Meditation and Athletic Performance – Upping Your Mental Game

Ask any athlete and they’ll tell you — when it comes to real improvement it’s as much about physical performance as it is about mental performance.  As we continue to evolve our view on optimal sports performance the need to focus on mental health has become increasingly more obvious. But the question remains, can we train our brain the same way we train our body?  Read on to learn about the health benefits of a regular meditation practice paired with physical exercise.  

Meditation and Athletic Performance – What’s the Link?

We’ve moved way beyond the old paradigm of daily exercise alone as a standard routine for athletes.  Through years of biometric and sports performance research we’ve been able to consistently improve how to make athletes, better, faster, stronger, and recovery more quickly… no easy feat!  It’s only now that we’re slowly starting to see the positive effects of a consistent meditation practice on athletic performance in diverse clinical research studies.

 how to focus better, sports performance, sports meditation

Pain and Sports Injuries – Can we change the way we feel pain?

Injuries or “painful interruptions” can be a major cause of delay in any training program.  Injuries resulting from athletic activities (i.e., sports such as football) or the normal activities of life can impede range of motion as well as the ability to bear weight on affected joints. Aging adults are also more apt to develop arthritis in formerly injured joints—and a work-out at the local fitness center can get shortened or halted due to pain in a hip or knee.

Appropriate rest to recover from an injury is paramount, but the speed at which we recover can make or break our ability to get “back in the ring”.  To help speed the process — and engage in recovery treatments — is it possible to change the way we feel pain?  The answer is yes. A study published in Neuroscience Letters revealed that the brain’s transmission of pain signals is lessened through a regimen of meditation and mindfulness (1). This study also found that meditation can positively affect the neural signals that determine pain sensation in the following brain-controlled processes (2):

  • Sensory processes
  • Cognitive processes
  • Affective processes

Similar findings were also found in a study of research participants with arthritis published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine (3). These researchers documented that a gentle exercise routine (e.g., Tai Chi or yoga) decreased arthritic symptoms and increased cardiac function in the participants. Furthermore, the authors of a research article published in 2017 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience concluded that a three-month combined practice of yoga and meditation produced lowered inflammatory biomarkers (and arthritis is the result of inflammation in afflicted joints) (4).


Psychosocial States and Inflammation – The Impact of Meditation

Most athletes frequently deal with varying levels of stress and trauma – both physical and emotional. Improving mental toughness means being able to learn, adapt, and emotionally regulate past emotional events. It is widely recognized that emotional stress can be relieved by meditation—and also by aerobic exercise. Since stress is also associated with increased inflammation (as found in Rheumatoid Arthritis, as well as inflammatory bowel disorders such as Crohn’s Disease), the relief of stress can also relieve the symptoms of these disorders.

The previously-mentioned article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience — as well as numerous other medical research articles — suggests the link between stress and reactive inflammation. Not only can embarking on a combined meditation and fitness regimen improve the overall quality of life for people who suffer from inflammatory disorders, it can also relieve symptoms of depression and improve energy.

how to focus better, sports performance, sports meditation


Improving Focus and Concentration in Athletics – How Meditation Helps

Recognizing where to run to intercept the ball and reacting quickly is vital in volleyball, baseball, football, and soccer. That attention and concentration can be improved by physical fitness (achieved through an aerobic and weight-bearing exercise routine), and also through practicing meditation on a regular basis. The following are areas where positive cognitive changes were produced by meditation, as related to increased attention/concentration (per an article in Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports) (5):

  • Brain function capacity
  • Neural activity
  • Circulatory blood flow

Altering our neural connectivity for the ability to access information quickly as an athlete is crucial. The formation of new neurons through meditation in the brain’s hippocampus region—which is linked to concentration and memory—was shown in study findings published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (6).

This study tracked participants who performed exercise on a treadmill and a meditation practice, which suggested that participants’ increased blood flow and neural activity were the contributory mechanism leading to increased attention and concentration ability.

how to focus better, sports performance, sports meditation
Smith Lowdown Focus mPowered by Muse™


Upping Your Mental Game – Learn How To Control Your Focus

Life and sport are filled with chaos and distraction.  It’s not breaking news that a combined regimen of mental and physical exercise is the best way to boost mood, improve sleep quality, improve brain functioning, and boost overall health and well-being. For athletes, this is essential for their ability to execute as a top-performing player!

Meditation alone can be an amazing addition to any training program but if you’re looking for a way to start improving your mental focus now for better focus and concentration welcome to The Lowdown Focus with the Smith Focus App.  Specifically designed to help you develop a heightened sense of self-awareness and train your cognitive performance, the integrated brain-sensing technology provides real-time feedback on your brain’s activity level so you can learn how to control your focus.



