Gain a mental edge with yoga

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Yoga helps athletes develop mental focus and discipline that can take performance to a higher level.

Like many sports fans, I spent a healthy amount of time tuning in to the Rio Olympics last month, and I enjoyed watching interviews with athletes who had just given medal-winning performances.

When talking about how they managed to bring together four years of training and pull out a winning performance at the one point in time that mattered most, the comment that I noticed athletes made most often was about mental focus. Time and again athletes would talk about ‘just sticking to the race plan’ and not being distracted by what else was going on around them – i.e. having excellent mental focus, concentrating on the things that were in their control, and letting go of things that were out of their control.

All physical things being equal (and acknowledging that this itself is a hypothetical situation), when it comes to the gold medal race, the difference between a winning performance or falling just short comes down to who has the mental edge. Who turns up on race day fully focused, having done the mental training? Who has trained their mind to block out distractions, has mentally rehearsed each part of their performance, and already won the event in their mind?

As well as its many physical benefits, yoga can be hugely beneficial in helping athletes prepare mentally for competition.

Below are some of the aspects of yoga that can help athletes of any level learn to sharpen their mental game.

Quietening a busy mind
One of the basic aims of yoga is to help you quieten a busy, chattering mind. If you are able to let go of busy thoughts, concerns about past events and worries about the future, you can start to concentrate on being in the present moment. No matter where you have come from, or where you aim to get to in your sport, the only time and place you can shape the outcome of your future endeavours is the ‘here and now’. What you do NOW (physically and mentally) in this very moment, and in each moment of your training, is what matters most.

Controlling the breath
The most effective way to bring the mind to the present moment without being distracted by thoughts is to focus on your breath. First and foremost, this gives your mind a job to do. Once you begin to focus on the breath you can turn down the mental chatter, and ‘tune in’ to yourself more closely. Your breath reflects your state of mind and your nervous system. Are you relaxed or tense? Are you breathing fully and efficiently? Learning to control your breath develops self-awareness and mental focus. Not only that, but studies have also shown that breathing more efficiently can also improve athletic performance.

Shutting out distractions
As you focus on working with the breath you will also be learning how to block out other distractions around you. This helps you develop a single-pointed concentration that you can use in your sports performance. A physical yoga practice also helps you learn how to keep relaxed and focused when you find yourself in challenging and uncomfortable situations. It develops your mental strength and endurance.

Sticking to your own game plan
Many athletes are naturally competitive, and this can contribute to challenges when you first turn up on a yoga mat. While you may be a top performer in your sport, at yoga you may find yourself facing unfamiliar challenges, including not being the ‘most proficient’ person in a class. This may be confronting, but it’s OK – in fact it’s part of the learning process.

This is where you can learn more about ‘sticking to your own game plan’ and not comparing yourself with others around you. Yoga is a process of exploring and observing your mind and your body, examining your strengths and weaknesses, and learning about what you might be able to change or what you simply need to learn to accept. Acknowledging why you are doing yoga can be helpful here. Athletes’ bodies reflect the requirements of their particular sport, so acknowledge this and understand the purpose of your own yoga practice.

Not being put off my more proficient yogis, or trying to boost your own ego by looking around to see who you are ‘better than’ at a pose is a really good way to learn to stick to your own game plan and progress in a way that is most beneficial to you. Just like the rest of your training, the results you seek will come with practise.

Meditation and visualisation 
Meditation and visualisation are now mainstream tools in a smart athlete’s training programme. Yoga can teach you meditation and visualisation techniques that will help you attain the mental control you need to keep progressing in your sport. Remember, the mind is like any other muscle in your body – it will respond to training and become stronger and more focused with dedicated practise.

No matter where you are planning your sport to take you – give yoga a try and see for yourself how the mental aspects of it can help you reach a higher level.

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