The Role of Meditation in Sport

I remember going into the green turf room just down the hallway from my locker room before my lacrosse games in college at Susquehanna University. I would disappear from the locker room for 5 or 10 minutes to find my posture of stillness. These brief sessions are amongst the most important meditation practices I did throughout my time in college. They were always, without question, the most enlivening meditations. Meditating before a highly competitive game that you pour hours of practice into every day is a different beast altogether than the meditations I would do outside of athletics. Even today, as I write about this experience, I can feel the subtle threads of anxiety coursing throughout my body, my mind trying to figure out a way to cope with the stress of competition and leadership and the vibrations of aliveness that would build throughout my meditation.

To be honest, I was trying to calm myself down. I was sitting in an attempt to be less attached to the outcome of the game. I was sitting to be more accepting of my performance, good or bad. I was in my meditation posture to be more present to the game so that I could perform better. But underneath I really wanted to get rid of this intense vibration of aliveness that felt like immense anxiety.

Did it work?

Yes and No.

Without fail, the longer I did my meditation before a game the more anxious I became. I couldn't distract myself from the energies coursing throughout my body and mind. While I calmly breathed and the experiential intensity grew I started noticing that my body and mind had an intelligence all to it's own for conducting this energy fluidly throughout myself. The more "conductive" I became, the more powerful of presence I had to lead my team on the field. Meditation appeared to galvanize more strength and energy within me. This undoubtably made me a better competitor.

What was failing in my mind was I wanted meditation to make me more comfortable before games. This never worked, ever. While I didn't know it at the time, meditation was powerfully sculpting my nervous system. I was becoming more "vertically integrated" as Daniel Siegel eloquently describes it.

Intense anxiety for athletes often results in a fragmentation in their nervous systems which compromises performance... always. The mind usually starts to spin out into various scenarios following a few basic fantasies. The first involves disaster scenarios the second involves fantasies of everything turning out positive and for the best while one of the most fearful fantasies formulates a story that the game doesn't "really" matter. The first two are an imaginary world that is disconnected from the actual territory of what's happening in the larger reality around the athlete, while the last option is a fantasy fueled with a blunt lie to themselves to buffer just how much the game (and their life) does mean to them. For athletes caught within their own private fantasies they are "sitting ducks" to a competition who's nervous systems are sculpted to attend to the specificity and nuance of what is actually going.

For me, my anxiety was increasing but my mind was getting closer into contact with what was going on in my body. While I didn't realize it at the time, this was growing my nervous system in essential ways.

To cover just one point, meditation practice strengthened my anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC as it's often called. By growing my brain's connectivity to the ACC I was able to have greater influence and control over my attention. I was becoming more in control of what's called my "executive attention," not my less complex and impulsive facets of my brain.

For you young athletes, the one's who are traversing the territory out of adolescence and into young adulthood take this into consideration: Your ACC is often called the Chief Operating Officer of your brain. You started to grow a tenuous connection to your ACC between the ages of 3 and 7. But this integration will not be complete well into your adulthood.

Accelerate your ability to aim and sustain attention with your intention. 

The better you get at this, the more mature your brain becomes, regardless of your age. The more mature your brain, the greater your capacities become for performing on the field and in life.

This translates into you focusing on the right cues under pressure and in the face of distractions. It means you can process emotions quicker and not get suck in the stories that surround challenging emotions. During games the ACC supervises what is happening with your attention. For example, if you start focusing on outcomes during a play, the ACC can stop this daydream and sharpen your attention onto the specific cues your mind needs to be tracking to be successful. Furthermore, in the face of adversity, which good competition always provides, you can stay focused on you, your behavior and your strategies instead of uncritically watching your opponents.

So, meditate. As I often call it, practice managing your attention. Do it rigorously. Do it regularly. What you are capable of achieving depends largely on your ability to manage attention.

