The measure of an athlete’s success is often determined by their performance on the field or court. Yet the level of athletes’ competition and focus may also be the product of something other than physical training or exercise: mental control.
To stay locked in, athletes started prioritizing their mental health. Emory athletes, along with those in the professional sports world, have incorporated more mindfulness, meditation and yoga into their training routines. Since meditation and yoga are accessible, it is easy for athletes to integrate these strategies into their daily schedules.
Anna Arato, a junior forward on the women’s basketball team, started yoga in high school to make herself more flexible. She quickly noticed improvements in her game.
“Basketball is a fluid game, and yoga helped me to loosen up,” Arato said. “I had looser movements and felt less robotic with my mobility. Even taking 15 minutes out of your day to do yoga gets you in the right mindset.”
On top of improving their flexibility, athletes also use meditation and yoga as a means of reducing stress, increasing calmness and promoting happiness. Men’s basketball freshman guard Matteo Whelton has also been using these practices before he came to Emory.
“Sports can be very stressful, and meditation allowed me to control my breath and my mind,” Whelton explained. “During practices and games, I was able to handle my emotions better on the court and focus on my play.”
While mindfulness, meditation and yoga have been useful practices to improve performances on the court, some athletes have found them useful in their life outside of sports as well. When Interim Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Drew Williams suggested short, 10-minute yoga videos for the volleyball team last year, sophomore middle hitter Kirwan Carey immediately felt their mental effects.
“I got kind of hooked because I found them not only a really amazing way to stretch out and recover but also unbelievably relaxing and centering,” Carey said.
When Carey tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 25, she was able to relax more during quarantine by incorporating meditation into her daily routine.
“At kind of a scary and lonely time, it helped me become comfortable and in control of my thoughts,” Carey said.
The benefits Carey experienced from practicing mindfulness aren’t an anomaly. Studies have found that meditation helps to reduce stress, promote better sleep, speed recovery time, build endurance and deepen one’s sense of identity.
Even in professional sports, prioritizing mental health has proliferated. The NFL’s Seattle Seahawks were among the first professional sports teams to spotlight mindfulness meditation. In 2012, the Seahawks hired Michael Gervais to be their mindfulness coach and high-performance sports psychologist. Gervais regularly led players through sessions of yoga and mindfulness meditation. In 2013, Seahawks offensive tackle Russell Okung told ESPN that “meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice.” In 2014, the Seahawks went on to win the Super Bowl, and meditation might have been their secret weapon.
Whether at Emory or in the professional sports scene, mindfulness and meditation, as well as yoga, have changed athletes in numerous ways both on and off the court and field. With the stresses of everyday life and the competition of sports, these strategies have been life-changing, especially for Carey.
“Sometimes our sports put just as much stress on our minds as they do on our bodies,” Carey said. “I really appreciate the strength trainers at Emory for organizing yoga sessions, both virtually and in person last year, because I’ve found that initial introduction is what led to me practicing semi-regularly.”