“Bike racing is always physically hard, but the mental part can be even harder.”
Just the other day an athlete posted this on social media, and they’re right. A mind that is not under control is a mind that makes mistakes—mistakes that could prevent you from winning. High levels of stress decrease your ability to maintain focus and concentration. Of course, stress can be a helpful tool when used correctly; but when it’s not, it can not only impact your performance, but your life.
As a clinical sport psychologist I have worked with a vast array of elite, professional, and amateur athletes. Despite their differences in level and/or sport, they all face similar challenges: anxiety, depression, stress, inability to maintain focus, sleep difficulties, life balance, confidence, the list goes on. But so does the game. So when my athletes need to step up but are having trouble finding the mental wherewithal, one of the key techniques I rely on to change their thoughts and behaviors is meditation.
Why should you consider practicing meditation for athletic performance?
1. Stress Reduction
Stress reduction is vital for optimal performance. Racing and competing when under stress has been proven to negatively impact athletic performance. A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology showed that the results of meditation are associated with reduced stress levels in addition to decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Being relaxed and centered increases the ability to remain calm under pressure and also improves focus and concentration. By consistently practicing meditation, your body will learn how to relax in stressful situations, building self-confidence and ultimately achieving a more positive mindset.
2. Improved Sleep Patterns and Speeding Recovery Time
Sleep is imperative to all human beings, especially athletes. A study published in the Journal of Sleep showed that athletes who are not able to get enough sleep will experience a number of negative effects including: weight gain, mood disturbance, increased anxiety/depression, inability to maintain focus/concentration, and decreased motor control.
Athletes who consistently practice meditation can help their body to recover quicker from training, racing, and even injury. While physical training is good, it also places high levels of stress on the body, including muscle fiber tears. Recovery time from many common sports injuries can actually be reduced. In addition, meditation boosts the immune system, preventing illness that can hinder your training and/or performance. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health found that those who practice meditation experience fewer acute respiratory infections, as well as a shortened duration and severity of symptoms from the common cold. Therefore, meditation aids in improving the quality/length of sleep and the immune system.
3. Enhanced Endurance
This might be one of the most popular reasons to include meditation into your training routine. By practicing meditation that utilizes visualizations, athletic endurance can be enhanced. Athletes who visualize accomplishing specific objectives/goals, combined with the regular practice of breathing exercises can train the body to work harder and for a longer period of time in training and competition.
4. Improved Sense of Identity, Self, and the Body
Meditation in sport can help athletes conquer those common “blind spots” that tend to make performance challenges seem worse than they actually are. These blind spots negatively impact performance and meditation helps you recognize your blind spots. By recognizing these blind spots, you can work on improving your physical/mental training, skills, and coping mechanisms. This serves to build your athletic identity, self-confidence, and improve performance. Furthermore, the meditator learns to enhance awareness of each muscle, which can help pinpoint an injury and prevent further damage. Finally, meditation in sport can greatly improve the mind-body connection, allowing you to discover your optimal zone of performance.
Meditation in sport is not only helpful for performance, but can also aid athletes who experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health illnesses. The practice can help athletes through injury, as well as overcome challenges such as the transition back into sport or out of sport (e.g., retirement).
The practice of meditation is a journey similar to that of any athletic pursuit, and it could offer that small percentage needed to make you a better athlete and a happier human being.