Meditation and athletic performance

By Dr. Caeden Chau

Mindfulness meditation has become all the rage in the past few years when it comes to self-care, wellbeing and mental health. Mindfulness can be defined as ‘an open-hearted, moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness’. It allows individuals to remain present with their feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, so that they can embrace the experience without any criticism.

Meditation is often used to achieve mental clarity and an emotionally calm state. However, did you know that the effects of meditation can also translate into sport performance?

We all know that mental focus is one of the most important aspects of sport. Sport is 90% mental and 10% physical. More often than not, athletes already use a variation of meditation to help ‘get in the zone’ – whether it be guided visualization, blasting music to tune out all voices and thoughts, or sitting in complete silence. We do this to help keep the mind quiet before the game or match starts. But when we’re down a few points or make a couple mistakes, thoughts fill our heads, and we become mind full. Our minds are overwhelmed with thoughts, emotion, and stress, and instead of acknowledging, accepting and redirecting our focus to the present moment, we sit with them. This is typically when things start to break down. More mistakes are made, concentration is lost, and performance decreases.

This is where mindfulness meditation can help to improve athletic performance. Meditation has been shown to increase grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area responsible for focus, working memory and executive decision making. It also decreases the grey matter in the amygdala, the region responsible for stress and fear. So, the more people meditate, the less stressed they are and the more they are able to focus. Studies have also shown that meditation can also help to improve reaction time, and reduce overthinking. Physically, meditation can help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system. Activating this can lead to a reduced heart rate, improved heart rate variability, slower breathing, and improved sleep.

Outside of sport, meditation has been shown to help with symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, pain and overall quality of life. People find that they are more compassionate, empathetic and resilient under stress.

So, give it a shot! It takes a few tries to get used to sitting in the stillness but luckily there are several apps, YouTube videos, and even classes that can help. As always, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about your mental health and other symptoms that you may be experiencing.

*references available upon request