In my previous post on their being such a thing as a personality of a successful sports personality, I wrote that personality traits may play a role, but the training you give your mind is the most important part in determining success. I also said I needed to ensure I was having more of a balance in my hours spent in the gym as well as those meditating and visualising. Recently I’ve been getting up that little bit earlier to start my day with 10-20 minutes of mediating and it really is making a difference to the other 1430-1420 minutes in my day.
Meditating and visualising may sound easy, but it’s really not! Trying sitting still and comfortably with your eyes closed for just 30 seconds and focusing on your breath. I bet your brain was very noisy and thoughts constantly popped in? There is nothing wrong with that, and you need to let the thoughts pop in (as lots will). But as soon as they appear try to let them then pass like clouds and return to focusing on your breath. The first time I tried meditating I couldn’t get my mind to quieten and focus for even five seconds, let alone 30!
However, to perform at our best we want to be totally focused and in the moment on what we are doing. Many athletes refer to this as achieving “flow” or being “in the zone.” According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi the Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, flow is “completely focused motivation”. You can watch his TED talk on “Flow, the secret to happiness” here.
Timothy Gallwey’s influential works on the “inner game” of sports such as golf and tennis describes the mental coaching and attitudes required to “get in the zone” and fully internalize mastery of the sport. Gallwey says “It is impossible to achieve mastery or satisfaction in any endeavor without first developing some degree of mastery of the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. Most of us have experienced days when our self-interference was at a minimum. Whether on a sports field, at work, or in some creative effort, we have all had moments in which our actions flowed from us with a kind of effortless excellence. Athletes have called this state, “playing in the zone.” Generally at these times our mind is quiet and focused. But whatever it’s called, when we’re there, we excel, we learn, and we enjoy ourselves. Unfortunately most of us have also experienced times when everything we do seems difficult. With minds filled with self-criticism, hesitation, and over-analysis, our actions were awkward, mis-timed, and ineffective. Obviously we all would prefer to have more of the first and less of the second. In simple terms the game can be summarized in a formula: Performance = potential-interference (P=p-i). According to this formula, performance can be enhanced either by growing “p” potential or by decreasing “i,” interference.” Chris Sharma and prAna Mindful Living Ambassador Mark Coleman talk about the ‘inside game’ of climbing here.
Mixed martial arts champion and Karate master, Lyoto Machida uses meditation techniques before fights to attain mushin, a concept that, by his description, is in all respects equal to flow.
The scientists at Brown University published a paper in Frontiers in Human Nueuroscience in Feb 2012, proposing that mindfulness mediators develop a more sensitive “volume knob” for controlling how the brain senses pain and emotions. Through the use of magnetoencephalography (MEG) the researchers have shown that mindfulness mediation plays a role in controlling the cortical alpha rhythms, which determine what senses our body and mind pay attention to. Gaining control of alpha rhythms through breath awareness has many purposes for an athlete:
- It enhances sensory focus on a particular area of the body.
- It helps an athlete overcome persistent competing stimuli such as negative thoughts or pain.
So in turn the mindful awareness becomes a very powerful tool athletes, as it gives you control of your brain which you can then use to assist rather than resist, resulting in efficiency and performance levels improving.
The Huffington Post wrote an article on the 10 Reasons Why Every Athlete in the World Should Meditate, including benefits from helping you focus, strengthening your immune system and improving sleep quality.
So it’s clear, meditating and mindfulness practise leads to better performance. But as I said at the beginning being still and comfortable while trying to remain in the present and focus on your breath, really is easier said than done. This is where I found an app called Calm really helped. It’s a free app for iPhone and Android where you can listen to the 7 days of calm which teaches the basics of meditation.
There is also a subscription where you can listen to the 21 days of calm and get a wide variety of mediations on topics such as focus, energy and sleep. Or you can just do a simple timed meditation. It’s a really useful guide that can get you started. As with anything, once it becomes a habit and part of your daily routine it’s easy to keep up. I know because when I started I made numerous excuses to myself that I didn’t have time to meditate (even when I had worked out how many other minutes I still had in my day!) But now I know making the time really is worth it.
As the featured image on this post says you really can’t stop the waves of daily life and all the thoughts that come with it, but if you can learn to be fully present in your mind and body you can surf them effortlessly and alongside hard work and dedication, achieve whatever you want to.