Breathe to win: meditation in sports

Jaylen Marselles Brown is a young NBA player, playing with the Celtics since 2016. His name will probably sound familiar, because at the moment the media and specialised press are all focusing on this rising star of American basketball. Match after match, Brown is proving to be an invaluable resource for the Boston team. However, it is not only his extraordinary athletic skills, technical competence, irreproachable discipline and absolute dedication to basketball that arouse the admiration of his teammates and turn the cheers on in the stands. Jaylen Marselles Brown is admired because he's an enigmatic character, inexplicably attractive as anything that is hard to define.
Being just twenty-one years old, originally from black Georgia, and with an ordinary family behind him, Brown is so different from his colleagues and so distant - in mentality and lifestyle - from his millennial peers, that an NBA executive (who preferred to make an anonymous statement) seems to have called him too smart to be one of the league. On the other hand, Brown claims to be a simple and introverted guy, who takes his job very seriously and, prefers to read a philosophy book, play the piano or chess and study languages in his spare time, rather than going out and causing trouble.

The power of meditation

Jaylen Brown is also extremely active on the social front, denouncing without hesitation the inherent iniquities of the system, the social stratification and the latent racism that, insidiously, creeps and crawls into society. He doesn't miss a chance to remember his most unfortunate brothers, who unlike him didn't get to jump on the other side of the fence: like his best friend Tevin Steede, who committed suicide in November 2017. The day after receiving the terrible news, Brown took to the field and played his best game ever, setting a new personal and team points record. That victory was later dedicated to Tevin.
To ignore the racist scorn from the audience, process such an important mourning in only 24 hours, and end up continually in the basket in the meantime, there are two roads one can take: either indifference or resilience. And if we weren't absolutely sure of Brown's good heart, we would easily be led to see only a merciless individual. The image of the wise old man clashes with Brown’s young age, who doesn’t have so many aces up his sleeve, but only one prodigious recipe: meditation. Jaylen Marselles Brown has been practicing it since he was 16 years old. Now he follows the Japanese method: he fills his belly with air, then fires it from his jaws "like a dragon flame".

The essentials of breathing

Voluntary breath control is the basic technique of meditation. You sit with your eyes closed, your legs crossed, your back straight, your head high and your spine perpendicular to the ground. The rest of the body is relaxed. You then inhale and exhale at regular intervals, while visualizing the cycle of air that passes from the nose to the lungs, floods organs and limbs, then escapes away from the lips. As your mind progressively empties, time becomes an eternal present, leaving room for only the here and now. Everything is downsized on the individual: for this reason, meditation is a panacea for the ills of the soul and can be a valuable aid to alleviate psychosomatic disorders caused by anxiety, stress and depression.
Meditation regulates the heartbeat, lowers pressure, and improves metabolism by stimulating the release of serotonin, which displaces intestinal peristalsis and facilitates digestion. But meditation is above all useful to re-establish a healthy and constructive relationship with one's self, which finds itself as an absolute reality in the space-time of practice, while the outside world and its toxic inputs cease to interfere.

The objective and presupposition of meditation is concentration. By shifting the focus to breathing, a fundamental process taken for granted, we learn new ways to amplify perception, manage cognitive abilities and govern negative emotions. This state of renewed lucidity is called mindfulness or self-awareness, a character trait common to successful men and sports champions alike.

Meditation in sport

Sport can certainly help us to better understand the very close relationship between body and mind. In situations of maximum competitive intensity, in which the detachment from physical suffering caused by extreme exertion is fundamental in order not to throw in the towel, meditation can play a decisive role. Being focused on oneself, perceiving oneself as a biological machine in osmotic balance with the environment, favours the control of performance. The mind, completely focused on the objective, guides the limbs in the performance of each task.

This almost mystical state of ecstasy, which science calls flow, was formalized by psychologist Juri Hanin (1995) in the model IZOF - Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning, which describes and predicts the optimal and dysfunctional experiences of the athlete in relation to the outcome of the performance. The area of optimal functioning is inextricably linked to the interpretation of one's own experience. Success and failure, in practice, depend on the management of emotions, which play an important role in sports performance, either as an inhibiting or as a facilitating factor.

The example of Jaylen Marselles Brown is emblematic. The basketball player who faces each match by suppressing logical-rational thinking, shows how the body energy comes consistently from the inner energy.

I felt nothing, I was like outside myself.

The young athlete comments on the most significant match of his life in this way, and while in a match against the opponents of the Golden State Warriors he fought against the paralyzing and asphyxiating pain of mourning. Indomitable spirit and willpower would have not been enough on this occasion and, more generally, they are never enough.

The mindset of the combatant is the result of continuous negotiations with the superstructures of the self, the small-great obsessions and mental distortions that condition daily life, and results from the continuous struggle against bad thoughts that demean the soul, and bad experiences that debase the public dimension of the individual. Winning means turning the negative into the positive and fighting, trusting in your own strength, until you have nothing more to give. A great life lesson, which you can learn more quickly through the practice of meditation.

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