  1. Zeidan F, Grant JA, Brown CA, et al. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters 520(2): 165-173. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3580050/
  2. Zeidan F, Grant JA, Brown CA, et al. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters 520(2): 165-173. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3580050/
  3. Prusak K, Prusak K, and Mahoney J. (2014). An integrated mind–body approach to arthritis: A pilot study. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 4(2): 99-107. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4003709/
  4. Cahn BR, Goodman MS, Peterson CT, et al. (2017). Yoga, meditation and mind-body health: Increased BDNF, cortisol awakening response, and altered inflammatory marker expression after a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11:315. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5483482/
  5. Acevedo BP, Pospos S, and Lavretsky H. (2016). The neural mechanisms of meditative practices: Novel approaches for healthy aging. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports 3(4): 328-339. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5110576/
  6. Shors TJ, Olson RL, Bates ME, et al. (2014). Mental and physical (MAP) training: A neurogenesis-inspired intervention that enhances health in humans. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 115:3-9. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4535923/

Meditation and its Impact on Athletic Performance

Novak Djokovic and meditation
Novak Djokovic practices meditation for 15 minutes a day

With the Olympics fully in swing there are many stories circulating not only about the physical training that athletes endure but also how mental conditioning plays a key role in performance. Sports psychologists have long argued about the ratio of physical vs mental in competition but there is no disagreement over whether the mental side of the equation is critical to success. Our lives are constantly put on hold with worries and stress; they take us out of the present. Arguably, one of the most stressful jobs is that of an athlete where, in many cases, you get only one shot to succeed. Meditation, just like weight training, for example, make up the toolbox of preparation that an athlete needs in order to prepare for the big event. Meditation allows athletes to strengthen their drive, focus on present task at hand and drop all distractions that may interfere with winning. Novak Djokovic, both an Olympian and possibly the greatest tennis player of all time, claims in his book Serve to Win that he practices mindfulness meditation for 15 minutes every day. Gold medal winning figure skater Javier Fernandez credits Muse for helping him build an ongoing meditation practice.

Olympic cyclist and world record holder Sky Christopherson, believes in the power of technology and data to help the athletes he coaches gain the upper edge. As part of that training he also recommends Muse to tackle the mental aspect of a training schedule. 

Ultimately, it is the mind that controls how the physical body behaves and is a powerful indication of what the body is capable of. Take the work of sports psychologist, Michael Gervais, a doctor who advises high-performance athletes around the world and tries to find the roots of their anxieties while aiding them in overcoming it. Meditation can yield similar results by mitigating anxiety-like symptoms. Meditation can even aid in the reduction of how chronic pain affects the mind as well as lower stress levels and help control oxygen. All of which will aid any athletic endeavor.

Meditation coach, George Mumford
Meditation coach, George Mumford

So how do prolific athletes become frequent meditators? One answer is George Mumford, the author of the Mindful Athlete. Mumford is a meditation coach or, as the the NBA’s New York Knicks call him, a “personal and organizational development consultant”. His rise to prominence stems from his work with legendary basketball coach, Phil Jackson for both the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. A recovered addict, now 30+ years clean, Mumford learned about mindfulness from his studies with the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Now, Mumford consults with different NBA teams to offer “the opportunity to be in the moment”. This aligns perfectly with Phil Jackson’s moniker of “Zen Master”. Mumford’s approach involves being present within the game, accepting all external stimuli rather than ignoring it. This is what Mumford, and athletes of all pedigrees, would call being “in the zone”. He teaches several different concepts, including one he calls “one breath, one mind,” meaning he gets everyone in the room “to breathe together to become one” team.

Two of Mumford’s greatest disciples were Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. When Mumford met Michael, he was sure Jordan suffered from some sort of mental disorder. His manic behaviour on court couldn’t have been natural and Mumford didn’t believe it was sustainable. However, he was blown away when he learned that this was simply how Michael was. “Michael did have to find something to motivate himself into that state” Mumford tells Vice Sports, “You have to be in the moment. You can’t worry about what just happened, the basket you missed, the foul you made two minutes ago, because it’s over. You can’t worry about what’s gonna happen the next time down the floor. You have to be right there in the moment”. But Mumford attests that Michael believes, “that Zen Buddhist stuff really works”. Kobe Bryant has a well documented history with meditation. He also learned from Mumford and continued to meditate years later, although he was skeptical at first. “Just coach” were the words a young Kobe Bryant uttered when introduced to the exercise. He now makes life decisions based on how he feels after meditation. Kobe decided it would be time to retire when he no longer found his mind drifting towards the game while meditating. Even after retirement, Kobe can be seen meditating with monks on Instagram.

Even if one’s skepticism is a deterrent against meditation, its hard to ignore the impact its had on athelete’s lives and its popularity amongst everyone who isn’t a professional athlete. Meditation becomes easier once the results are realized. The routine established by George Mumford and practiced by high-caliber athletes is a living testament to what the mind can accomplish. Whether you want to shake off the negative distractions of everyday life or break a new world record, practicing meditation is a choice you can make today.

Kobe Bryant taking time to practise meditation

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