I have played sports since I was five years old. I tumbled and flipped my way through gymnastics, played softball and track and field in high school, and I cheer-led in a bevy of sports. I love the idea of being an athlete and seeing how my body responds to physical challenges. Sports, in those developmental years, proved to be a great way to make long-lasting friendships, create team-building skills, develop discipline and focus, but it also taught me the importance of hard work, dedication, and concentration.
The sport I found most challenging and fell in love with immediately was tennis, and the first moment I picked up a racket at age 13, I knew this sport was the one. The feel of the clay courts under my feet and the sound of the ball hitting the sweet spot on the tennis racquet were sensations that mark my happy place. Playing top seed through high school, Division II and Division I tennis in college, I had found my passion. I thought nothing of training three hours a day on and off the courts, and I was filled with excitement every time I had a match. I pumped myself up like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (cue the Rocky theme song) as he victoriously ran up those 72 stone steps before the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sports and athleticism can take you to new heights.
What I realized during those college years, however, was that the physical stamina, strength and sheer perseverance could only take you so far if you did not have the mental toughness to handle the competition. I can only speak of what I know, and with tennis, being in the limelight with spectators watching was a heck of a lot of pressure. Back in those days, there wasn’t as much attention being given to yoga and meditation. The ’80s and ’90s were very much the “no pain no gain” decades. It was about absolute will and pushing your physicality to new levels.
Now, as we have become more influenced by Eastern culture, we realize the importance of the combination of a physical and mental formula to succeed in competitive and non-competitive environments. Most times, our biggest obstacles come from what is going on inside of our heads…self-doubt, stress, negative talk, frustration, and lack of focus are just a few things that can throw off a personal-best race, climb, or ride. There is a lot of chatter that happens in our minds when we are trying to be in the zone: groceries, to-do lists, weather, and what you’re having for dinner. Top athletes like Novak Djokovic, Lebron James, and Kobe Bryant have added meditation and yoga to their training to help with stress, anxiety, and performance.
Here are just a few reasons why meditation can help you achieve another level of your game:
1. Meditation enhances your focus and concentration. Meditation can help athletes block out what may be going on around them or inside of them during a key moment. Eliminating distractions and meandering thoughts can make a huge difference in your performance. The beauty of meditation, even 10 minutes a day, can have great benefits. Working with your breath, sitting still in a comfortable seat and closing your eyes and ears from outside noise, can begin to calm the nervous system.
2. Meditation can help improve sleep patterns. What happens if you don’t get proper amounts of sleep? Your body cannot self-correct and heal. Sleep is the time when your body is working the hardest to bring harmony and balance back to those aching muscles and strained ligaments. Without good deep sleep, those cells cannot restore and rejuvenate. With a good night’s sleep, you wake up happier. Sleep and meditation can also boost your immune system.
3. Of course, athletic performance is hindered when under stress, and meditating can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol. When less stressed your body and muscles can relax, oxygen can flow more smoothly, and you can optimize your skills.
When I first started meditating, I found that it is difficult to sit for even 10 minutes with essentially nothing to do but “not think.” This can be frustrating and challenging at first, but don’t give up. A great way to ease into this concept and practice is to perhaps find an affirmation or a mantra that you can focus on along with your inhalations and exhalations. It can be something personal that you want to focus on or just a word that resonates with you.
Another great option is to do a walking meditation. I have found this to be very effective before and after my activity of choice, but mind you, this walking is not for burning calories or for speed. This is a very slow-paced walk with intention on where your feet land on the earth with each step. While methodically walking, the focus should only be on breathing in and out through your nose. Do this for a few minutes, and then a few minutes more, and then a few minutes more! Of course, meditation apps can also come in handy.
Danielle Rottenberg has her Master’s in education and is a licensed massage therapist and Ayuvedic practicioner. She is co-Author of Activate Your Life Vol. 1 and 2, and founder of the Yoga Service Movement. Learn more at www.danielle-sangitawellness.com