Mindfulness for Athletes: Can Meditation Help Your Performance?

in meditation •  last month  (edited)

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A very pleasant #mindfulmonday to you all! @plantstoplanks here with your latest weekly installment to get you thinking about how you can continue to incorporate more mindful moments into your daily routine. Today I would like to share with you all some ways that meditation or other mindful training can have a positive impact on your athletic endeavors. As a fitness and nutrition coach I obviously believe wholeheartedly in caring for your body through physical activity and quality dietary choices. However, as many of you know, the mind has a huge impact on what our bodies can achieve!

If you follow sports or are an athlete yourself, it probably comes as no surprise that meditation can be a big part of competition preparation. Big names such as NBA coach Phil Jackson and player LeBron James both are reported to be proponents of meditation and other mental forms of training. The entire Seattle Seahawks NFL team joins in on group meditation, and just a few years ago they won the super bowl so it must be doing some good, right? Though these are some all-star examples, even us mere mortal athletes can incorporate meditation to benefit our own endeavors!

I’ll give you an example in my own experience how meditation has helped me in action. A few years ago I did my first Tough Mudder race with a team of other trainers that I work with. In case you’re not sure what that is, think of anywhere from 10-13 miles of mixed terrain running interspersed with 20-plus crazy obstacles (many involving mud). The first year I joined in, I had a good bit of anxiety not knowing what to expect despite lots of solid training leading up to the event. On the first wall that we had to scale I reached up and blanked on how to swing my legs up and over to make it across. With a few bumps along the way I made it through, and actually enjoyed the experience enough to sign up for the next year. There were definitely a few obstacles that were much more mentally scary than they actually were physically challenging, so the following year I decided to incorporate more meditation to help me prepare.

At the time I was using the app Headspace, so about a month before the race I started a series specifically designed for athletic competition. Most of it focused on centering yourself and calming your mind to get through difficult moments. One of the parts of that practice was to incorporate a small hand movement to train your mind to go back to that calm and centered space during the event. I used my right hand to lightly squeeze the pad of skin and muscle inside of my left hand by my thumb. There were a few moments during this second year of the race where that small act helped me step off the safety of a platform and take on the obstacle ahead. The photo below is me swinging across the final obstacle of the race, which was quite intimidating to tackle for the first time. Oh what fun it was to get past the fear and enjoy the freedom of swinging through the air!

Tough Mudder Photo

My experience is really one of the classic ways that meditation can be used to benefit athletes. Taking time ahead of competition or even practice to calm the mind or visualize success can have tremendous results during the heat of the moment. Just as you practice your sport through weeks, months or even years of training, you can also apply the same type of progression to your mental training to see improvements on that end. This can help if you suffer from pre-competition anxiety, have a hot head during events that gets you tossed from games, or tend to overthink your swing or shot to the point where your mind gets in the way of your physical abilities. That’s one of the beautiful things about a personal mindful practice—you can tweak it to your own needs at any given time to find benefit.

Another form of mindfulness that I enjoy teaching is to really pay attention during your training. When I first started running almost a decade ago I always went out with music to distract me during my run. However, a few years ago I ditched the tunes and found I actually enjoyed my runs more without the music in my ears. I could not only get much more in tune with nature, but I also became much more in tune with they rhythm of my own body. By cutting out distractions you can really get a whole lot more out of your effort. I also like to set my intentions for my run or other workout before I head out, so even before I start taking a moment to think about what I want to get out of it will help me make the most out of my time.

I think it can also be very helpful during strength training. Many people don’t like lifting weights or doing other calisthenic movements, so they just go through the motions. If you really take the time to think about the purpose behind each movement and what muscles you are engaging it can help you get much more out of your workout. I have a few clients who absolutely love to learn about why we are doing the particular movements as it helps them understand how it helps daily activities. From a safety perspective, you are also much less likely to get injured when you are paying attention to form and technique, and also to your body’s signs that may tell you if you need to a break. These are just a few examples, but you can bring that mindful approach to any physical activity from yoga, dance, cycling, or just walking around the neighborhood. Athletics doesn’t always have to be about high intensity, sometimes your intention can be more to create a mental catharsis through physical activity or use movement for flexibility and recovery.

