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How meditation gives pro athletes the edge

Charlie Ambler

Meditation has proven itself to be quite the skill: it centers practitioners and allows them reprieve from the intensity of the world, it helps minds to reconfigure themselves, and yes, it has even been scientifically proven numerous times to alter brain chemistry in those who practice regularly. As a result, we tend to think of meditation as a spiritual and cerebral, practice. It’s for your head, not your body, right?

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Wrong. It may seem obvious, but the more a person meditates, the more the abstract physical benefits start to reveal themselves. As thought converts to action, meditation’s influence on thought subsequently converts into more mindful and effective action. In other words, the more you meditate, the more present you are, and the less likely you are to absentmindedly eat that entire row of Oreos. The meditating mind takes care of the meditating body. It eats better, exercises more, and sheds physically deteriorative habits. It’s no surprise, then, that more and more star athletes have found meditation to be a remarkable tool.

Basketball superstar Lebron James meditated during an actual game in 2012. Two-time world series champ Barry Zito attended a meditation conference with filmmaker and mindfulness giant David Lynch. There are endless examples. One of the most notable is Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s insistence that all players participate in meditation sessions. Many have (at least partially) ascribed the team’s 2013 Super Bowl success to the practice. Meditation is a practice that athletes seem to find they can add into their intense regimens to help them stay in the game—and thus allow them to perform at even higher levels, minimizing the psychological stress that comes from such physical exertion and competition.

There are plenty more examples to mind, but let’s get down to business: what exactly does meditation do for so many different athletes in such varied disciplines? In a radio interview, recently retired Olympic triathlon star Simon Whitfield said, “We all meditate. When I first went to an actual meditation class … the same feeling that you have when you want to stop in a race, when you think you’re going to quit at the end of an interval or whatever, that—to me—that feeling, I recognized when I was sitting trying to stay still and continuously come back to breathing.” This is a wonderful distillation of what meditation does for people in general, and it only makes sense why it’s so useful for athletes and has been throughout the ages. When we push ourselves to our limits or find ourselves unintentionally pushed by external circumstances, the untrained mind has difficulty. It wants to give in. It wants to retreat back to a place of comfort, safety, and low risk. But meditation builds a certain mental muscle that teaches us to trust ourselves. This trust allows us to accomplish more than we might consider possible otherwise.

Now, this doesn’t mean that meditating for eight weeks is going to suddenly turn you into a professional athlete. That takes years of sweat and dedication. But meditating consistently over a period of time can offer a steady stream of small victories: the ability to eat and sleep better, lift more, run longer, zone out competition and get done what you have to get done. Over time, these little wins translate into massive achievements. Just ask Lebron. This piece was produced in partnership with Nike Training Club. To get started on your fitness journey, download the NTC app here.

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Meditation builds a mental muscle that teaches us to trust ourselves

Charlie Ambler

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