Meditation and Combat Sports: What You Need to Know
A couple of weekends ago I was in San Francisco and made plans with my friend and former U Penn wrestler Zack Ellis to hit up a BJJ practice and teach some takedowns to the MMA team at his gym.
A few days before we were supposed to go, Zack messaged me:
“Aaand I’m an idiot. I just realized that I’m going to be going to a meditation outing with one of our executives on Saturday.”
This was certainly a pretty big change in plans, but I’ve been thinking about whether meditation can be a useful tool to supplement my workouts and improve my BJJ game. A lot of research and anecdotal evidence certainly seems to suggest so, but I wanted to try for myself.
I thought the outing, led by Mark Coleman of Awake in the Wild, was enlightening. Ignoring the mystical and “energy” mumbo-jumbo that is often associated with meditation, the skill of controlling your thoughts and stilling your mind can be very helpful in many situations. It can be especially helpful in the stressful, pre-fight environment. Maybe that’s why guys like Lyoto Machida value the art. However, I can tell you that just like a berimbolo or a suplex, meditation is a skill that will take years to get just right.
TL;DR: Yes, meditation can help. No, it’s not easy.
What about the nitty gritty details? Is there science that agrees with me? How do I learn to meditate? To figure this stuff out, I asked Shannon Clark for help.
Shannon holds a degree in Exercise Science from the University of Alberta, where she specialized in Sports Performance and Psychology. She is a regular contributor and two times ‘Writer of the Year’ at Bodybuilding.com.
If you’re involved in any type of intense sport training such as combat sports or any other form of highly athletic physical activity, chances are you are constantly searching for ways to improve upon your performance. You spend time in the gym each week hitting the weights and are doing a number of sport specific sessions to complement that.
Have you ever stopped to think about what meditation may do for you? Most athletes completely overlook mediation and don’t even really consider it an ‘exercise’, so this automatically leads them to exclude it entirely from their training plan.
If you are overlooking this form of activity though, you could be making a big mistake. The facts are clear and meditation does have a lot to offer any serious athlete, so should not be overlooked so quickly.
Let’s walk you through the main points:
Priming the Brain for Learning
In order to excel at MMA, BJJ, wrestling, etc., you’re going to need to learn new tasks over time. Meditation can help.
As stated by Richard Davidson, the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, ‘sports meditation techniques are intended to relax the athletes’ bodies and minds while increasing their ability to focus on performance.’ Richard goes on to say that by increasing their awareness through the act of meditation, athletes are able to direct more attention to learning when necessary, leading to quicker improvement.
In addition, meditation can help to increase the total attention span of the athlete as well as improve vigilance. These benefits combine to really improve awareness and retention while learning the movements and techniques related to your sport.
Visualization to Enhance Performance
The next way that meditation can be useful to the athlete is through the use of imagery to boost performance. Imagery is where an athlete will picture themselves performing a physical task, executing it to perfection.
In ‘Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance’, it’s noted:
‘during the imaging of an activity, the brain sends out low levels of impulses through the nerves to the muscles that are being activated in one’s imagination. These impulses are similar to those emitted during overt activity, but they are so slight that they are undetectable. These low level nerve impulses help to establish a mental blueprint of what is required to perform the activity, making this movement easier to execute.’
So, despite the fact that you are not actually doing anything; just imaging it can improve your real-life ability to perform.
Getting Into the Flow State
For an athlete to achieve optimal performance, a state of ‘flow’ is often desired.
Flow is a particular mental state where the mind tunes out all other distractions and is solely focused on the task at hand. Again, here is where meditation shines.
Check out Flow is the Key to Happiness, you aren’t familiar with what it’s like to be in flow.
Those who are practicing meditation regularly are able to better and more quickly move into the flow state during physical activity; thanks in part due to elevated alpha rhythms in the brain, which help to suppress distractions.
In addition to helping enhance the flow state, elevated alpha rhythms may also be beneficial for pain management, and yet again serve the athlete in training.
Also noted by Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, “the best way to put yourself in the zone with any regularity is to train yourself mentally using meditation”.
Further, one study noted that, “athletes’ flow dispositions and mental skills adoption could be differentiated using mindfulness. The findings have implications towards the understanding of flow and mental skills adoption within sport psychology.” It appears that meditating for 20 minutes each day is sufficient level for athletes to easily be able to return to this flow zone state and optimize their performance.
[Gene: 20 minutes a day might be a tall task when first starting out – build slowly, try and get yourself to 3, 15 minute sessions a week first.]
As Chris Montgomery, a former Princeton University football player, reported – meditation helped him sustain longer peaks in athletic performance, while decreasing the intensity of the dips.It’s clear that with regular meditation, sustaining your optimal performance level is going to be that much easier.
Practicing Meditation Successfully
So now that you know how meditation can be useful for athletic performance, how do you go about practicing it correctly?
When most people hear the word ‘meditation’, they invasion someone sitting on a pillow in the lotus position with their hands placed above their knees. This isn’t how it has to be at all however.
There are a number of types of meditation, so learning each and choosing the one you feel most comfortable with will be helpful to your success. Let’s look at three you should know about.
The first is simple mindfulness, where you calm and relax your mind. With this one, you’ll calm your thoughts by focusing your attention on one particular anchor thought, learning how to tune out any other distractions. This anchor should be something peaceful and soothing such as the sound of a waterfall or even just your own breath.
As you hold this, you will find that other thoughts come to mind, so your job is to dismiss them from consciousness. If you find one thought is regularly occurring, it’s then time to address why it is so important and how you can effectively deal with it.
The next variation is one that is more in tune with most athletes and involves using activity to free their mind. You’ll go about some form of physical activity such as running, practicing yoga, or even dancing and focus simply on the muscles contracting, your body taking in oxygen, and the feeling of the movement.
As you do this, focus on tuning out all other thoughts that are coming into play.
Finally, guided meditation is used most when you want to perform imagery and is where you will create a specific scene in your mind. You are literally ‘guiding’ your thought processes through the situation, altering the results as you hope they will come about.
So there you have the basic information on why meditation can serve to benefit any athlete along with their usual training routine. Do not underestimate the power that this form of activity has to offer. With just a short amount of time each day devoted to practicing, you can see noticeable improvements in your performance.
Please remember: meditation is like anything else worth doing … it takes practice and dedication, but it pays off. Share your meditation stories below and please share this article with your teammates if you found it helpful.