Recovery

Recovery is indeed another area where many athletes can benefit from a more mindful approach to their routine. We may think about the fuel and fluids we consume to recover, or even how much sleep we get. However, speaking from my own experience (and I know for a fact runners are terrible at this!), we tend to skimp on taking time to slow down during the day to really allow our bodies to deal with the inflammatory impact of hard training. More and more research comes out all the time about how important it is to take the time to recover after your training efforts. If you are constantly on the go and don’t allow proper rest, your body will end up failing either through acute injury or chronic over-training effects like fatigue or illness. Taking time out to meditate is a fantastic way to not only just physically stop for a period of time, but the benefits in relieving stress can be positive for both mind and body.

Many forms of exercise in itself can be meditative. Running, cycling, and of course yoga are all ones that come to mind as ways to be mindful during movement, but there are any number of other activities that lend themselves to quality moments focusing on breathing and being in the present moment. Any form of physical activity can be a great way to work on both the health of the body and of the mind! For the other athletes out there, how do you incorporate meditation into your training routine? How has it impacted your performance in specific events or quality of training? We’d love to hear your stories!

Mindful Curation

@bewithbreath
Want to learn a little more about how the group meditation sessions go in the @naturalmedicine discord? Check out updates like this post from our resident meditation leader @bewithbreath after the Wednesday meditation last week.

@consciousangel7
Just because you are on vacation or have your kiddos with you doesn’t mean you can’t take a little bit of time for a mindful moment! Learn how @consciousangel7 worked meditation into her latest vacation here.

@mayb
Meditation, can it be Plain & Simple? @mayb shares some great tips for everyone to get going in her video.

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That is really a thing to think about, nice to know meditation has great impact for the athletes. and I think it can be useful for the farmer like when I work in the field.

Oh absolutely! Farming is tough work, but I can see aspects of it being very conducive to active meditation. :)

That is really a thing to think about, nice to know meditation has great impact for the athletes. and I think it can be useful for the farmer like when I work in the field.

Great post @plantstoplanks. Great message. I admit when I was going to the gym and working out regularly, I usually had music playing to turn off my mind. It never really seems to shut off much, so I try to drown it out. Over the past few years, I have gotten much better at activities to where I do as you mention to listen to my body more and focus on my activity. I find things like cleaning house are not a complete chore anymore.

Thanks so much @tryskele! I really enjoyed putting this together. Music isn't necessarily a bad thing when you're working out or doing other activities, but sometimes it's nice to just be present for the task at hand. As an introvert, I actually really enjoy repetitive activity like cleaning or other house work is sometimes just the ticket to find some solitude and recharge. That's probably why I really enjoy running alone, as well. ;)

Great post @plantstoplanks. Good analogy to make obstacles in mudder race to hindrances/enemiews of meditation 😊. And, absoultely, running can be form of meditation - there is a walking meditation popular in many traditions
🧘🏼‍♂️🧘🏼‍♀️🙏🏼

Thank you @bewithbreath! I am very much enjoying continuing my mindful journey. Especially having such wonderful people to share my experiences with! It really is fascinating to find how connected seemingly different experiences can be. I know I used to have the perception that meditation was only sitting in the quiet with a totally quiet mind, but it is refreshing to truly explore all of the different mindful moments throughout the day whether you are moving or still, quiet or in a stimulating environment, by yourself or in a group--there really is no bad time to take a few moments of reflection!

Really good post @plantstoplanks

It's interesting, I think I was doing the opposite of some of things you are recommending in this piece. For instance, I would deny myself the chance to think about a football (soccer)match and avoid warming up. I'm not sure why I used to do it! I think it might have something to do with the adrenaline kicking in before the game. I didn't like it. I used to get the shakes. I would actively try to get to the starting whistle without thinking about it or stretching. It seemed to work for me but, maybe, I would have been better if I did allow myself to use it and focus pre match. I guess I'll never know.

