perform the skill that our body can.
The only time the mind should be involved in performance is in giving mental cues to return to the present moment. Like any skill being present is a practice. And mediation is the vehicle for developing that practice.
There are many types of meditation practices. From focus meditations to visualizations to relaxation techniques. If you are new to meditation a great place to start is with a 50 or 100 breath meditation. If you would like more info on this feel free to drop a comment below or get in touch with me.
Meditation could be that extra edge that helps you win the game-winning point or go the extra mile when you think you can’t. Why not incorporate it into your training schedule? It just might make you a better athlete.
“Meditation is a lifelong gift that you can call on at any time.” – Paul McCartney
– Coach Cal.