How To Use Meditation To Enhance Athletic Performance

“At the highest levels, everyone is the best. How can you become better than the best?”- Ben Bergeron, Chasing Excellence

Athletes will devote so many hours out of their busy schedule to lifting heavy things in the weight room and giving each other slaps on the ass when new PR’s are hit, but oftentimes, seem to completely neglect the crucial piece of their overall performance that is having an uncompromising, well-rounded mindset.

Trust me, I love and fully believe in physical adaptation as much as the next strength coach, but I think so much more emphasis should be put on developing the mindset of an athlete to really get a glimpse of what they are truly capable of. A man who has set all sorts of records in baseball, and who has one of the most electric names in all of sports, Yogi Berra, came up with the famous quote, that “sports are 90% mental and only 10% physical,” and I couldn’t agree more.

This quote might sound stupid to you, but it’s a hard one to dispute. When you look at a group of the highest level athletes in a particular sport, it’s probably hard to point at one and say that you think they’re going to win because their physical attributes set them apart. Often times, it comes down to what’s going on in between their ears. So many of the world’s top athletes have come out and placed incredible amounts of priority on the mental side of their performance, usually mentioning the practice of meditation as a key factor of their training.

Lebron James, Aaron Rodgers, Novak Djokovic, Kobe Bryant are a tiny sample of notable athletes that have praised the effects of mental training, in particular, meditation. I figured that with all of the combined championships and success these athletes have seen, that there must be something to it.

Photo of Intense Cycling Race

At the highest levels, everyone is the best. How can you become better than the best?

What is Meditation?

Simply put, meditation is an attempt to achieve a calm and clear emotional state by becoming mindful or focused on a single particular thing.

Mindfulness

While we’re giving definitions, I think it’s important to make the word mindfulness clear, as I will mention it quite a few times in the future. Mindfulness is what is achieved by meditation. Being mindful in a particular scenario means being aware and focused on only what is happening in this moment, now.

Photo of Girl Meditating in a beautiful landscape

Meditation is an attempt to achieve a calm and clear emotional state by becoming mindful or focused on a single particular thing.

Is Meditation Good For Athletes?

Quickly becoming one of the widest used techniques to improve mental performance, meditation has proven time and time again to be effective for athletes. Being able to focus on only the task at hand and not thinking about the opponent’s last drive down the court where you butchered one of your defensive assignments is crucial to being able to achieve better results moving forwards.

Power of the Breath

Staying with the last example, what would happen if instead of being able to refocus on the next play, you continue to beat yourself up over the last one? Strong feelings of letting yourself and your teammates down arise and you will absorb yourself in them and not be able to move forward. Chances are, you’ll end up playing ‘tight’ or frantic in the upcoming drives leading to even more negative plays going forward.

Transfer to Sport

What if I told you there was an alternative to this? I sure as hell hope there is! This is where meditation and the power of the breath can transfer to sport. Instead of thinking about your missed pass for the next 4 plays, wouldn’t it be more convenient to be able to take a breath, center yourself, and move your focus onto the next play? This is what meditation and mindfulness have the ability to achieve. That’s how much weight the breath holds in sport and exactly why meditation should be added to your training routine.

Using Meditation to Enter The Flow State

If you have ever played sports for a period of time, there is a very good chance you have entered a flow state before. Perhaps one of the most exhilarating and fulfilling moments an athlete can experience, everything seems to slow down and become easy while in the flow state. You can’t seem to make an error or miss a shot, and every pass requires minimal thought and effort.

This is a complete state of mindfulness and presence and is the reason that many people continue to play sports, despite it being such a rare occurrence. The flow state essentially is the deepest form of mindfulness an athlete can achieve, so obviously enough, we want to maximize our time spent in this state, and meditation is a tool that will help you get there.

Meditation for performance anxiety

By this point, it might be clear to you why mindfulness practice would help performance anxiety, so I won’t get into much detail. Just know that being able to center yourself and clear your head before a major event that may cause some anxiety is yet another one of the awesome benefits of meditation. There’s no longer any pressure because the past and future don’t exist. All that matters is right now. Taking a couple of minutes before your heat, event, or game to enter a quiet space and find your breath could be the difference between you and your opponents, and ultimately, winning or losing.