I am a bit of a hot headed player. I've always played my football on the edge and with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. It's interesting that as a coach, I am the opposite. I try to be calm and pass that on to the players. I really don't like seeing coaches and parents getting angry. So bad for children's development. So again, the focus that you are describing by use of meditation and relaxing would have benefited me. Again, too late for me.

One other thing I relate to is the thing you said about meditating during exercise. I get that very situation with cycling. When I'm cycling I am in the zone pounding out a rhythm, just the sound of the road and the drivetrain. I really do feel balanced and I'm able to think clearly, more than any other time.

One perfect scenario is being in the French alps. I try to get there as often as possible. Cycling in the alps is such a wonderful thing. The scenery is ridiculously spectacular. Even though my body is feeling pain and fatigue from climbing a mountain, I am at peace with myself (for once). The struggle is embraced, the breathing stabilised and the wheels are turning. I'm addicted to that feeling and live for the next chance to be there.

Great job and thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Gaz

Thanks for taking the time to read it! I would never have pegged you for a hot-head! You always seem to have so much patience and a calm demeanor. Though I guess we all have times when the beast comes out in us. I think I had a few of those moments back in school when I played basketball, so I suppose I should be able to relate. ;)

It is a shame that mindfulness is not taught as much in youth sports. I think it would have greatly helped me in my school days playing sports. I used to hate playing offense because I was so anxious to miss a shot or bonk my volleyball serve. I was really good at defense as a result, but I think some mental training would have helped me be a more well-rounded player. It's nice that you bring that calming aspect to your athletes. Too many parents and coaches get way too crazy over what should be fun events, and pass up opportunities to teach kids about more than just winning the game.

The good thing is we have found enjoyable activities as adults to channel that mental training! I can definitely imagine cycling is a great activity to totally get in the zone, especially in such a great environment as the Alps! I would love to start traveling more for my running at some point, so I can appreciate different places in my sport, as well. I hope you get back to that happy place soon!

Lol. Not a hot head! Tell that to some of my teammates! hehehe.

I am a different animal playing football. I have always felt pressure because it's always been 'my game' and that fuels the fire. It's still there even though I recognise it these days. It's switched in its focus to me getting older and playing younger fitter guys and needing to do all those little tricks to out think them. I hated that kind of play when I was younger, and now it's me doing it!

I heap pressure on myself and I have always been after my father's approval and never received it. Certainly not in a form that would be classed as 'well done, you are a good player' kind of thing. I know it's sad but it's part of what has driven me and given me that aggression. The fear of failure terrifies me.

I have a little known story about me that I tend not to tell but, for you P2P, I will. I was mid 20s. Playing quite well at the time and I moved back to a local team where I knew a few people (players and club members, some family). It was a situation that had kind of developed over a few years, playing against them as well, and finally I made the move back.

This one game after I joined them I was feeling pressure, as a striker, to score. I had not scored for them yet and I had missed a few chances in this game. The pressure was mounting. A lot of my family were watching. Ironically, my father came out to watch which didn't always happen.

We were on the attack and I found some space in the penalty box. All that the winger had to do was poke the ball through to me and I could have literally blown it in to an empty net. Sure enough, the winger did his job and passed the ball. I was so scared of missing, that as the ball was rolling towards me, frightened of miss controlling it again, I dropped to my knees. The pressure buckled my legs. The ball bounced off of my thigh and it was instantly cleared. It was so obscure that everyone was laughing. I just mentally nosedived. I tried to laugh it off by my confidence was well and truly shot. I didn't stay much longer and joined another team; crucially, away from where I grew up and returned to having some success.

It doesn't affect me now that I understand why but at the time, it took me ages to get over it. Even though I am a good player and should have played at a higher level, I was never mentally strong enough or had the confidence to do it.

Therapy session over! lol.

I agree with you that the psychological side of sport needs more focus for the young up and comings. The mental side of sport at the higher levels can destroy your aspirations to play and turn you away from the sport. It needs to be fun, first and foremost. As a coach, I totally get that! I try to nurture a love of the game first. Once that is there then you can increase the intensity slightly. I try to avoid putting any undue pressure on them. They have enough already.

You have certainly got me thinking about my football past. Again, great work on your post P2P.

