• Ryangarmoe

Sports Psychology and Meditation


Thank you for coming to my blog! We're now at the 3rd post in my series about sports psychology and music. This time around I’ll be exploring the interesting relationship between meditation and sports psychology. Though I won’t necessarily discuss anything specific to music, hopefully this post will reveal a different facet of sports psychology and how it is applicable in our lives as musicians and individuals. If you’re interested in reading the first two posts, you can find them on this website under the names Sports Psychology 1 and Sports Psychology 2. Crazy, right? 


At this point in the series I thought I would have already discussed my own mental roadblocks regarding practicing and performing music. Learning about the mental side of musical performance is the main the reason I became so interested in sports psychology in the first place! However, the more I thought on it, the more I realized a discussion of meditation would actually be consistent with the timeline of how I came to the subject. 


It was about a year ago when I started a regular meditation practice, and it was through this practice that I took the first steps in understanding those previously mentioned mental roadblocks. As I continue to dive deeper into sports psychology, the more I've to realize just how similar the big ideas in both fields really are. I believe a discussion of my experience with meditation and it’s interesting relationship with sports psychology will make an appropriate lead in to my own narrative. 


The first lightbulbs for this post popped on while reading The Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzales. Throughout the book, the author’s main vehicle for delivering sports psychology wisdom is his teacher Leo Tai. Gonzales’ and Leo Tai’s relationship is very typical master-and-apprentice style, similar to a relationship we might see in allegorical stories about monks. Furthermore, by the way Gonzales describes his teacher’s humble home, propensity to sit and think, or tea drinking habits, my mind was already aesthetically dispositioned towards classic images of meditation masters. 


Regarding actual content, the biggest indicator something was afoot came in Chapter 7 when Leo-Tai discusses his relaxation technique called focused breathing. Take the following quote: 


“I just observe my breathing. That’s all. If a thought comes to me, I pay it no attention and it soon flows away. The more I focus on the breathing, the more I observe the breathing, the quieter my thoughts become. And also, notice that I can practice the breathing without any form whatsoever, whenever I need….I can practice my focused breathing wherever I want, even now as I sit and visit with you. I practice focused breathing to help keep me centered - to help bring me back to the present.”



What I thought would come next would be a brief discussion of meditation, but it never happened. I thought the idea might appear in later chapters on  'Controlling Anger', 'Controlling Fear', 'Changing Your Mental State’, or ‘The Present’. Nope! It never popped up. Surprisingly, meditation is not mentioned a single time in that entire book. Not once! I stewed on this discovery for awhile until curiosity led me to other sports psychology texts I’ve recently read. On my Kindle, I did a search for the word ‘meditation’. What I found turned out to be the major impetus for writing this post! In those 5 books, meditation is only mentioned in one book, The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afermow.  Of the 300ish pages in The Champion’s Mind, there is only a brief 4 page chapter on the subject. 


So what’s going on?


Before I get too far ahead of myself, we should dive a bit into meditation and mindfulness. This can be a difficult topic to discuss, but I’ll do my best. 


I feel like many of us have a mental image of what meditation is. We might conjure a scene somewhere in the Asiatic mountains, where a single practitioner sits on a high ledge, deep in concentration. This practitioner could be bald and wearing well used, earth toned robes. An eagle calls from above as mist rolls in from the east, our sitting monk becoming one with the universe… or something like that. This narrative is roughly how the meditation aesthetic is presented to westerners, but in 2019, that vision exists mostly on the surface. Not to discredit the tradition, but meditation practice has been neatly packaged and delivered all over the world thanks to 21st century capabilities. Just yesterday I downloaded an app called Insight Timer, which comes with over 20,000 guided meditations. This is just one example of how the activity is more accessible than ever. Other avenues are retreats, classes, games, or even a confusing pseudo-description from a sports psychology book. 


My personal interest in meditation bloomed about 2 years ago when multiple friends recommended I check out the podcaster and author, Sam Harris. Harris hosts a podcast formerly known as the Waking Up, where he interviews a dizzying variety of authors, scientists, professors, politicians, philosophers, etc. Harris himself is a neuroscientist/philosopher/author/, but is also an experienced meditation practitioner having studied around the world in various styles. Given his strong background, many of Harris' conversations eventually wrap back around towards the activity and it’s applications to 21st century life. It was through these interviews that I developed an academic interest in the subject. If you’re curious, Harris even has a few podcasts dedicated specifically to meditation  - they are truly fascinating! 


