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Zen Mind, Sports Mind

Jayne Storey explains how to achieve a state of peak performance where actions are automatic, intuitive, and unconscious and where bursts of 'spontaneous excellence' occur naturally and effortlessly.

T'ai Chi

Combined with traditional training in sports psychology (Effective Thinking-Skills, Attention Control, Goal Setting, Visualization, and Stress Management) - T'ai Chi can help athletes and teams develop better results in training and performance by helping to unite the mind, the body, and the breathing to achieve 100% relaxed concentration. Phrases like peak performance, transcendence, flow, and the zone, all refer to the bursts of spontaneous excellence experienced by top athletes and describe a state where actions are easy, the focus is 100%, and the player knows instinctively what to do to succeed.

Research shows that skill, passion, and immersion equal peak performance - the ultimate experience of which is the flow state or sporting zone. Action and awareness merge when the athlete becomes absorbed in what they are doing - when they have the skills to meet the challenge and focus all of their attention on the task at hand.

The most systematic approach that research shows are consistent with achieving the zone, is that used in martial arts. In Kung-fu, T'ai Chi, and Karate, the competitor seeks to lose all distractions of ego, analysis, and self-referring thoughts, immersing him or herself entirely within the activity. Zazen, the formal practice of seated meditation, is the cornerstone of Zen training. In its beginning stages, Zazen is a practice of concentration, with a focus on following or counting the breath.

In sports, we tend to view the body, breath, and mind separately, but in Zen, they come together naturally as one reality. By concentrating on the breath, you are empowering yourself with the ability to put your mind where you want it, when you want it there, for as long as you want it there. By disciplined training, the mind can be re-programmed to acknowledge distractions, whether internal (anxiety, fear of failure, the pressure of expectations) or from the environment (crowd noise, other competitors, weather conditions) - without holding on to them or paying them any attention.

The emphasis in Zazen is to breathe naturally, deeply, and quietly and to be aware of our breathing while letting all other thoughts, feelings, and distractions pass through the mind like clouds moving overhead on a windy day.

How to Practice:

  • Sit upright on a stool or hard-backed chair with your feet firmly on the ground, palms resting on your thighs. Hold the crown of your head up, as if a hook or thread held it. Tuck your chin under slightly and relax your shoulders. Look down at the floor or a blank wall about a metre or so in front of you.
  • Once you are comfortable, concentrate your mind on the hara or t'an tien - a point inside the lower abdomen, about 2 inches below the navel. It is important to centre your attention on the hara. The hara is the well-spring of your physical power and your body's natural centre of gravity. Put your attention there; put your mind there. As you develop your Zazen, you will become more aware of the hara as the centre of your attentiveness.
  • Relax your stomach. Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth and breathe in and out through your nose. When you breathe in, allow your lower abdomen to come out (expand) gently. Do not force your breath. Try to relax and let it happen naturally.
  • To aid your practice, you can visualise a small balloon inside the stomach, below the navel. As you breathe in, this balloon gently expands, and when you breathe out, the balloon gently releases the breath.
  • Relax fully. Do not try to take deep breaths, but keep your mind on the hara centre for the duration of the exercise and quietly observe your breathing.

What to Expect

Over time, you will gradually find your breathing becomes deeper and slower. You will also feel the heat in the lower abdomen. Start your Zazen practice by concentrating for just a few minutes each day and build up your training gradually. Over time you will find yourself getting physically and mentally stronger and feeling more relaxed.

Daily training

The ability to achieve a relaxed and focused state of mind needs to be trained and experienced daily and is not a technique that can be pulled from the bag on the day of competition. You need to start preparing your mind by learning to detach from all the trivial problems which beset everyday life. Start gradually by meditating for five or so minutes and work up another minute a day until you can sit comfortably in silence for at least 20 minutes.

In skills training/practice

Here you will be learning how to meditate while in action and can quietly start training yourself to focus on your breathing while putting on your sports gear, warming up, and during your practice routines.


The night before a competition, it is helpful to meditate for a few minutes before going to bed. Sit quietly for a while, without reading or watching the television, and then quieten your mind completely by practising Zazen for a few moments. If you feel restless in the night, get up and do some gentle stretching, then sit and meditate for a little while. This will help you relax your nerves again before going back to bed.

In the morning, start with ten minutes of meditation and then do short bursts throughout the day while you get ready and prepare yourself for the event. In the locke room, you can continue to stay focused on your breathing and perform your Zazen training without anyone knowing what you are doing or being able to distract you.

During the game itself, use your meditation training as a trigger to increase your focus and relaxation during moments of intense pressure. Gently pushing down the diaphragm and sinking your awareness to the hara while exhaling, is a great way to stay strongly present in your body.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • STOREY, J. (2005) Zen Mind, Sports Mind. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 25 / September), p. 12-13

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • STOREY, J. (2005) Zen Mind, Sports Mind [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Jayne Storey is a specialist in T`ai Chi and uses this to help athletes and teams with balance, posture, body mechanics, attention control, coordination, stress management, mindfulness ... and also to create the right internal conditions for accessing the sporting zone/flow state.