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.
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 the martial arts. In Kung-fu, T'ai Chi and Karate, the competitor seeking 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 over-head on a windy day.
How to Practice:
What to Expect
Over time, you will gradually find your breathing becomes deeper and slower. You will also feel 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.
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 every-day 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 locker-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.
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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.