My next run in with westernized meditation media came around this time last year, when my girlfriend gifted me the book Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn. Up to this point I had experimented with meditation in a few non-committal ways, but it was this book which inspired me to elevate my purely academic interest into a daily practice. I credit Wherever You Go, There You Are, along with a companion practice in journaling, for jumpstarting my interest in sports psychology. I didn’t know it at the time, but the principles of Kabat-Zinn’s book are almost identical to those of sports psychology! Of course the end goals, or lack there of 😉, are different, but the vocabulary, techniques, and general mindset are largely similar.  


There are a few other details about meditation to clarify. First off, there are actually many different types of meditation. The practice has been around for thousands of years and much like music for the symphony orchestra, for example, started in a specific location, but eventually branched out and took on the idiosyncrasies of a specific region. Meditation’s has religious roots most notably in Buddhism, but also in Hinduism, Shintoism, and even Christianity. A few different styles of modern secular meditation are mindfulness, mantra, gratitude, and loving kindness. It is convenient that Kabat-Zinn’s text primarily focuses on mindfulness meditation, as the sports psychology authors generally present a variation on mindfulness practice and ideals. It would, however, be worth it to research these different styles; each as it’s own rich history and applications into our lives. 


Kabat-Zinn’s book is an excellent vehicle to approach the topic of mindfulness meditation. Nothing is too esoteric and he successfully ‘retranslates’, in a sense, traditional eastern values into easily digestible westernized McChunks. Something Kabat-Zinn mentions early regarding western meditation really stuck with me. In western culture we have a tendency to take things, such as meditation and mindfulness, and use them solely for the purposes of furthering or curing other aspects western culture. An example might be a Silicon Valley-ier using the techniques for the sole purpose of increasing productivity at work or dealing with the stress of their job. Kabat-Zinn shirks this utilitarianism by saying meditation is not a means to an end, but really only a practice of being in the present moment. 


So what else does Kabat-Zinn say about meditation and mindfulness? Well there are many things, but it’s first important that we draw a distinction between meditation and mindfulness as they are not the same thing. Rather, meditation is an activity through which mindfulness can be cultivated. The following quotes from the book sum up the distinction well: 


"People think of meditation as some kind of special activity, but this is not exactly correct. Meditation is simplicity itself. As a joke, we sometimes say: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” But meditation is not just about sitting, either. It is about stopping and being present, that is all"


"Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation”


I would suggest reading Wherever You Go, There You Are or any other on mindfulness meditation for greater understanding. With these quotes in mind, we can turn the discussion back to our original point. In the sports psychology books I’ve recently read, the proposed methods for increasing performance in sports are almost identical in concept to those ideas relating to mindfulness meditation in Kabat-Zinn’s text. Let’s look at some consistent themes and supporting quotes. 


On being in the moment/present


The Mind Gym, Gary Mack

“…When you are playing your game right on time, in the present, you perform at your best. Why? Because in the present, there is no pressure. Press is created by anxieties about the future and remembered failure from the past. If a baseball player comes to the plate thinking about his last strikeout or says to himself, 'If I don’t start hitting I’ll be on the bench soon,' is he playing in the present? Obviously, the answer is no."

Kabat-Zinn 

"A diminished awareness of the present moment inevitably creates other problems for us as well through our unconscious and automatic actions and behaviors, often driven by deepseated fears and insecurities. These problems tend to build over time if they are not attended to and can eventually leave us feeling stuck and out of touch. Over time, we may lose confidence in our ability to redirect our energies in ways that would lead to greater satisfaction and happiness, perhaps even to greater health."


On breathing


The Art of Mental Training, DC Gonzales 

“I just observe my breathing. That’s all. If a thought comes to me, I pay it no attention and it soon flows away. The more I focus on the breathing, the more I observe the breathing, the quieter my thoughts become. And also, notice that I can practice the breathing without any form whatsoever, whenever I need….I can practice my focused breathing wherever I want, even now as I sit and visit with you. I practice focused breathing to help keep me centered - to help bring me back to the present.”


Kabat-Zinn

“Try: Stopping, sitting down, and becoming aware of your breathing once in a while throughout the day. It can be for five minutes, or even five seconds. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment, including how you are feeling and what you perceive to be happening. For these moments, don’t try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go. Breathe and let be. Die to having to have anything be different in this moment; in your mind and in your heart, give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow  yourself to be exactly as you are. Then, when you’re ready, move in the direction your heart tells you to go, mindfully and with resolution."


