Meditation for sport and for life

Meditation is the original self-improvement practice, standing the test of time since its prehistoric origins in the East, with the earliest documented evidence of meditation found on wall art in India from 5,000 to 3,500BC. Written records from around 1500BC from the Hindu traditions of Vendatism in India refers to the practice of Dhyāna, the training of the mind. Meditation seems to be coming around again, and as often is the case, science is catching up, with tons of evidence now supporting the ancient wisdom of meditators. 

With everything we know about meditation, and especially in the world we live in today, here is a bold sweeping statement. You should be meditating. You can dress it up or down, you can take it whichever way you like, but the fact remains that daily meditation should be viewed as essential as daily sleep, a daily meal, or daily exercise.

The extensive benefits of mindfulness meditation are as well-evidenced as physical activity. It has been shown to lower stress and anxiety, improve chronic pain management, improve sleep, improve the immune system, improve performance, improve relationships. If it was a pill it would cost a fortune.

If everyone was meditating, the world would be a better place to live. There would be less reactivity, better decision making, more productivity, more compassion and a calmer collective consciousness. Interest in mindfulness meditation in the mainstream of society is growing rapidly, yet not everyone is meditating. So let’s take it back a few steps and see if we can get there together.

What is Mindfulness?

Does meditation and mindfulness mean the same thing? The terminology can be a bit confusing. There are many forms of the ancient practice of meditation, and some do use the term mindfulness to refer to meditation in general, but mindfulness meditation is a method in itself. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgementally to the unfolding of experience. It is a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s own experience, presence of mind. We can bring mindfulness into any and all activities. When we are walking, noticing our environment, the sky, the trees. When we are eating, paying attention to every bite, the flavours, how it feels in your stomach. Bringing mindfulness into our lives helps us to re-connect with these simple moments, to live consciously rather than unconsciously sleep walking through the day. Mindfulness is a muscle, something that we can train and harness through practice, like any other skill. We practice this through meditating. Sitting quietly, still, fully alert and present, for some time, either guided or unguided, in practice. And then we bring it into our every day lives.

When Jon Kabat-Zinn created his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course in 1979, he brought mindfulness from its Buddhist roots to a secular context, helping many effectively deal with stress, pain, and illness. This brought mindfulness into the realm of scientific research, with more than 10,000 published research papers available on mindfulness-based therapies. If it’s evidence-based you are after, look no further. Imperical and anecdotal. Let’s say you decided to interview hundreds of the world’s top performers in the arts, sport, business, on the routines and habits that helped them achieve their success. What would be the number one habit they would have in common? That they would swear by? Meditation.

Every time we focus on the primacy of the present moment, we reinforce our attentional stability. Every time we pay attention to our breath and our body, we become aware of what we’re feeling. Every time we abandon our judgemental attitude, we become more capable of seeing things as they really are. Every time we sit quietly with ourselves in meditation, we make future acts of mindfulness more likely. Frank Forencich, Beautiful Practice

A few years ago, I attended a mindfulness talk at the Latitude music festival by clinical psychologist Willem Kuyken. ‘Raise your hand‘, he said, ‘if you or someone close to you has been affected by depression‘. There were over a hundred people crammed into the tent, and pretty much every hand was in the air. It was a powerful demonstration of how pervasive this silent illness is. Professor Kuyken went on to talk about his research on the positive effects of mindfulness on depression and anxiety. The evidence is strong. This group of researchers at Oxford University developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and revealed that mindfulness-based therapy cut the rate of relapse by half (Prevention of Relapse/Reccurence in Major Depression by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), proving more effective than SSRI’s. Further research showed that the more severe the symtoms of depression, the larger the benefit of MBCT. (Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Prevention of Depressive Relapse). Professor Kuyken finished by speaking their current drive to bring MBCT to primary schools around the country.

That talk spurred me on to making the leap from threatening to meditate, to actually sitting down with it consistently. Around the same time, I first introduced mindfulness to my gym sessions with the Arsenal U13’s. I started with a 2 minute meditation at the beginning of the session, and added a humble 10 seconds each week. The effect it had on the sessions was immediate and quite remarkable. The boys were calm and focused. It also taught me to give young people more credit. I initially doubted that I could get these teenagers to sit quietly for a few minutes, counting their breaths, but they were well able, and they got it.

Training the Mind

Self-care is not on the school curriculum, and thus most of us grow up unequipped with the tools to turn inwards, to understand ourselves. We are culturally conditioned to view acts of self-nurturing as soft, maybe even selfish. Rather than confronting the inevitable emotional turbulence of life, we keep out of our mind’s way entirely, distracting ourselves with compulsive behaviours, social media, gossip. Thanks to the addictiveness of Social Media and the genius of infinite scroll, we can avoid ourselves altogether and bounce between Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter indefinitely. Continue far enough down this road and one may seek to avoid any form of aloneness, the outer silence only giving rise to the inner voice to which so much effort has gone into repressing. Even positive behaviours such as training or work can be used as an escape. Athletes can use their sport as a distraction cloaked in the noble pursuit of performance, preferring the physical pain of a hard training session over the emotional pain that may arise when confronting one’s own thoughts in stillness. 

A meditation practice is your first stop on the path to gaining self-knowledge, your daily dose of self-nurturing. The goal is not to stop thinking, but to turn towards your present experience.

