How Does Meditation Improve Athletic Performance?
Meditation is a growing practice for people of all walks of life - and for good reason. There are thousands of studies proving that meditation positively impacts mental and physical health. Whether it’s by reducing stress, improving sleep, increasing focus, or improving confidence, research shows mindfulness works. While the research on mindfulness, especially digital mindfulness programs, is still growing, there is evidence to support the use of mindfulness training for many outcomes.
Meditation and Performance
The connection between meditation and performance was widely recognized, even before scientific evidence existed. In fact, this practice was shown within samurai culture in Japan. The samurai learned mindfulness meditation to improve their battle and swordsmanship skills. In this practice, meditation wasn’t used to relax, but instead, as a method for improving focus, concentration, and accuracy.
In modern times, as we transition our focus to the world of sports, meditation is a popular method used by sports psychologists to help athletes push the limits of their personal performance. Although meditation has likely been practiced in one form or another through the ages in sports – Joe Namath, Barry Zito and Arthur Ashe are a few of the most recognized athletes who are credited with bringing meditation into the mainstream.
Today, some of the top athletes such as: LeBron James, Kerri Walsh, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Carli Lloyd, and Russell Wilson, regularly meditate and credit their practice as giving them the edge they needed to remain at the top of their field. The Seattle Seahawks went so far as to make meditation a regular component of their training exercises – and their coach Pete Carrol credits meditation to giving them the extra push they needed to achieve their big win at the 2014 Super Bowl.
Meditation: The Science
So, why and how does meditation impact the body and improve athletic performance? A clear example of this mind-body connection in sports was shown through a Harvard study in which researchers found that people who practice meditation actually use 17% less oxygen. Supplemental oxygen has long been used by athletes to improve their performance and mental fitness. So, by reducing oxygen usage through meditation, you can achieve that same result naturally.
From a purely scientific perspective, meditation has also been shown to increase grey matter in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain responsible for focus, and reduce the reactivity of the amygdala, which is responsible for stress and fear. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain's “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. Think about that for a moment. If meditation can cause the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, to shrink, what tends to happen to confidence? From an athlete’s perspective, you’re doing your career a disservice by not implementing this mental training method. Circling back to the science behind meditation, deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness and rest. By practicing meditation on a consistent basis, you effectively cultivate a balanced and healthy nervous system, which is most beneficial in times of stress, tension or anxiety.
Becoming a Mindful Athlete
These benefits extend well beyond athletics, but for the purposes of this program – While there are clear benefits for how meditation improves general well-being, we are going to center everything around taking your performance to the next level. Years of research and scientific evidence have provided a few key reasons why every athlete, no matter the level, should incorporate this practice. Aside from improving focus and decreasing performance anxiety, consistently practicing meditation will help you detach yourself from the negative thoughts that keep you from achieving your goals. You are going to learn how-to:
- Cope with pain from sports-related injuries
- Deal with fear by calming the center of the brain
- Strengthen your immune system to avoid getting sick
- Clear your mind to quickly bounce back from a tough loss
- Reduce stress by lowering cortisol levels
- Stabilize the roller coaster of emotions when competing
- Improve quality of sleep, so your body can adequately recover to be at your best
A frequently asked question we receive at Restoic is, “How soon can I expect to notice any changes?” It’s a reasonable question, and the answer may come as a surprise to some of you. The short answer is the benefits of meditation can be felt after a single session. This includes quickly increasing your mood, decreasing stress, and reducing blood pressure. After a few weeks, you can expect to see increased focus and decreased stress.
The bottom line is that this form of mental training is backed by science. And despite meditation often being regarded as hard or challenging, it is one of the few activities that with little dedication, offers big rewards. But it’s also important to note, just like dribbling a soccer ball, shooting a three-pointer, or hitting a 90 mile per hour fastball, mastering any skill takes a commitment of focused time and energy. Treat the practice of meditation the same as any other skill you seek to attain, and you will reap the rewards of your labor.