Meditation: the holistic approach to sports performance

Sport is never just a matter of muscles, endurance and technique; on the contrary, there is no doubt that the psychological component linked to concentration and stress management plays a fundamental role in the outcome of a test. Far from the usual relaxation techniques, meditation seems to be gaining momentum among athletes, although it needs constant practice to be effective - a bit like the balanced diet.

Starting from Roberto Baggio, forerunner (it was the end of the eighties), at least in his homeland, of athletes who were lovers of contemplative disciplines, now seem to be several sportsmen more or less known who devote themselves to the exercise of meditation. In his case, approaching meditation was the result of a conversion to Buddhism that the former footballer still considers the best thing that has ever happened, but the spiritual component is certainly not a discrimination: even "lay" practices of this kind, generally of an oriental matrix, act on psychophysical integration in a very profound way, increasing the ability to concentrate, the endurance of pain and resistance to competition stress.

Meditation in religions, philosophy and fitness centers

What meditation should lead to, whose thousand-year history crosses all the main religions and philosophical currents and then ends up in fitness centres many times as an alternative to anxiolytics, is a sort of suppression of states of consciousness: according to Vedic Hinduism, to which the exercise of this practice is first traced (well beyond 2000 B.C.), it is a physical and metaphysical response to the need to free oneself from the pain that constitutes the most authentic substance of human existence.

Through simple gestures that involve breathing and the recitation of short mantras, you reach a condition of relaxation that approaches the imperturbability. That is, through what is called "ekagrata" - that is, the ability to concentrate on a single object -, an absolute detachment from the rest of the world, a total insensitivity to any other sensory or mental stimulus. In this way, with the control of one's will, one obtains the only possible liberation from the unpleasant worldly condition, as well as a full awareness of one's self. "After a little practice you'll see your mind as pure water," the Dalai Lama guarantees.

Of course, the result is not easy to achieve, but it seems to do very well even just try to achieve it: more than one university study confirms that regular meditation is able to induce physical and biochemical changes in the body, regulating metabolism, blood pressure and heart rate. Not only that, but often combined with visualization techniques, it also greatly improves endurance: tuning in with your breathing can transform even a marathon or a cycling race into an occasion for meditation, and in any case helps to alleviate fatigue.

Athletes and meditation

Feeling less the mere physical weight of a competition, then, allows you to focus better on the game and strategies more appropriate, as also says George Mumford, sports psychologist who has followed some teams of the NBA including Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers and that of meditation is a big fan. It caused some sensation in 2012 to see LeBron James (two Olympic gold medals and the reputation of best basketball player in the world, even after 15 seasons in the NBA), meditate live during the timeout of an NBA Playoff, relaxed as if it were in the living room of his home. The athlete has repeated on more than one occasion that yoga and meditation have also avoided several injuries over the years, thanks to the promptness of reflexes and concentration reached.

Remaining among the Lakers, former player Kobe Bryant has also declared to derive enormous benefits from the practice of meditation. Bryant, 5 championships won in 20 years with the Lakers (a real record), remembered that basketball is a physical game for only 10%, mental for the remaining 90%, in which the slightest distraction can easily lead to colossal mistakes. He too, like an infinite number of other characters, was initiated into this discipline, as simple as it is complex, by Phil Jackson, still recognized today as an icon in the holistic approach to training (as well as in training itself, with 11 NBA titles achieved with the Chicago Bulls first and then with the Lakers - not to mention the 2 won as a player with the Knicks in the early seventies). The key to his coaching method was essentially "one breath, one mind", a Zen principle that started from the assumption that it was necessary to work on mental strength as much as on physical strength and that not for nothing gave him the nickname of "Zen Master".

Jackson didn't just sit his guys upright but was comfortable with them throughout the process (which reveals he had brought incredible benefits), but occasionally forced them into silence for a whole day or made them play in the dark. "It wasn't completely dark," he told Oprah during an interview, "but I wanted them to know they could do things out of the ordinary.

"Not only is there more to life than basketball, there's a lot more to basketball than basketball", were his textual words in his book Sacred Hoops, which to date has sold more than 400.The book also explains how to apply the principles of Eastern philosophy (but also the spiritual practices of Native Americans) to both basketball and everyday life, or how to act with a "clear mind", while remaining focused on chaos; how to put the "self" at the service of "us" and how never to lose sight of respect for the adversary.

Meditation is raging not only in the world of basketball (even the blue basketball player Danilo Gallinari seems to be an assiduous connoisseur of it - "It helped me regain elasticity, I became more aware of the sensations that the body sends"), of course, but also in that of baseball, with Barry Zito, formidable pitcher and musician, and Derek Jeter, considered one of the best shortstops ever, who revealed in 2012 to practice one hour every morning.

Rugby is no exception either, where the All Blacks declare that they regularly do yoga and meditation, and football, which after Baggio has also seen the technical commissioner of the Welsh national team Ryan Giggs give much of the merit of his success as a player to these practices, or the footballer Yūto Nagatomo give yoga lessons to his teammates (who knows if this is also the case for the new ones of Galatasaray). The young Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova also confirms the benefits of this practice, putting her meditation sessions also on her YouTube channel: "During every game there is a small interval of time at the end of the point, there you have to breathe and look ahead", and, according to the results, it is not bad as advice.

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