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Meditation & Athletics

by Melanie Votw

I YOU RE HIH ENERGY TYPE, staring at your navel is probably the last thing you would do. But what if meditation could actually make your workouts better? What if it could motivate you and improve athletic performance?

First, let’s get one thing straight. Meditation is not about staring at your navel. It’s actually a form of heightened concentration, and athletes know all too well the importance of concentration. Just ask a football player who fumbles the ball when distracted, a figure skater who falls repeatedly after the first mistake, or a tennis player who double faults on a serve when the score reaches 30/Love in his opponent’s favor.

Simply put, the better you can focus on what you want to accomplish, the better you’ll perform. And meditation can help you do just that. Think about the benefits for Olympic athletes who have only one chance for the medal. If they can’t keep their anxieties in check, it’s all over.

Meditation improves focus by teaching you to ease the chatter in your mind. For example, if you have a big game coming up that fills you with anxiety and insecurity, meditation can help you to ignore the fear voices and concentrate on the task at hand. The ability to ignore negative mind chatter has a calming effect, and many people use meditation for stress relief.

There’s yet another way you can use meditation to increase your self-confidence. You simply visualize yourself working out better, winning the game, or surpassing your goals. A runner, for example, will see herself over and over in her mind reaching the finish line first. It may sound like nothing more than a teenage dream sequence in a movie, but think about it. When an athlete breaks a record, suddenly other athletes are able to match that record. After the psychological barrier of belief has been broken, everyone knows it’s possible. So, the mind definitely plays a role in what you can and can’t accomplish. The more you visualize yourself doing it well, the more you’ll believe you can. You could even say meditation is fitness for the mind.

Martial artists have used meditation for centuries to gain better control over their minds and bodies. Often called ‘sitting practice,’ meditation is so ancient that no one knows exactly how long it’s been around, but some estimate that it originated at least 2500 years ago in the East. It became popular again with the spiritual resurgence in the 1960’s. Since then, athletes the world over, including players for the Chicago Bulls, have discovered its benefits.

how do you do it?

There are many different styles of meditation, and they all have similar results. So, you can choose the one that works best for you and do it as often as you like. Meditation may be difficult at first — there’s a learning curve — but you’ll find it easier as you practice. Try it for just ten minutes to start, working your way up to a half hour or longer.

So, what do you do? No matter what type of meditation you choose, it’s important to be in a comfortable sitting position. If you lie down, you may just fall asleep, which defeats the purpose. You don’t have to sit with your legs tangled like a pretzel or with your hands in any particular position. But keep your back straight, and sit in a way that will remain comfortable for several minutes.

Begin by concentrating on relaxing each part of your body, starting with your feet and working your way up. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Simply tell yourself that your feet are becoming relaxed, followed by your legs, and so on.

concentrative meditation

For this style, you focus your attention on your breath, an image in your mind, a sound, or an object. Most people find it easier to meditate with eyes closed, so staring at an object is not especially popular. The easiest method is to focus on your breathing. You simply concentrate on inhaling and exhaling. When any distracting thoughts come into your mind, just return your focus to your breathing. You can try saying the word ‘one’ silently to yourself on every out breath to assist your focus. If this still proves difficult, you can sound a tone or chant a word out loud with each exhalation.

visualizing meditation

You might want to try concentrative meditation first, but if it proves difficult, go straight for visualizing after the body relaxation. You can go on a little journey within your mind to a peaceful garden, a beach, or anywhere else you like. Try to experience the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes as if you were really there. Of course, this is the method to use when visualizing yourself bench pressing those extra pounds or finishing the marathon in record time.

mindfulness meditation

This type of meditation involves simply staying aware of whatever is happening. It keeps you in the moment by asking you to witness whatever goes on in your mind, your body, or the sounds around you as you sit quietly. It helps you to be less reactive to what’s happening by putting you in a place of merely observing your inner and outer reality. If you tend to get distracted, this is a great method for you. Plus, it gets you more in tune with your body, which might even help you avoid injury.

Whatever style of meditation you try, you’ll be surprised to discover the many ways you can use it to improve your performance in and out of the gym. Besides that, you’ll find yourself using it to calm down in stressful moments. Who’d have thought a sitting practice could actually help you get more fit? •

from the May-June 2009 issue

The better you can focus
on what you want
to accomplish,
the better you'll perform.
Meditation can help
you do just that.