Whether you’re a competitive athlete whose livelihood relies on your ability to perform or a regular fitness buff who wants to get everything possible out of your efforts, meditation is a powerful tool for athletic success. A lot of people incorrectly think that meditation is about thinking no thoughts or controlling the mind. It’s actually a basic mental fitness exercise that makes the neural circuitry in the brain stronger, improving mental toughness—a key athletic performance asset for athletes that is often overlooked when coaches design training programs.
One of the most powerful things you can do to improve your performance is to give meditation a try. Not only will you get an athletic boost, but meditation pays off in wellness benefits and eases the rigors of your everyday reality, making life more pleasurable. This article will provide a quick rundown of how meditation can help you take your efforts to the next level.
What Is Meditation?
Ordinarily, our mind wanders half the time, but in meditation, you bring discipline to the mind and try to keep it focused on one thing, generally the breath. The goal is to train your attention. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to the breath. This is roughly parallel to going to the gym and training with weights. Every time you lift a weight, you make the muscle a little bit stronger. And every time you bring your mind back to your meditation, you make the neural circuitry in the brain a little stronger.
This helps you keep your attention on the task at hand, but it also trains you to cope with stress better. Because the same circuitry in the brain that focuses your attention also manages the amygdala, which causes you to get anxious or upset or depressed, meditation leads you to react less strongly to things that are upsetting, nerve wracking, or anxiety producing.
Meditation Relieves The Experience of Stress
Changing the way the brain responds to difficulties is a game changer for athletes because stress is an all-the time thing. Knowing you must perform at your best with the eyes of the world on you can be incredibly nerve wracking. Needing to push through the pain of brutal workouts day after day takes a debilitating mental toll.
A study performed on the University of Miami football team reveals the benefit of meditation. During pre-season workouts when the players were under significant academic and athletic pressures they were asked to perform either a meditation practice or a relaxation program. The meditation practice was geared at increasing mindfulness by focusing attention on present moment experiences and observing one’s thoughts without emotional reactivity or judgement.
The study found that the high stess combination of academic requirements and pre-season training depleted attention and degraded emotional well being, but the meditation program reduced the negative impact. Compared to the relaxation program, meditation relieved the struggle that is associated with difficult demands and improved mental and physical performance.
It's Not About Control But About Attention
A lot of athletes say they don’t need meditation, thinking their physical training gives them adequate control over their minds. But meditation is unique from the mental control we exert over our physical bodies to push through pain. When you’re being mindful, you don’t try to control what comes into your mind but rather try not to get caught up in it. You watch your thoughts come and go.
As an athlete who has experience pushing through physical pain, you’ve come to the point in a difficult workout where you are ready to quit and then, almost like an out-of-body experience, your mental struggle of pain eases. This differs from simply enduring or controlling the pain. It reduces the emotional stress of the experience that leads you to dread workouts while also allowing you to work harder and for a longer period of time in training and competition.
Meditation Impacts Biochemistry & Immunity
A benefit that resonates with most atheltes is how meditation can help you avoid injury and illness, while improving the anabolic environment in the body. Everyone knows that hormone levels have a substantial influence on training performance and the ability to recover. It’s one reason many athletes turn to performance enhancing drugs: To accelerate tissue repair, eradicate inflammation, and in some cases, speed recovery from injury.
Meditation can have similar, though less substantial, benefits. One study found that regular meditation raised levels of testosterone and growth hormone in participants with the greatest adherence to the program. Baseline cortisol levels went down significantly, indicating less overall stress activation. Interestingly, cortisol release in response to an acute stress test increased, which is considered a favorable adaptive response because it indicates the subjects were better able to respond to an immediate stressor.
Scientists theorize that meditation resets the HPA axis that governs not only our stress response, but all of our hormones. It also improves release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that gives you that feeling like you are on top of the world and can conquer any opponent, Researchers theorize that the combination of lower cortisol and increased dopamine that results from meditation makes people more generous and compassionate, which can pay off for athletes who often are very self-focused as they strive for greatness. Shifting your attention to notice others strengthens your social support network and is useful for team sport athletes that rely on unity and cohesiveness.
Other beneficial effects of an improved biochemical environment include better and deeper sleep and less risk of illness—both of which are more of a problem for athletes than the general population. Studies continually show mindfulness lowers risk of catching a cold and reduces the duration of symptoms. Regular meditators also boast better sleep: Studies show REM sleep improves by 10 to 17 percent in response to meditation. Researchers think meditation may be most helpful for improving sleep in people who have trouble getting all the rest they need.
Meditation is easily the most powerful, untapped tool you have to improve your athletic performance. With just a few minutes of meditation a day, you can strengthen your mental toughness, enhancing your ability to bounce back physically and mentally from setbacks.