When I was a bit younger I was an avid runner, but I never progressed to competitive running for several reasons. Those "what if" questions still run through my brain though, wondering how I might have performed if I'd continued. One of the biggest things that held me back was, of all things, my own mind. There I'd be, well into my run, and suddenly realize I was worrying about bills, my kids, or what I forgot at the grocery store. I wasn't even enjoying my run, lost in worry and distraction. And then I'd notice my form was sloppy, I wasn't paying attention to my breathing or my body, and was setting myself up for early fatigue or injury. It was an eye opener to realize my own thought process had as much to do with my performance as my strength, stride, or endurance. But I didn't know how to fix my mindset, and quite honestly, it seemed easier to strengthen my body than it did my mind.
Then I did get hurt, and the injury ultimately ended my running days and left me with limited mobility and activity. Looking for a way to settle my flighty, agitated mind, I turned to meditation. Not really knowing all of the benefits of meditation at the time, I began to notice that I could attend to projects more effectively, notice when I was distracted and use my meditation skills to return my attention to the present moment, and calm and quiet my mind when I needed it most. What I wouldn't give to have had those skills when I was able to run. Not just to perform better, but to be present to the activity and myself in a more joyful way, and to help me set and achieve other goals that were important to me.
Meditation skills can benefit almost everyone, athletes included. Meditation simply means the practice of allowing the body and mind to become still so that we can notice our thoughts, sensations, and feelings, and then decide how to attend to those events. For athletes, whether competitive or recreational, these skills can confer positive benefits. How? Here are a few highlights:
1. Meditation helps you pay attention and focus. You probably know how it feels to be lost in thought, or notice all of a sudden that your mind feels miles away and you're not paying attention to what is happening in the here and now. No athlete wants to finish a race or game feeling distracted and unfocused, like they didn't give it their best. Multiple studies over many years indicate that meditation practice increases the ability to be focused, attentive, and present to the task at hand. Wouldn't the ability to cultivate this mindset be useful before and during athletic performance?
2. Meditation helps you notice and let go of self-doubt and self-criticism. Part of meditation practice includes becoming aware of thoughts and feelings as they appear, observing them for a moment, and then choosing to let them go. Most athletes are familiar with self-defeating thoughts that get in the way of performance. These thoughts, "What if I miss this shot?" or "I'm never going to make that time," divert time, energy, and focus from the task. If we learn to notice but not engage with these thoughts, to let them go, we can return our attention and effort to performance. Further, when something doesn't go the way we expected or wanted, meditation skills help us to let go of the rumination that keeps us stuck in that "failure," and helps us to problem solve so we can perform better the next time.
3. Team building and strong relationships are fostered by meditation practices. Meditation helps us to become more aware of our own emotional states and less reactive to the emotional states of others. For those engaged in team sports, the ability to remain calm, to respond with compassion, to problem solve, and to maintain trusting relationships is crucial.
4. Meditation helps you cope with stress. Most athletes notice anxiety and stress from time-to-time, whether performance related or not. Buildup of chronic stress can limit the ability to perform and remain healthy. Meditation is one way to reduce the physiological stress response and its potential effects on the body. Importantly, meditation mindsets also help us to re-think stress, looking at it as an opportunity to harness our energy, focus, and physical abilities to bolster performance.
5. Meditation enhances recovery. Learning effective physiological relaxation techniques, which are a part of most meditation practices, can help you to recover from your athletic endeavors. Imagine being able to be still, relax and soften your muscles from head to toe, and experience a state of rest and relaxation far deeper than our normal "relaxation by distraction" techniques (watching tv, etc.). Further, what if you were able to notice and attend to sensations of tension or pain in the body before they became limiting injuries? Meditation practices which include deep breathing, body scans, etc. teach the mind and body to talk to each other in a manner which facilitates this type of perception. Additionally, meditation positively affects the immune system, which impacts our ability to recover and perform.
Though I still wish I could run, I am grateful for the gifts and grace of my meditation practice. Best of all, these gifts beneficially affect every aspect of my life, not just my athletic performance. I am a more attentive and joyful person. That I wouldn't give up for all the runs in the world.
Are you ready to enhance your quality of life and quality of performance? Give meditation a try. Not sure where to start? Katie Winnell, Board Certified Nurse Coach and Clinical Meditation Specialist can help you establish your individualized meditation practice designed to help you meet your life and athletic goals. Call 231.330.5836 to begin your journey.