Sport is never just a matter of muscles, endurance, and technique; on the contrary, the psychological component linked to concentration and stress management undoubtedly plays a fundamental role in the outcome of a test. Meditation has a long-standing history as an effective technique for relaxation. But, far from the tranquil settings of relaxation spas or religious centers, meditation seems to be gaining momentum among elite and even recreational athletes. However—a bit like the balanced diet—it needs constant practice to be effective in the high-pressure moments of a game or a physical test.
While there are now many high-profile sportsmen and women who are devotees of the exercise of meditation, Italian footballer (soccer) Roberto Baggio was among the earliest star athletes to adopt the contemplative disciplines of meditation. After suffering a bad knee injury early into his professional career, the former footballer became a convert to Buddhism and—as recounted in the book The Divine Ponytail by Raffaele Nappi—still considers his conversion “the best thing that has ever happened.”
But a spiritual conversion isn’t a prerequisite to benefiting from the practice of meditation; even lay practices—generally rooted in a matrix of eastern philosophy—act on psychophysical integration in a very profound way to increase the ability to concentrate, endure pain, and resist the stresses of competition.
Meditation in religions, philosophies, and fitness centers
With a history that’s endured millennia and that crosses so many religions and philosophical currents, it might seem surprising to see meditation making itself at home in fitness centers of today, many times as an alternative to anxiolytics. But, at its core, what meditation should lead to is a sort of suppression of states of consciousness: according to Vedic Hinduism (to which many scholars trace the exercise of the practice back beyond 2000 B.C.), meditation is a physical and metaphysical response to a fundamental need to free oneself from pain, the most authentic expression of human existence.
Through simple gestures that involve breathing and the recitation of short mantras, meditation can help you reach a condition of relaxation that approaches imperturbability. By practicing the ability to concentrate on a single object and detachment from the rest of the world, you can gain a total insensitivity to any external sensory or internal mental stimuli. In this way, with the control of one’s will, one obtains the only possible liberation from the unpleasant worldly condition, as well as a fuller awareness of one’s self. “After a little practice you’ll see your mind as pure water,” suggests Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama.
Of course, the result is not easy to achieve. But it seems worthwhile to even just to try and achieve it: more than one university study confirms that regular meditation is able to induce physical and biochemical changes in the body including, regulating metabolism, blood pressure, and heart rate. Not only that, but when combined with visualization techniques, it has also been shown to greatly improve endurance: tuning-in to your breathing can transform a marathon or a cycling race into an occasion for meditation and can help alleviate fatigue.
Elite athletes and meditation
Feeling the physical weight of a competition less acutely, then, allows you to better focus on the game and the appropriate strategies, says George Mumford, aka the Mindfulness Performance Whisperer. The renowned sports psychologist who has worked with some NBA teams including Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers is a big fan of meditation.
In 2012, it caused a minor sensation to see LeBron James—two-time Olympic gold medalist and arguably the best basketball player in the world—meditate during the live timeout coverage of an NBA Playoffs game, as relaxed as if he were in the living room of his own home. The athlete has repeatedly expressed that yoga and meditation have also helped him avoid injuries over the years, crediting the promptness of reflexes and concentration-levels he is able to reach.
Former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant has also professed enormous benefits from the practice of meditation. Bryant, who has won five NBA Championships during his 20-year tenure with the Lakers, suggests in Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty’s book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success that basketball is only 10% a physical game with the remaining 90% being a mental game, where the slightest distraction can easily lead to colossal mistakes. Like countless others, he too, was initiated into the discipline of meditation, as simple as it is complex, by Phil Jackson.
With 11 NBA titles achieved as a coach, first with the Chicago Bulls and then with the Los Angeles Lakers and two titles as a player with the New York Knicks in the early seventies, the “Zen Master” continues to be recognized today as an icon in the holistic approach to training. The key to his coaching method—outlined in Eleven Rings— was essentially “one breath, one mind,” a Zen principle that starts with the premise that it is as necessary to work on mental strength as much as on physical strength.
Jackson didn’t just get his players started on the path to meditation but was comfortable with the entire process. He even occasionally imposed a day-long silence upon the team or made them practice in the dark. “It wasn’t completely dark,” he told Oprah during an interview, “but I wanted them to know they could do things out of the ordinary.”
“Not only is there more to life than basketball, there’s a lot more to basketball than basketball,” he writes in his book Sacred Hoops, which has sold more than 400,000 copies to date. He also explains in the book how to apply principles of eastern philosophy and spiritual practices of Native Americans to both basketball and everyday life. He explores how to act with a “clear mind,” while remaining focused while amid chaos. The book is a great read for athletes looking to learn how to put the self at the service of the team and how to never lose sight of respect for the adversary.
Meditation is certainly in vogue in the world of basketball—even the Italian Danilo Gallinari who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers ascribes to the practice: “It helped me regain elasticity and I became more aware of the sensations that the body sends.” The world of baseball is also catching on. Pitcher (and musician) Barry Zito is a practitioner and Derek Jeter, considered one of the best shortstops ever, shared that he practices meditation for one hour every morning.
Rugby is no exception either; the All Blacks—New Zealand’s national rugby union team who are winners of the the most two recent Rugby World Cups and the only international men’s national rugby union team with a winning side against every opponent—regularly practice yoga and meditation.
Manager of the Wales national team and Manchester United legend, Ryan Giggs, OBE credits much of his successes as a player to these practices, while the Japanese national footballer Yūto Nagatomo, who is currently plying his trade for Turkish club team Galatasaray, has been known to give yoga lessons to his teammates.
The decorated Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova too professes the benefits of practicing meditation, putting her meditation sessions on her YouTube channel. “During every game,” she says, “there is a small interval of time at the end of the point, there you have to breathe and look ahead.” Judging by the results she’s been able to achieve (she has won all four grand slam major titles, including the French Open twice), it is not bad advice.
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