Meditation in Sports: A Hoax or a Help?

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At this point in time, every athlete has heard of meditation and some have tried it on for size. Let’s take some time to review the history of meditation and assess some of its benefits and its limitations.

The history of meditation
Meditation has been around for a long time, a very long time. There is evidence from 5,000 BC on wall paintings of the familiar sitting, hands on knees and eyes half shut posture that we associate with meditation. The Hindus in India began to systematize the practice at around 1,500 BC and Buddhism started using this method at about 600 BC. Meditation was used almost exclusively by monks, priests and other ascetics in order to gain spiritual transcendence to rise above human suffering. The practice was used as a part of the monastic life, which also included living apart from regular life and devoting one’s life to the pursuit of wisdom and peace.

Meditation remained as a practice within Eastern religious orders until fairly recently when Herman Hesse wrote Siddhartha in 1922. This novel was about the life of Buddha and was widely read and loved by many students in the West. And then came Deepak Chopra, the extremely charismatic and gifted Indian physician who opened his institute in America which trained many in the ways of meditation. Finally, we have Herbert Bensen, M.D. from Harvard Medical School with his relaxation therapy which really is yet another form of meditation.

Today, the practice in the West is largely secular and used for self-improvement and stress reduction, rather than for spiritual enlightenment or transcendence.

The benefits of meditation for the athlete: Tiger Woods, who was raised a Buddhist, may be the most famous athlete to use meditation. He was trained in how to meditate from the age of five and when I have observed Tiger in person, his ability to focus and concentrate is notable. When I asked him about this ability, he told me he was always highly focused, but I am sure this was the result of his meditation training learned from such a young age.

One can be trained to meditate in different ways. I was trained to mediate by Reverend Roger Joslin, who was an author and world-class runner. He emphasized meditation as you ran or walked by simply listening for God to speak to you. Caroline Carpentiere is my Pilates instructor at Healthtrax, and she is also a meditation teacher. She teaches the traditional stance with eyes shut and hands on knees, and said that meditation is connecting to the awareness within and this can be spiritual or just a form of focused concentration.

You may have heard of floatation therapy, which is referred to as Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy. You float in an enclosed chamber of Epsom Salt where there is no light or sound for one hour. This form of meditation relaxes the body and the mind and clears the busyness out.

I like to train my athletes to incorporate some form of meditation prior to every match they play. It gives them a chance to remove themselves from the pre-tournament chaos, gives them a chance to settle down and begin to get in touch with their power, desire to win and their detachment from all other distractions and people in life. As an example, if you stand next to Tiger Woods even an hour before he is to tee off, his level of detachment is so profound that you actually feel like you’re invisible to him.

It’s obvious that when sports-related meditation is learned and practiced correctly, it can produce profound focus and a strong will to win.

imitations of meditation
As a trained psychoanalyst and experienced sport psychologist, I can see both the benefits of meditation, as well as its limits. The benefits were outlined above. The primary weakness of meditation or repetitive prayer is that it cannot really penetrate into the athletes’ unconscious, and therefore, they will still be faced with unconscious issues during play. They have a low self-image, a fear of success, a feeling of guilt or an inability to separate from the opponent in order to defeat them. These can often be subtle, but surprisingly powerful  emotional dynamics and no matter how much training, fitness, meditation or talent one possesses, the unconscious will eventually emerge and snatch victory away at the last moment. This could happen in the form of an injury during training, sudden mistakes during play, an outburst of anger or passivity when you need aggression.

The world of sports is fun, but it surely must be considered the crucible of stress. It’s good to see how the calming power of Eastern meditation has been converted into a method that athletes now use to protect themselves from the crushing effects of competition, and I predict it will be used as another useful tool that athletes and coaches will rely on in times of pressure.