If you're interested in joining attention management to strength training, consider killing two birds with one stone and do them simultaneously. Strength to Awaken is the most nuanced and sophisticated approach to integrating attention management into the discipline of strength training.

Rob McNamara
Author of The Elegant Self & Strength To Awaken






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The New Program that Changes Lives

Ok, here's the deal. I've been searching long and hard for this program and I finally found it... 

Pause a moment and take note of your experience right now. 

What are you focused on? 
How do you feel in your body? 
What are you anticipating? 

Isn't amazing what 24 words can do to us? 6 in the title of this blog and 18 in my first sentence. Chances are you just experienced what I call "The Lie of Novelty."

Novelty is an interesting and seductive property. The very presence of novelty shapes your mind into a point. Your attention becomes more focused. As a result you become more present. Distractions fall away and suddenly the novelty that has captured you and drawn you in.

Generally speaking these are all good things. Greater presence and focus while becoming less distracted are all qualities many of us would gladly sign up for. However, the frightening problem is this: 

Too often you are not in 
the drivers seat of this process.  

When this happens novelty governs attention. If you haven't noticed, whatever governs your attention governs you. As such, novelty often steals your autonomy, grabs you by the seat of your pants and takes you wherever it wants to. I don't know about you, but this is a problem. 

Take a look at the kind of innovation within the American auto industry over the past 30 years. Minus a few innovations, a "new" automobile often involved changing the shape of the lights, maybe adding some subtle changes to the shape of the car and adding a few options. I recall being asked if I wanted power windows as an upgrade when my father and I got my first car in the 1990's. 

I'm no auto expert, but I raise this industry as an example of the power of novelty as it's a multi-billion dollar industry resting upon very little innovation. Make it shiny, add a few superficial changes and essentially sell the same car the public is already driving. Sadly, it worked for way too long. 

Inside of the focus that novelty often creates there is a second problem. Your focus is not passive, it is active. What hides inside of this activity is a common feature: projection. Novelty seduces your projections out of you. When this happens you don't simply take in what is novel, you project your desires and aspirations all over it. When this happens critical thinking and analysis are a secondary issue. An emotional decision has been made and you must now get this new thing. Justifying it in your mind is an after thought, you've already been sold. 

This shows up in a shinny "new" car that likely functionally cannot do anything "novel" that your existing one does already. Regardless, novelty often means more happiness and getting what you really desire, or so the story goes. It shows up in relationships when someone "catches your attention." As you are no longer managing your attention, this stranger is now unknowingly or knowingly in control of you. You've never met them before yet suddenly you are seeing the possibility of some desire being fulfilled. You're in the "what ifs" land. And this of course shows up in your training. You likely are not seeing the results you desire, but that "new" program... maybe I can get it there. 

Tour the fitness / health magazine rack and you will see novelty leaping out at you. Go to the library and find the 1993 or 2003 magazine cover from the same month as the one at the grocery store today and I would guess you will find the same messages repeated. Yet somehow it feels "new," as we look at the covers yet 10 or 20 years ago it was the same messages. 

What's going on? 

I'll add this: commerce often times rests upon novelty. This is actually how it should be. You get something for the novel emergence and innovation it brings to your life. The problem is that we have figured out how to wrap the same thing as if it was genuinely novel. In this climate, we find ourselves being driven by appearances. 

The solution, in part, resides in the cultivation of your brain, nervous system and subjectivity such that you remain in the drivers seat of your attention. You must grow your capacity to manage your mind and attention. When you do this the once seductive charm of novelty loses it's ability to govern and enslave you. 

When you take control of your ability to focus and attend, you take control of your happiness. You begin to find it right here, in this training routine, in this relationship here and in this car you are already in possession of. You can cease to be like a dog chasing its own tail and you can appreciate your life and derive greater pleasure, productivity and proficiency from penetrating into the life that already has you. 

Perhaps this "new" way of attending to your focus and attention may indeed change your life ;-) 

Enjoy, 
~Rob McNamara 

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