JUST DO IT: Why yoga is the ultimate training for athletes

AthleteYogaIn the athletic world, athletes and coaches alike strive for every possible advantage over their opponents.  Whether the method is weight-training, diet, practice, or sports psychology, coaches and athletes are continuously searching for ways to enhance performance.  Yoga is increasingly becoming an important part of college and professional athlete development.  Practicing yoga increases flexibility, stamina and body control, leading not only to greater performance on the field or court but also to a decrease in the risk of injury.

We are seeing this trend at all levels of athletics.  NFL teams are now hiring yoga instructors as full-time staff members and athletes like LeBron James and Ray Lewis attest that yoga is critical to their athletic training.   As a yoga teacher in Macon, Georgia, I am seeing this trend first-hand – I currently work with a number of Division I athletes from female golfers to baseball players.  Interestingly, I have found that as numerous as the physical benefits of yoga are, what many of these athletes are also recognizing is the mental edge that the practice provides to them:

Letting the last play go.  I recently attended a college basketball game and sat directly behind the bench.  Sitting so close to the team, I heard every word – the players encouraging each other, the coaches strategizing their next move and the constant banter between referees and the coaching staff.

During the game, one player had a 90 second span where he did everything wrong -he turned the ball over, allowed the player he was guarding to score, missed a lay-up and finally committed an unnecessary foul.  The coach pulled him from the game and when he walked over to the bench he looked completely demoralized.  His head was down, shoulders slumped and he kept repeating, ‘I’m sorry, Coach.  I’m sorry. That was all me.  I’m sorry.’ He sat down on the bench, put his head between his hands and stayed that way for the next 3 minutes of the game.  When he was put back in the game the next half, anyone watching could see he was still thinking about what happened the last time he was on the court.  This preoccupation with the past took him out of his game.

In yoga, we constantly talk about letting things go.  We speak about doing so in simple ways – if balancing in tree on your right leg didn’t go well, let go of it.  It will likely be a whole different experience on the left leg.   While in half pigeon, we all have two choices – fight the pose and stay in struggle or let it go and get to the sweetness of the pose.   A critical part of our yoga practice is learning to breathe and let it go.

The great athletes you see have mastered this skill.  The pitcher that gives up a homerun and isn’t scared to throw it down the center to the next batter.  The basketball player that misses the last minute shot to win the game asks for the opportunity to take the last shot again.  It’s not a matter of not learning from the experience – the best players always learn from their mistakes.  Rather it’s a matter of letting these mistakes and failures go (and go quickly) so that they do not cripple you.

Trusting your instincts.   We’ve all seen it:  a golfer sets up his putt and moments before swinging, steps away to look at the shot again – only to miss once he finally putts.  A baseball player is in the middle of his swing and stops short – only to see a strike speed past him.  There are moments when athletes second-guess their instincts and miss an opportunity to excel.

I often like to end my yoga classes by asking everyone to put one hand on their heart and one on their belly.  I do so for a number of reasons – I think it’s a great way to feel your body’s response to a good, sweaty practice, and I think it’s a simple way to connect to two critical parts of our bodies that we may sometimes ignore.

But I think doing this with athletes is particularly important – it allows them to physically feel the power that those natural instincts have in them and to take a few moments to connect with them.   Watch great athletes and you will see this in action – an inherent trust that their hand will let go of the ball exactly where it needs to be released and their body will take them exactly where they need to go.  It is a connection with, and a trust in, the heart and gut that creates this greatness in athletes.

Keeping your head in the most chaotic of situations.   It’s easy to keep your focus and cool when everything around you is still and quiet.  When the yoga room is completely silent and the air conditioning is on, you can set your drishti, ground down in your standing leg and stay in dancer pose with a steady and full breath.   But make the room 98 degrees, have the person in front of you swaying from side to side and the person behind you giggling, and your dancer pose isn’t so graceful anymore.   That’s because remaining balanced can seem like a breeze when everything around you is controlled, but it’s when things get out of control that finding your drishti becomes the most important.

That’s why when I work with athletes I welcome a little chaos in class.  I don’t want the room to be perfectly quiet and I don’t want everyone perfectly behaved.  Athletes never operate in the perfect environment – there are always loud fans, a screaming coach or an opponent’s hand in their face.  I want to allow elements of that chaos to simulate their game day environment.

What the practice of yoga can teach us all, and athletes in particular, is even when everything around you is out of your control, you still have your own breath and your own focus.  For an athlete, that ability will help to hit the high-pressure free-throw or to remain calm when stepping to the plate in the bottom of the 9th inning.  The ability to keep your breath and find your focus is what makes an athlete truly clutch.

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As a yoga teacher and a sports fan, I am excited about how yoga is taking off in the athletic community.  I’m excited that coaches are seeing the value in having their players more flexible and grounded; and excited that players are seeing how yoga can improve their speed, stamina and strength.   But what I am most excited about is how we will continue to see more and more athletes committing themselves to the practice as they see how yoga will not only give them the physical advantage over their opponents but also the mental advantage.

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