Meditation for Sports Performance: Unlocking the Mental Edge in Athletes

Highly performing athletes do not only require physical strength, agility, and resilience paired with skill level; they need mental focus, quick response time, and cognitive adaptability to excel in their sport. Exploring meditation or mindfulness practices could bring rewarding results for these mental aspects. Even on a more casual level of the person who thinks going hard after it in the gym a few times a week is enough to maintain health, implementing mindfulness into their schedule may positively impact meeting or exceeding their goals. Considering that many fitness enthusiasts aim to live happier, healthier lives, this creates an opportunity for coaching professionals to bring a new dimension to their businesses – without a significant investment of time, training, or equipment.

How can meditation improve sports performance?

Evidence shows that an athlete with meditation practice may have a more remarkable ability to stay calm, focused, and adaptable on and off the field than their counterparts. Many professionals have adopted these approaches partly because they may afford them a clear-cut vision to quickly calculate winning strategies. To quote Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.”

This concept can easily be adapted to most sports when making quick decisions followed by lightning-fast reaction times. The clarity and focus harnessed through meditation are game-changers in split-second, high-stress play. George Mumford, a mindfulness coach who worked with athletes like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, stated in his 2015 book The Mindful Athlete, “Mindfulness helps you pay attention to your thoughts in a non-attached manner, which often takes the emotional charge out of them, slows down your experience of time, and reconnects you to the present moment.” Athletes who meditate can also reduce anxiety levels and stay more present while competing by not becoming distracted or overly emotional about setbacks. Less anxiety leads to better sleep and quicker recovery times. Now consider these findings in an average person pursuing fitness as a life-enhancing strategy…

meditation for sports performance

There’s so much more to be gained by the simple practices described below. Studies imply that the rest the body experiences in a meditative state is more restorative than deep sleep. This rest boosts the immune system, which can prevent illness that would stop someone from training or continuing to attend fitness classes. An athlete may also freeze up in certain tense situations. Studies also prove that regular meditation reduces the amygdala’s activity, the brain’s centre responsible for the fight-or-flight response. In this case, mindfulness overrides the fear response, maximising the ability to stay focused and in the flow state.

What sort of meditation should an athlete do?

Consistency is key in harnessing benefits. Here are several proven techniques for you or your clients to test. Choose a set time to practice and try to stick with it at least three days a week. Some positive effects may be felt immediately, such as lowered stress or better mood. In general, science has shown that it takes around eight weeks to gain the full effects.

A practice focusing on the breath will benefit an athlete in many ways as they become more aware and in control of how to breathe and help increase lung capacity to deliver more oxygen to their muscles during exertion. This type of practice can calm the nervous system, boost immune function, and either aid in sleep or provide more mental focus and energy, depending on the style of breathing performed.

Box Breathing

“Box breathing is a technique that helps you take control of your automatic breathing patterns to train your breath for optimal health and performance,” says Mark Divine, former US Navy Seals Commander and founder of SEALFIT.

  • Imagine a line drawing of a square.
  • Follow the lines to make a box with your breath.
  • Inhale to the count of 4, pause at the top, holding the breath to the count of 4, release the breath to 4, and again hold here for 4.
  • Repeat this for 3 to 5 minutes, staying focused on the inflow and outflow of the breath.

When activating the parasympathetic nervous system through this breathing method, the body and mind respond with calm and focus.

mindfulness for sports performance

Simple breathwork can induce either a restful state or an increase in energy. 

Generally, the exhale should be longer than the inhale to attain the most profound, calm, and restful state.

  • Breathe in through the nose while counting to 4 and then exhale through the mouth to a count of 7, maintaining this for 2 to 3 minutes, signalling the nervous system that everything is safe and calm for rest and bodily repair to begin.

A full, deep breath in through the nose can be followed by a short, forceful exhalation through the mouth for a quick mental and energetic building of heat and energy in the body, to flood the system with oxygen. You can use this to regain focus and employ an active boost when mental or physical fatigue is a factor.

Carefully start with around 30 seconds of this method as it can cause dizziness in some. For in-depth information on this type of mindfulness practice, The Huberman Lab podcast has an excellent episode detailing these methods and the science behind them.

Visualisation

Long championed by the Australian Institute of Sports experts, visualisation is a mental rehearsal of the most desired outcomes in performance. In this method, a goal is imagined and followed through to completion in the mind with vivid detail.