When beginning meditation, you might feel an urge to just stop after a couple of minutes. You might put this down to boredom, or an impulse to crack on with the day, or convincing yourself that there is nothing to be gained from it. These feelings mean you are on the right track, don’t judge it, lean into the discomfort and it will pass.

Meditation for Sports Performance

The most interesting aspect of elite-level sports for me is the continued innovation in Sport Science and Coaching, driving performance levels up in a seemingly unabated fashion. Hurling is evolving before our eyes. At the top level today athletes leave nothing to chance to get the best out of themselves, the envelope being pushed on physical performance, nutrition, technical skills and strategy. GPS technology helps to monitor training loads, so that athlete isn’t undercooked or overcooked. The importance of team culture is filtering through from professional sporting organisations. And thankfully, there is an increased appreciation for the link between the off-field wellbeing of our athletes and their on-field performance.

There are certain pillars of preparation in pursuit of excellence in sport that are non-negotiable; You need your 8 hours of sleep, you need to be eating quality foods in the appropriate quantities to fuel your training and performance, you are disciplined in your training practice, honing the skills of the sport and the physical qualities needed to excel. You will employ other strategies that might give you an edge; ice baths, beetroot juice. 

Yet we largely ignore a practice that is strongly-backed by research and has been around for a thousand years. I have often wondered, why is every athlete in the country serious about performance not meditating regularly as part of their preparation? How often do we see a team losing a match due to a momentary lapse in concentration? What are we seeing when a team isn’t tuned in upon taking to the field? In an era of attention-scarcity, we expect athletes to demonstrate intense levels of concentration on the field without honing that ability off the field. It’s hard to find yourself in peak flow when, instead of focusing on the movement of the ball and your marker, you suddenly find yourself thinking about the banana bread you baked last night.

As high-performance teams continues to seek an edge over competitors, meditation will eventually be viewed as much an essential part of the program as a gym session.

It’s Not For Me

So why is meditation not more common place? There are many forms of resistance to meditating.

For some it is associated with hippies, monks, and spiritual people. Not for normal people. Maybe it is even a threat to one’s fragile sense of masculinity. For others, caught up in the hamster wheel of their busy lives, the thought of sitting still for 10 minutes is simply unfathomable. I don’t have time! The irony is lost, when of course, a meditation practice is exactly what is needed to slow down and reclaim a sense of time. As the old Zen saying goes, ‘You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes a day, unless you are too busy: then you should sit for an hour‘.

Personally, I was well versed on the benefits of meditation long before it became part of my daily routine. Knowledge itself, of course, is not enough to creating positive habits in your life, and I tried and failed many times before it stuck. Sticking at it was the key. What got me over the line eventually was paying the subscription fee for the Headspace app, with the added motivation of keeping my streak alive with every day that I meditated.

Now, meditating in the morning sets me up for the day. It calms my mind, especially when I am feeling overwhelmed with tasks that I have on my to-do list for the day. When I am feeling frantic, meditating for 10 to 20 minutes is the antidote, and I immediately feel better. It has helped my task-focus, and although I still get sucked in by my phone, I am better able to notice when it happens and bring myself back on task. When I am meditating regularly, I find myself less reactive in situations, less prone to forgetfulness, and more aware of my own emotional state. I find clarity in my thoughts, which improves my ability to problem solve. I am more compassionate towards myself, and towards others.

Now, as we are facing the uncertainty of the current global crises, there is no better time to get started with a daily practice, or to recommit to sitting down every day if it has fallen by the wayside. 

Getting Started and Keeping Going

So you are ready to join the mind training revolution, happy days. Here are some tips to get going:

  • Do it first thing in the morning.
  • Download a guided meditation app. I have found Headspace and Calm excellent, both of which you can try for free for ten days. There are meditation packs available to subscribers for Focus, Relationships, Stress Management, Sports Performance, Anxiety, Pain Management, Sleep, and more. Insight Timer is another great app with thousands of free meditations. Smiling Mind is a not-for-profit organization with a completely free app, which I think is a great starting point.
  • If you prefer unguided meditation, set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Count your breaths. If you get caught up in thought, just notice this, and begin again. Your practice can, of course, be an electronic-free experience entirely. No phones, no watches. Just sit, breath and be aware.
  • Do it sitting up straight, rather than lying down. Lying down and relaxing is great, but it isn’t meditation, and it’s very easy to drift off when lying down.
  • Always remember there is no such thing as being bad at meditation. Sitting down with it is all you need to do. Every time you lose your focus and bring attention back to your breath, that’s a rep. Like any skill, your attention becomes stronger with practising the reps. Some sessions I find it easy to settle my mind, on other days the time will pass and my mind is still bouncing around. That’s fine, it’s just bringing awareness to the fact that my mind is busy, and lets me know that I should slow down a bit.
  • Like any  skill, the ability to hold your attention on present-moment experience for a sustained period, takes time and practice. Nobody who learned how to drive a car or puc a sliotar gave up after the first go saying, ‘This is worthless, I can’t do it’.  The long-term benefits of sticking with it, to your life and to those around you, are transformative.

Reading

  1. Beautiful Practice (2014) Frank Forencich
  2. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body (2017) Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson
  3. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (1994) Jon Kabat-Zinn
  4. The Power of Mindfulness: Mindfulness Meditation Training in Sport (MMTS) (2018) Amy Baltzell, Joshua Summers

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance. UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.

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