Mind In Sport

"Think with the whole body."
Taisen Deshimaru

"…the conditions conducive to optimal (athletic) performance were the feelings of being mentally alert, physically relaxed, confident and optimistic with a generally positive outlook, focused on the present, highly energized, extraordinary awareness, in control, and in the ‘cocoon’ without fear or anxiety."
Janet A Young and Michelle D Pain in The Zone: Evidence of a Universal Phenomenon for Athletes Across Sports

What do an expert meditator and an expert athlete have in common? Although Michael Jordan and some meditators appeared to have the ability to levitate, that’s not it. Meditators and top athletes learn to clear the mind, focus and relax.

Sports psychologists and Olympic athletes have learned what martial artists have known for centuries: the mental and physiological states encountered in meditation can be useful in physical training. The abilities to clear the mind, increase awareness, achieve mental focus, overcome anxiety and relax are traits of meditators and superior athletes, and they can be learned.

In the past, coaches typically focused on physical training to prepare their athletes. They might stress mental preparedness, but they didn’t have much mental technology to work with. Today, coaches and athletes trained in sports psychology may use visualization, relaxation, and breath control, among other methods, to prepare for sports events. They find that the mind that is empty of extraneous thought is more likely to be successful in attaining performance goals. The body that is relaxed enough that it is not fighting itself or using unnecessary energy will have a superior athletic performance.

If you are an athlete, here are some suggestions for using your mind to improve your physical achievements:

When it is time to workout or to compete, learn to clear your mind of everything but the activity before you.

Visualize your event. What is likely to happen? See it all in your mind. What will you do? Focus on what you do well. Make what you do well seem like the natural thing to do. Think about what might go wrong. Use the imagery to be prepared for all eventualities, but don’t allow thoughts of failure to damage your confidence. Always go back to a focus on success.

After your event, reflect on what happened. What went well and what went badly. Avoid berating yourself. Use this information to improve, not to punish yourself.

Think about your goals. What are your long term athletic goals? What are your physical goals? What are your competition goals?

Develop a performance routine (ritual) that you follow. Repetition and knowing what you are going to do allow you to free up mind power for the sport activity.

Before the event, get psyched up. In other words, tune in and focus. Synchronize your mind and body.

If things go wrong, don’t panic. Panic is a waste of mental energy and it causes muscle tension that will work against you. Instead, remember to breathe a little deeper, tell your muscles to relax, and have prepared ahead of time a phrase you can repeat to yourself (mantra) that will focus your mind and spur your performance.

If you are a meditator, consider approaching your meditation practice as if you were training for an athletic performance. Practice regularly. Give your meditation the dedication that an elite athlete would give their sport. Get motivated. Go for the zone.

Many of the above ideas were expressed in the Radio Program The Psychology of Winning on NPR’s  TALK OF THE NATION hosted by  Joe Palca on August 4, 2000. You can listen to that discussion via Real Audio at the NPR site or at the Science Friday website.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett