Sports

The Mindful Athlete: Can Preventative Mental Health Improve Performance, Too?

A meditation room could one day be as much a part of an athletic program as the weight room, film study, and the training table.

by B. David Zarley
Jun 24 2016, 12:40pm

Photo by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Consider elite athletes. They are, in an incontrovertible and empirical sense, endowed—blessed with gifts that dwarf those of the rest of us, most obviously in the corporeal department: frames like buildings, ballistic arrays of muscle fiber, hand-eye coordination and balance and poise and power that sends fans into slack-jawed wonder and sportswriters deep, deep into the analogy pit in an attempt to dredge up something, anything, that can translate these outlying specimens into something closer to the rest of the species.

Second to these physical strengths, but potentially far more important, is their mental fortitude. The tennis player, the golfer, the free-throw taker or field-goal kicker or fustian batter with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth—all are under the kind of immense pressure from which our most precious natural resources are made, and those who transmute in the heat and weight are paid like the valuable commodity they are.

But there are pilots, surgeons, salesmen—myriad walks of life require performance under pressure. And so the strongest mental gift of the athlete may in fact be discipline—the ability to grind out, day in and day out, the swings, the shots, the reps, the pages, whatever it takes. There is no I don't have the time, no I'm not up for it today (or at least there's much less). These are people who will play through grotesque injuries, who will shoot baskets hours and hours after a brutal loss, who will dedicate everything they have to the pursuit of their goals. That selachian mindset, the savage self-control, can kill them.

Or, channeled another way, it can be the key to well-honed, highly-tuned mental health.

Read More: Meet the Sports Psychologist Training the Minds of the NBA's Top Draft Prospects

Stacey Ervin was one such athlete. A recent graduate of the University of Michican, Ervin was a three-time All-American gymnast in the floor routine and vault; he holds the third highest floor score in NCAA history. He is, without a doubt, elite. Like any of his peers at that level of competition, Ervin was beholden to rigorous fitness, practice, and nutrition routines. Every morning, however, he carved 15 minutes from his busy schedule to practice meditation, actively training his mind to remain present by focusing on his breath. It's a habit he still continues today. (Ervin makes use of an app to meditate, although he points out that nothing is really required—except, of course, yourself, some time, and discipline.)

Ervin's approach to mental health is truly proactive, not reactive. He did not wait for a psychological crisis to arise. He simply adapted a technique he learned via Athletes Connected, a mental-health initiative and research program for student-athletes at Michigan.

"I wasn't really going through any particularly stressful period of time," he said. "But I figured if there's anything to give me a mental edge in my sport, or life in general, why not take advantage?"

Stacey Ervin finishes a floor exercise during the 2015 P&G Gymnastics Championships. Photo by Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

While athletes are constantly seeking ways to one-up the competition, Ervin's attitude toward mental health is still a somewhat uncommon sentiment—but perhaps not for much longer.

"Doing preventative work is, I think, a fairly new topic, even amongst counseling centers," Dr. Nohelani Lawrence, a University of Southern California sports and clinical psychologist, said via phone from Eugene, Oregon, where she was helping the Trojans track team as they competed in the NCAA championship earlier this month.

Scientifically rigorous study of preventative strategies in mental health is in its infancy; a 2004 report by the World Health Organization tags the field as arising mainly in the 1980s. According to the WHO, preventative mental health is tied heavily to mental health promotion. The destigmatization of mental health—and its recognition as a commodity, just like one's physical health—has helped pave the way for people to seek preventative treatments. There are personal measures such as stress reduction techniques; there are potentially sweeping sociological changes, such as better access to social services, that can greatly improve the quality of life for broad swaths of the population.

Meditation, with its ability to train the mind to better focus and quiet itself, as well as potential for neuroplasticity—altering the form and function of the brain— is among the most common, most accessible, and possibly most effective of preventative techniques. It is a key component of mindfulness, a relatively new concept in psychology that emphasizes the ability to remain present in a stimuli-choked society.

"Student-athletes are starting to realize that there is perhaps an edge in being able to be mentally fit," Lawrence said.

While visualization and similar methods have long been used by athletes during competition, Ervin feels that his meditation practice allows him to more easily stay calm and focus when facing a challenge. He found giving himself a quiet 30 seconds to visualize his high-bar routine, for example, particularly helpful before the event.

"Mindfulness is a way to teach these athletes techniques to make them more present and better able to take information, whether that's from the coach or their surrounding environment, and really being able to focus and concentrate in a way that can make them successful," Dr. Lawrence said. "Or put them in the best possible place to be successful."

Why, then, are athletic programs and teams not making meditation and mental-health work as mandatory as the weight room, film study, and training table?

"I compare it to exercise in the [19]80s," said Dr. Mark Aoyagi, who is the director of Sports Performance and Psychology program at the University of Denver as well as the founder and director of the school's Center for Performance Excellence. He has also worked with professional teams and USA Track & Field. As the fitness craze caught on, he continued, researchers began to study exercise with new rigor, eventually producing a body of work that took the benefits of exercise—and the detrimental effects of a sedentary lifestyle—out of the theoretical realm and into widely accepted fact.

The research on mindfulness already has begun. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, combines the centuries-old expertise of Buddhist monks with far more recent brain imaging techniques in an effort to quantify the psychological benefits of meditation. One such study's functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans suggest that positive emotions can be learned—via meditation and positive thought—in much the same way as an instrument, sport, or other physical skill can be, while another study indicated that concentration meditation aided the brain's ability to concentrate and think. There is even potential evidence that extremely practiced meditators, the kinds provided directly by the Dali Lama himself, can alter the very structure of their brain.

While the overall body of evidence is far from overwhelming, studies suggest that regular meditation can alleviate depression, boost memory and the immune system, shrink the part of the brain that controls fear and grow the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation. This kind of hard science has led to pilot programs in the U.S. military, and to corporations ranging from Google to Procter & Gamble Co. offering mindfulness training for their employees. It may be the key to bringing coaches and athletes around to mindfulness and preventative mental health en masse.

"It's not quite as simple as seeing a kid drop weight because the nutritionist is helping them refine their diet," Dr. Lawrence said. "And I think as coaches become more aware of how to measure mental toughness or how to measure grit, or hardiness, that when they are better able to see the results of that—I think coaches are very numbers people—than that will catch on more."

Learning to focus on the objective in front of you is important in college athletics. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

A stigma still surrounds mental health, especially in the hypercompetitive world of sports; a perceived deficit in psychological strength can still be a deathblow for an athlete. If a swing looks rusty or a shooting motion is broken, or if muscles come to camp sheathed in fatty tissue or a lineman regularly gets bullied off the line, strength coaches, skill coaches, practices, and dietary changes are implemented. The athlete is not seen as irrevocably broken; they simply have an issue that needs to be addressed.

"But if they choke under pressure one time, or have some sort of perceived mental weakness, then it's like 'oh, guess they aren't mentally tough enough,' and that's it," Dr. Aoyagi said. "There's no thought that 'oh, we can train that differently, we can develop that just like a physical skill.'"

Take, for instance, Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson, whose four straight free-throw misses in the 1995 Finals against the Houston Rockets made him the basketball Buckner, but even more tragic. A deflated Magic would cede their 20-point lead, the game, and eventually the series to Houston.

"I tried not to let it affect me, but my confidence wavered," Anderson told ESPN in the 30 for 30 documentary This Magic Moment. One cannot help but wonder, had an emphasis on mindfulness been more widespread at the time, if Anderson and his Magic teammates would be able to more effectively rally after what they regularly admit, in the documentary, was a poleaxing first game.

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson already is a believer. The longtime NBA coach had George Mumford, a sports psychologist and mindfulness expert, work with his title-winning Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers teams in the 1990s and 2000s. While Jackson was sometimes derided in the press with the nickname "Zen Master," some of his best players became mindfulness converts.

To wit: the first time Kobe Bryant met Mumford in 1999, he was immediately suspicious. He couldn't believe that Jackson was using practice time to have his players sit on the floor—in the dark, no less—and meditate. Over time, however, Bryant came to consider Mumford one of the most influential figures in his life, someone who had helped him learn how to better cope with the intense, consuming pressure of his long and successful basketball career.

"[Kobe] meditates every day," Mumford told VICE Sports last year.

The implications of preventative mental health and mindfulness techniques may even extend beyond the world of athletics, and even beyond performance in the empirical sense. According to Dr. Aoyagi, a growing body of work suggests that meditating with prevention and training in mind can help to manage and reduce the severity, pervasiveness, and duration of mental health disorders and episodes.

"It can be a way to prevent a trigger," said Dr. Lawrence. "Sometimes people are triggered, whether its depression or mania, by a stressful situation. And if you have different tools on your tool belt, to kind of help you deal with a variety of situations and stresses that enter your life, it can most definitely be a way to help prevent and unwanted episode, regardless of what the mental health condition is."

Such benefits would, of course, come down to practice; just like one day at the gym doesn't make you strong, and one long run prepare you for a 5k, a single meditation session will not provide the apparent mental health benefits that are beginning to be proven. But if you are already a semi-serious runner, a surprise trip to a date's eighth-floor walk-up is handled in stride; so, too, could a meditator be able to weather a manic episode with relative ease.

Definitive answers could be coming soon.

"As neuro-imaging technology and our ability to see, quote unquote, what's going on in the brain, whether that's MRIs or similar technology, as that improves and we are able to understand neurology a little bit better, I think within the next decade the power of meditation is going to be on par with the power of exercise," Dr. Aoyagi said. "That there is going to be no dispute that it is going to be good for you."

In the meantime, it can't hurt to think a bit more like Stacey Ervin.

"I understand how important it is to keep mental clarity," he said. "Mental health is just as much a priority for me as physical health is."

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