Practice?!

All of these benefits sound amazing, but just like becoming great at anything else, meditation requires practice and fine-tuning. It’s very difficult to go out on game-day when stress and tension are at their highest levels and just be able to execute mindfulness at a high level without attentive and intentional practice beforehand. Think of meditation as just another skill you have to learn and practice to be able to achieve your best performance come game time.

Photo of Beach Volleyball player preparing to serve

Instead of thinking about your missed pass for the next 4 plays, wouldn’t it be more convenient to be able to take a breath, center yourself, and move your focus onto the next play?

How To Meditate For Athletes

Meditation can feel hard to get into for some athletes, given the relatively frantic, powerful nature that quite a few sports emit. Luckily, I have compiled a list of tools to help you find meditation and improve your performance.

Focus on Your Breath

If I had a nickel for every time I heard somebody say “I can’t meditate because it’s impossible for me to not think of anything,” I’d have exactly 1 girlfriend. The point of meditation isn’t to try to not think of anything, but rather, to think of one thing only, your breath.

For those who have never meditated before, this is hard. Luckily for you, it’s supposed to be hard, and that’s why you have to practice. Remember, a big reason why we’re meditating as athletes is so when we step onto the court or field, we can focus 100% of our energy on the task at hand. Therefore, it makes sense to practice focusing on a sole feature while meditating, the easiest being the constant breath.

I want you to notice every single thing about your breath. Is it smooth or choppy? Notice the temperature of the air and the moisture of each breath. Feel the air as it comes into your nose and through the respiratory tract all the way to the lungs. Take note of all of it without judgment or attempt to change anything. Just be present in the moment, focusing all your attention on what your breath is doing.

Don’t Get Frustrated

This is usually the hardest part for athletes, as they are usually overly self-critical. If you happen to think briefly about the assignment that’s due tomorrow or about how Coach Ozzy is now in the dog house with his girlfriend because of the last section, don’t beat yourself up. Rather, acknowledge that the thoughts are there, swipe them out of your brain, and come right back to your breath. Easier said than done for sure, but it becomes easier and more fluent with practice.

If You Have To Be Done By a Certain Time, Don’t Set a Phone Alarm

Been there done that. After the first time, all I could think about during future meditations is the alarm. Getting startled out of a deep focus by the terrible Apple alarm is not what you want to be thinking about during meditation. I personally like to meditate until I am satisfied, but if I need to be doing something in 10 minutes, I will search up “10-minute meditation music” and focus on my breath until the instrumental is over.

Guided Meditation For Athletes

Guided meditation is a great option, and probably my favourite way to get my daily mental training in. Instead of focusing only on the breath, a voice tells you what to focus on. Sometimes they will take you through all of the sensations of your body (called a body scan), whereas other times, they will help you stay focused on the breath. This is a great option for both beginners and those with more experience in meditation. Spotify and YouTube are the two mediums that I use to find free guided meditations, and I am sure there are tons of other easy to use apps and websites out there.

Yoga

An easy way to kill two birds with one stone is yoga. Not only are you getting a mobility/active recovery session in, but focus on the breath is at the core of every good yoga practice. Being around a yoga instructor with years of experience under their belt will most likely be the key to help you with any struggles you have had with meditation. Focused and controlled breathing is also key for releasing tight areas you may want to stretch. It really is the best of both worlds!

Photo of group practicing yoga

Not only are you getting a mobility/active recovery session in, but focus on the breath is at the core of every good yoga practice

Ozzy’s Action of The Week

Each week at Sled Dog Development, we like to give you something that you can do to help drive your performance to the next level. This week, my challenge to you is to try and meditate every day. It doesn’t need to be an hour-long meditation every day, and actually, I would discourage that for this challenge. 5-10 minutes is a great starting point that can easily be maintained in the future.

Slot it somewhere into your growing routine so you will remember to do it, and give meditation the time of day that it deserves from you!