Oh my gosh, I can totally relate to that moment of yours on the field! I don't have one stand out moment, but lots of small moments like that where I let my nerves get the best of me. I will share a memory from the P2P vault since you were so candid. Mine actually does involve my father pushing me in a good way.

Basketball was "my sport", so I also felt a lot of pressure to perform well. It probably didn't help that my older sister also played and was a pretty darn good athlete, so I always measured myself against her performance. My junior or senior year I had a few games where I was just totally off. I think I totally got in my own head and couldn't do anything right. Before the next game my dad brought me to the gym and made me drill until I was blue in the face. Just the same basic shooting drills over and over. I was so ticked off at him thinking he was just being mean, but in the end after I worked through all the emotions I realized my body had the skills and it was my brain holding me back. That next game I did just fine!

He was really frustrated with me because I didn't want to even try out for the basketball team in college. I was on a 90% academic scholarship (wouldn't have been able to attend the school I did without it), though, so I didn't want to jeopardize that by trying to juggle school and sports. That first year or two of college we had a very cool relationship, but then I think he finally realized I made the best choice for myself at the time. It was tough then as I hated the thought of disappointing him.

I do miss team sports, but at least running for me tends to be less external pressure and more just my own desire to do well. Makes it easier to use the mental tricks I've learned over the years and actually enjoy it as a meditative activity at times. I still get crazy nervous even before races that I am only doing for fun, but the more I make meditation a priority the more I can at least calm myself down once I start getting anxious. I don't think it will ever totally go away (which is probably a good thing as it means I'm invested in what I am doing), but at least I'll never have a total freak out before a race.

Thanks for sharing some of your experiences! I'm sure we could go back and forth on this topic for quite some time!

Meditation is the most amazing tool and so easy to do. We just need to set time aside each day to still the mind and meditate.

It really is! Like anything else, we just have to work to make it a habit. :)

great post, .. iv always found meditation to be useful whether its prior to the gym or prior to my work sessions, … finding the quiet time seems to be the issue for me, reading posts like this rekindle my interest.. thanks.

Happy to rekindle that desire to find that time! I do find it easier when I run as I can just go outside and find a quiet place, but in the gym I just take whatever time in my own head as I can and not worry about it being a full meditation session, more just a few mindful moments. :)

What a great post! I’m sorry I’m late on responding, was sick last week. Love this and just listened to podcast of a former NBA Coach expressing the importance of meditation in training. I never thought about the recovery aspect either and it makes sense how meditation can help in many ways with that as well. Thanks for sharing and you are really strong! How powerful!! Thanks for the shout out too, I really appreciate it 💜💕💙🙏🏻

Hope you are feeling better! It really is interesting to listen to some of these great coaches and athletes, and realize that most of the big names do some sort of meditation or other mental training. I've been meaning to start listening to Rich Roll's podcast as I believe he has a lot of really interesting guests that cross into both of these spheres. We did recently watch an interview he did with Fiona Oakes about the documentary about her called "Running for Good". She was so humble and swore up and down that she is not really a "runner". (She holds a number of world records for her running endeavors) She just said she is so motivated for her work with her farm sanctuary and to promote the vegan message that it drives her to work harder than almost anyone else to have that platform that racing gives her to spread her message. I can't wait to watch the documentary to learn more her and the amazing mental fortitude that she has! I think I might have digressed a bit there, but as you can see it's a topic that is really interesting to me. :) Thanks for popping by to comment!

Thank you! I am much better now. Wow I will definitely look both of those people up, I love podcasts. I have been geeking out so hard on Oprah Winfrey’s soul sessions and almost every single person mentions mediation, it’s crazy how it all comes back to that. That is amazing she’s not a runner yet uses running to showcase her true passion. I really love that. I’m trying to figure out how to use my talents to best serve myself and humanity and this gave me a new perspective! Thank you 💜💕🙏🏻😀

Ooh, I'll have to look up the Oprah ones, too! I keep saying I need to start listening to more podcasts. I think I should just remember to pop one on when I go into the kitchen to cook rather than try to find time otherwise. All about making new habits, right? :)

Yes!! That’s exactly what I do, I listen when I’m cleaning and cooking! 😀