On non-judgement 


The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Galloway

“What I mean by judgement is the act of assigning a negative or positive value to an event. In effect is is saying that some events within your experience are good and you like them, and other events in your experience are bad and you don’t like them. You don’t like the sight of yourself hitting a ball into the net, but you judge as good the sight of your opponent being aced by your serve. Thus judgements are our personal, ego reactions the sights, sounds, feelings, and thoughts within our experience"


Kabat-Zinn

"When you dwell in stillness, the judging mind can come through like a foghorn. I don’t like the pain in my knee…. This is boring…. I like this feeling of stillness; I had a good meditation yesterday, but today I’m having a bad meditation…. It’s not working for me. I’m no good at this. I’m no good, period. This type of thinking dominates the mind and weighs it down. It’s like carrying around a suitcase full of rocks on your head. It feels good to put it down. Imagine how it might feel to suspend all your judging and instead to let each moment be just as it is, without attempting to evaluate it as “good” or “bad.” This would be a true stillness, a true liberation."


On letting go 


Relentless Optimism, Darrien Donnelly

“There comes a time when a man has to let go of the results and just play. He has to let go of the outcome he’s working for. He can’t control it. There are too many variables. What he can control is his effort, his attitude, his focus, and his gratitude for the very moment he’s experiencing."


Kabat-Zinn

"Letting go means just what it says. It’s an invitation to cease clinging to anything—whether it be an idea, a thing, an event, a particular time, or view, or desire. It is a conscious decision to release with full acceptance into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding. To let go means to give up coercing, resisting, or struggling, in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome which comes out of allowing things to be as they are without getting caught up in your attraction to or rejection of them, in the intrinsic stickiness of wanting, of liking and disliking."




I believe the similarities are too concrete to be coincidental. Again, this raises the question of why in 5 popular sports psychology books, is meditation only mentioned in one book for 4 pages? Even the method of instruction in the form of the master/student relationship, which is so common when discussing meditation, is the driving narrative in 3 these sports psychology texts. There are times where the analogy is so obvious I’m mentally screaming “JUST USE THE ******* WORD”. 


There has to be a reason why. Unfortunately I don’t what is it, but I do have some food for thought. First off, it’s entirely possible these authors were not aware of meditation at the time of writing or hadn’t done enough reading to notice the similarities. I think this is extremely unlikely, but there is something to be said about modern psychologists ‘discovering’ and ‘researching’ ideas and practices that have been around for literally thousands of years. 


It is also possible that our authors wished to be respectful of the meditative tradition and not bastardize it by forcing 21st century utility upon it. Sadly, I’m not putting much faith in this idea. Nothing against the authors, but at a certain point of research and development nothing is sacred, especially given the huuuuuge money surrounding modern athletics. I would love to be proved wrong on this one, but I’m not hopeful. The kicker, though, why I believe meditation is not mentioned in sports psychology books is because it’s easier.


Yes, it is much easier to not reference meditation at all. Any mention of the word meditation carries thousands of years of baggage regardless of intention. The potential distortion brought on by mentioning the word which must not be named in a book about sports performance, could fill a reader’s mind with conflicting thoughts and dull the impact of the original message. At least on the surface, the stark contrast in imagery between meditation and sports might not be worth the risk.


It could just be simpler for sports psychologists to repackage and repurpose the subjects of meditation and mindfulness than it is to go through an entire explanation of why meditation and sports psychology might be identical twins with opposite personalities. It just seems easier to not bridge this gap and leave it up to the reader to see how far they want to take it. One final idea is that sports psychology is a relatively young field. It is possible the literature and research hasn’t reached a point where bringing meditation into the discussion would be worthwhile. 


What do you think? I don’t think there has been any academic research into why meditation isn’t more frequently referenced in sports psychology, but who knows. It was never my intention to give a definitive answer to this question, but moreso to get the mind going a little bit. If you have meditated or practiced sports psychology, how have how your experiences been similar or different than those examples mentioned in the opposing field?

This concludes part 3 of my section on sports psychology and music! I know I got a bit off track with this one, but this was an idea I couldn’t help but dive into. If you would like to share to your individual thoughts, please leave a comment below, email me at ryangarmoemusic@gmail.com, or send me a message directly on Facebook. Also, if you would like to stay updated on my future blogs posts, you can subscribe at the top left with the login/sign up button and your email address. Keep an eye for my next post coming out 2 weeks from today and thanks so much for reading! 

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