Imagine closing your eyes to envision the exhilaration and joy of Cathy Freeman winning the 400m in Sydney. With this method, the athlete harnesses the full emotions of the goal being met and uses all their senses to experience how the moment feels and looks. It’s like creating a movie in the mind of the ideal scenario and playing it over until you believe the movie is real and the results will be actual. You can also use it to improve specific skills, reactions, or mental attitudes for singular plays.

The result is an ability to overcome anxiety or stage fright about performance because it has already been run through in the mind with confidence and a positive outcome many times. Nicole Detling, Ph.D., a psychologist and mental performance coach who has worked with the US Olympic team, stated when asked by Yahoo Health if visualization works, “The mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and imagined. It’s one of the most effective tools you can use.” Visualisation is one of the top choices for pro athletes who have written mindfulness into their training script for life.

meditation for athletes

Simple Mindful Focus

Mindfulness meditation is an excellent practice. To cite Coach George Mumford again, this allows us to “respond from the centre of the hurricane rather than reacting from the chaos of the storm.” 

This meditation method involves sitting with the eyes closed and maintaining a soft focus in the middle of the forehead, two or three inches inside the head. You can choose to follow and stay present with the breath or not. In staying with the breath, the focus becomes much more internal and more attuned to what is happening inside the body. In this practice, an athlete cultivates the ability to find the space or the gap between thoughts. The focus is to observe their thoughts without reacting to them emotionally or becoming distracted by them. All the benefits for an athlete of a meditation practice are reaped over time with this simple method practiced daily. The American Psychological Association states that mental flexibility, equanimity, improved concentration, mental clarity, and emotional intelligence may be gained by mindfulness practitioners.

Single Pointed Focus

Single-pointed object focus will develop the ability to get out of your head, ignore distractions, and stay laser pointed on a goal. An external point of focus is chosen and gazed at in a relaxed manner while maintaining normal breathing for minutes at a time. When thoughts, emotions, or distractions arise, you dismiss them in favour of staying calm and fixed on the object of focus. On the playing field, the focus can quickly become the finish line, the ball, or a goal net. In training the mind to stay on target, the body remains calm in the flow state of following through in the moment.

Which famous athletes use meditation?

It’s clear that winners across many sports have been actively exploring these techniques for years.

The Sydney Swans were early explorers of mindfulness techniques from the time of Paul Roos and Brett Kirk. Roos and Kirk are known for their calm under stress and are dedicated meditators. They believe deeply in the power of mindfulness to transform performance on the field. A former team captain, Kirk, has stated that his mindfulness practice is vital to his personal and on-field success. He has even partnered with the Smiling Mind app (an Australian-based mental health not-for-profit) to launch a series of guided meditations.

The legendary US Beach Volleyball Gold Medal Olympian pair of Misty May Treanor and Kerry Walsh are fans of visualisation methods to crush their game.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls and the late LA Lakers player Kobe Bryant were both vocal about how much their mindfulness practices influenced their seemingly unlimited superpowers on the basketball court.

Carli Lloyd, a two-time US Olympic Gold Medallist soccer player, uses visualisation methods to picture every possible play and goal she would like to score. Her record proves that the technique holds up, having scored 134 goals in her pro career.

Bianca Andreescu, a Canadian tennis player once ranked 4th globally, is another fan of mindfulness and visualisation methods.

Many athletes hire a mindfulness coach to help them establish their path. For more resources on mindfulness methods, check out the Headspace app’s Sports Content or dig in on the world wide web to find guided meditation scripts, coaches, and tips for setting up a successful practice.

Thanks to Bethany Orbison for this article.

Bethany is a meditation teacher and wellness coach living with her Aussie fiancé in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She founded Marigold Wellness Rituals in 2021.

healthy winter foods

5 Steps to Prevent Winter Weight Gain

Any health professional who works in health and fitness knows the occupational hazard that arises at this time of year – cancellations – a lot of them explained by weak excuses such as, “It’s too cold”, “I am not feeling motivated”, “I am just going to wait until the weather gets better”. Unfortunately, when we

Read More »
mothers day classic fun run

2024 Mother’s Day Classic Supporting Ovarian Cancer Too

Mother’s Day is fast approaching and while some families have a tradition of breakfast in bed or a favourite restaurant for dinner, plenty of Aussies have been making the Mother’s Day Classic fun run a part of theirs. Founded in 1998,  this charity event has raised more than $44 million for research into breast cancer

Read More »
Scroll to Top