Meditation in an athletic setting
So, as always, let’s look into the research to see whether some of these big claims are true. Is meditating going to make us better at our sports? Perhaps it depends on our sport of choice. More stress-based sports such as golf might benefit more from a calmer mind, as those athletes consider and execute shots, compared to the more chaotic goings on of a rugby field. This might be where our meditation style should be considered. Focused attention meditation (FAM) requires the individual to focus on a specific action or object, such as their breathing. This can help to eliminate distractions and aid skills like sinking a crucial putt. The other type of meditation we’ll consider is open monitoring meditation (OMM). This is much more suited to more open sports as it allows focus on all internal and external input before decisions can be made. This type of meditation weakens the focus on the task, as there is so much else going on, but can be more appropriate in these more open type sports.
But does meditation actually work? Well, the evidence in closed sports (sports performed in a stable or largely predictable environmental setting, such as archery, golf, or field events like throwing the javelin) is pretty strong. Following an extended period of integrating meditation into normal training, golfers have been found to improve their performance across a season. It is thought this happens by identifying the right things to focus on.
This may not be surprising though given the kind of sport it is and the benefits of remaining calm, relaxed and focused on the task. The good news is that in a soccer task where meditation was used twice a week for six weeks, shooting performance improved here too. The exact mechanism of these performance benefits are uncertain though it likely shows how meditation can play a part in the toolkit of improved sports performance.
Another potential mechanism behind the successes of meditation is the ability to achieve a state of ‘flow’. Flow is that feeling where you’re ‘in the zone’ and not needing to think about the task at hand. You’ve likely heard sportspeople talk about it in interviews after exceptional performances, though often you and even them don’t know that it’s happened: “Yeah, to be honest I can’t really remember too much of the match!”; “That final set was all a bit of a blur!”; “Looking back on the race now I couldn’t even really tell you that much about it!”. This would be flow. It can manifest as a loss of concept of time, reduction in self-consciousness, a focus on the present and a sense of effortlessness in your endeavours. If only we could bottle it! But it seems meditation can help us find it easier to achieve. This is also backed up by the research and linked to decreases in pessimism.
This sadly isn’t something we can likely tap into in one session though. It seems that at least three weeks seems to be around the point where performance benefits begin to manifest. This isn’t to say there will be no performance benefits at all or no other kind of benefits. Here we come back to two themes that seem to be a running trend in sports science topics – ‘it’s individual’ and ‘the placebo effect’. We need to remember that scientific studies use what we call a sample. This means that maybe 10, 20 or 50 individuals are used in a study to allow the outcomes to be expressed as if they are likely for the whole population. That is why the average response across the whole sample is reported. Some people will respond better, some worse. The bigger the sample the better, as it’s more representative of the population as a whole. You might be one of the good responders and it might only take a week for you to benefit from meditation. On the other hand, you might be a bad responder and it might be longer before you feel a benefit.
The other ever present is the potential for the placebo effect to impact our performance – the placebo effect is real too, there is no doubt about it. If you feel you’re getting a benefit from a practice then you are! And you should keep doing it. If that’s the case for meditation for you then great. At least you can do it for free! Meditative techniques such as focusing on your breathing will also certainly have an effect on your state of calm. This might not directly help you to sink the championship-winning free throw, but it certainly won’t hurt.