4 reasons every athlete should meditate
by Kristin Keim
“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.
There is a lot of chatter around meditation and it’s benefits to performance and health, but it is something I have always struggled with personally. One of the wonderful people I have had a chance to work with during my career has been Dr. Kristin Keim, who first encouraged me to give meditation a try several years ago. Meditation can reduce stress and improve concentration, improve sleep and speed recovery time, enhance endurance, and improve the sense of self-identity (see her above article on Headspace!). Recently, I discovered a different approach to meditation that I feel finally really worked for me and the benefits have helped me to find new freedom and ability to stay present and grounded in who I am on and off the track.
For me, the hardest part of meditation has always been quieting my mind, letting go of whatever it’s chewing on at the moment and getting “into the zone”. I find meditation to be much more challenging than visualization, because of their different desired outcomes. While visualization is active and engaging, the art of eliminating wandering thoughts and distractions seems impossible! I have been practicing visualization since high school, especially around big competitions and find it to be extremely helpful for preparing for the unknown and uncontrollable. During visualization, I’m usually imagining a specific place in as much detail as possible and playing out different scenarios in the hopes that I can respond to whatever is thrown at me when it comes. Meditation on the other hand, I had always understood as simply being still and emptying the mind completely to focus on breathing and the body. While this might be one way of doing it, I didn’t realize that there were many different ways to meditate, and that I might just have needed to keep exploring for what would work best for me.
I hadn’t really found an approach to meditation that I felt worked well for me, until I recently took an online class that discussed the idea of “flow”. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the “flow state” as including the following attributes: complete concentration on the task, clarity of goals, sense of time speeding up or slowing down, rewarding, effortless, a sense of control, balance between challenge and skill and losing self-consciousness. I have definitely experienced flow in specific races (one that stands out for example is when I ran a big pb in the 5k at Payton Jordan in 2014), but hadn’t thought of experiencing flow in other activities outside of the sport realm. My class challenged us to experience different disciplines, such as meditation, through the lens of entering a flow state.
I was struggling with “turning off “and emptying my brain until I shifted to different meditation technique, a mindset that was more like conversation. If one of the goals of meditation is to center and ground yourself in who you are, then I feel I was really doing myself a disservice by not taking into account the aspects of who I am outside of running! I stumbled upon a practice of meditative prayer, Lectio Divina, and a meditation app called “Abide”. This type of meditation basically starts with a bible verse and then leads one through a time of contemplation on the verse, which I felt was a perfect combination of concentration and losing self-consciousness by opening my mind up to receive what is being revealed to me in that moment. Meditation finally clicked and became a game changer for me! In stepping outside of performances and times as what defines me, and spending some time each day practicing and building another part of who I am, I am able to experience freedom that I believe leads to the ability to stay in the moment, stay unattached from paralyzing emotions like fear of failure and take more risks. So, if you’ve always wanted to try meditation but have struggled I want to encourage you to keep trying different techniques until you find one that works!