The least exciting, the simplest, yet the hardest…and most effective tool to be present and ignite peak performance. 

Meditation caught fire in the sports world this past fall when University of Michigan Quarterback J.J. McCarthy was noticed practicing the mindfulness tool beneath the goal posts prior to Wolverine football games. 

Quoted in the Wall Street Journal about how he meditates each day to find focus and be in the present, McCarthy’s story shines light on a tool that is often overlooked and underutilized by athletes. 

Athletes know that peak performance comes from being in the present and meditation is perhaps the greatest way to achieve that. 

A Glass Lake Amidst a Storm 

It’s no secret that athletes live in a world that is busier than ever before. With the mind going in different directions constantly throughout the course of one day, a constant game of ping pong clouds the brain and oftentimes makes it difficult to be present moments of desired excellence. 

Insert the benefits of meditation. 

“I would say meditation is the number one tool to help with performance. It is the least exciting, the simplest, and probably most difficult,” Premier’s Dr. Chrissy Holm Haider says. “Why is that? Because we live in a society where it is very difficult to sit still and not do anything.”

A mind that fosters peak performance can be personified by the phrase where your attention goes your energy flows. When the mind is going in 1,000 different directions, it parsons off one’s attention and energy into different places. 

“Meditation is a way to bring your energy and attention back within your control and then you can put it towards whatever is meaningful to you,” Holm Haider says. 

Meditation is a form of mindfulness that allows a person to be in the present moment without judgment. In a world of black and white and good vs. bad, meditation allows athletes to observe situations without tagging them as good or bad. That neutrality channels focus and propels more intentional and purposeful experiences. 

If you can keep your energy and attention in a neutral way to that thing, you’re able to see things unfold (in a healthier way), connect different ideas, and make quality adjustments,” Holm Haider says. “That’s very hard to do when we judge or analyze situations as good vs. bad. We either move toward or move away from something, when we might not have all the data yet to execute.”

Just as humans have relationships with other humans, internal relationships also exist in our mind with the experiences that we have. It’s well known that much of sport is outside of an athlete’s control and meditation can help strengthen an athlete’s relationship with experiences out of their control that may have previously been regarded as negative. 

“Meditation allows us to observe the quality of relationship that we have with what’s right in front of us,” Holm Haider says. “We’re not always able to change all the things that come up in life, but if we can change our relationship with them to a more open, neutral perspective, that allows us to be more intentional.”

One Thing at a Time, Present Moment

It’s often perceived that meditation is grounded in clearing the mind’ yet that couldn’t be less true. 

“If you’re going to practice meditation and expect your mind to be completely clear, then good luck. Our minds are naturally active and are conditioned to be active,” Holm Haider says. “It’s not about clearing things out, it’s about understanding what we feel about things, how they dictate our feelings, and assessing what thinking patterns are helpful.” 

Discovering those thinking patterns comes as a result of focusing on one thing at a time. That one thing could be focusing on breathing sensations, or perhaps tuning into your five senses (five things you see, four things you feel, three things you smell, etc). Regardless of what that thing is, the concept gears one to focus on what is taking place in the moment and develop a cognitive ability to learn the patterns of their mind. 

That practice of focusing on one thing during mediations will blossom into the ultimate goal of any athlete; the confidence, discipline, and ability to stay present during practice, competition, and life. 

“While our thinking often wanders to the past and future, the only space that we can control things is in the present moment,” Holm Haider says. “If you can be focused on the present moment and train your ability to focus on one thing at a time, you’ll be able to not only maintain your focus on the controllables for longer, but you can fundamentally change your relationship with the happenings around you to be more curious and open so that you can stay engaged with your craft for longer and be more purposeful with how you execute that craft in the present moment. That’s what it’s all about.”

Mindfulness Tips

Rome wasn’t built in one day and meditation can seem daunting to a first-timer. Here are a few tips to getting started. 

  • Use the Five Senses exercise. In any order, identify five things you notice from one sense, four from the next and so on. For example, five things you feel, four things you smell, three things you taste, two things you hear, and one thing you see. 
  • Set a timer for 3-5 minutes, begin seated or standing, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and begin to observe the sensations of your breathing. Any time you notice your mind wandering off to something other than your breath, recognize that it is normal, and gently refocus on your breathing. It is the refocusing that makes your focus muscle grow stronger. Overtime you can extend this amount of time to 10, 15, 20 min and so on. Many successful athletes will meditate for 45 min per day and do a quick 5-10min tuneup before competition. 
  • If your mind goes astray (both in meditation and in competition), ask yourself W.I.N.; What’s Important Now? This will allow you to reallocate your attention to what is important and within your control.

Mindfulness is all about paying attention. Mindful eating is another strategy to help you pay attention in the present moment by focusing on the sensations that arise from eating. Chew or sip slowly and notice the tastes, textures, temperatures, and smells of your food to create a more mindful experience and practice paying attention with intention.