A look into how people—athletes or otherwise—flex their mental muscles in order to play at a higher level.
Imagine the last two minutes of a basketball game with both teams tied. One team gets the home court advantage, while the other prays for a miracle: overtime, a last-second steal and dash for their end, anything. Tension rises high in the game. Hearts pound, sweat glistens, eyes dart here and there. For either team—and their fans—it’s the moment of truth.
Athletes and sports fans alike know this experience all too well; it could be the exhilaration and thrill of the winning play, the sudden freeze in strategy as panic rears its head, or the flare of tempers as the heat of the moment proves too much. Thus athletes know on some level that the physicality of their sport is only one aspect of it. The game begins in the mind, and athletes can either keep their heads cool enough to take opportunities when they see it, or they can lose their heads to their baser instincts. Thus it is fairly common for some of them to take up meditation.
Older and longtime tennis aficionados might remember Arthur Ashe meditating in between sets of the 1975 Wimbledon Cup. Kobe Bryant has also been known to meditate, as are the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. Even the Ateneo Women’s Volleyball team have been seen sitting on their benches, eyes closed, paying attention to their breaths, in the middle of a UAAP game. But what exactly are the benefits of meditation in relation to sports?
Snap Judgments and Default Modes
Part of the answer lies in our neurobiology and our Paleolithic origins. Imagine our ancestors on the African savannah: they spent their days hunting, gathering, looking out for threats, and seeking shelter. Generations and generations of these activities helped us evolve, making us more efficient at survival. If a threat arose—a sabertooth tiger attacking, for example—the fight-or-flight response would kick in, help them address it quickly and effectively.
The sympathetic nervous system, which governs our fight-or-flight response, favors efficiency over accuracy. After all, accuracy requires extended observation and detachment—a luxury our ancestors didn’t have whenever they faced matters of life or death. This worked well enough for Paleolithic Homo sapiens. But for us modern humans, with our highly evolved civilization and the safety and security, our fight-or-flight response can be maladaptive.
For athletes, this means losing control of their emotions. Basketball fans have their stories of fights breaking out in the middle of a game as several players give in to their anger. Others have stories of finding themselves in the grip of fear and panic, suddenly unable to execute an otherwise well-planned strategy.
Another relevant aspect of our neurobiology lies in the default mode network (DMN). This refers to certain parts of the brain that activate whenever we don’t have to focus on a task at hand. Left to our own devices—literal or otherwise—our brains fall back on a default mode of thinking. We end up identifying problems and trying to solve them. We also think of ourselves, and of others in relation to ourselves. Finally, we judge: ourselves, others, the rest of the world. All this takes place in our daydreams, whenever we kill time, or are otherwise not engaged in what we are doing at the moment.
At healthy levels of activity, the default mode network gives us a sense of self, and helps us learn from the past, plan for the future, and relate to others. At unhealthy, hyperactive levels, the DMN can sink us into depression, exacerbate the experience of pain, or cause social anxiety. These conditions are hardly ideal for anyone, athlete or otherwise.
Getting into the Zone
Meditation helps us address these mental tendencies, and with regular practice, can help us cultivate a healthier frame of mind. This goes beyond positive thinking and having a winner’s mindset. Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Robert Puff said that meditation helps athletes get into a mental state that yields a peak experience of the present moment—getting into the zone. Paradoxically, such a state of consciousness is not concerned with winning or losing. It means being fully engaged in activity while quieting our tendencies to evaluate and judge the experience.
Meditation helps us cultivate an open, nonjudgmental relationship with the present moment, which reduces stress and increases satisfaction as we learn to become more aware of where we are, in the moment. Again, with regular practice, it gives us some space between our experiences and how we respond to them—instead of making snap judgments, we can make choices with cooler heads. It makes us aware of our habits of thought and emotion, and that awareness alone can help us cultivate other perspectives, usually with more understanding and empathy for others.
In sports, a meditative mindset will enjoy a game, win or lose. The rush of adrenalin is something to be savored without the risk of being overwhelmed by it. An athlete who is present can be more attuned to teammates and rivals, take advantage opportunities as they come up, and engage in a sport in the spirit of playfulness. Such an athlete can be gracious in victory, magnanimous in defeat, and dignified all throughout.
Get Started, Get Centered
If you’re interested in starting a meditation practice, it helps to begin with a teacher. The Zen Center in Marikina holds regular orientations on the Zen method. It’s a six-weekend course that takes place a few times each year; the schedule for orientations can be seen here. Many yoga studios throughout Metro Manila also include meditation in their classes; a quick search will point out a center near you. Lastly, there are a number of apps and guided meditations on YouTube and Spotify; it helps to try out a number of them before choosing a teacher who works best for you.