By Lindsay Smith
As athletes, we are constantly in search of anything that might sharpen our competitive edge — physically and mentally. Training is grueling enough, but when you add injuries, nerves, or that little voice in the back of your head, getting through a game can seem like a daunting task. Imagine walking through the tunnel toward the field, one foot in front of the other, your team at your side, gear on, ready to go. The crowd is loud. So loud you can barely hear yourself think, let alone hear the play calls. To make matters worse, you’re facing THAT opponent. You know the one. The one that gets under you skin, for whatever reason. Now imagine this is your first game with a new team, the last pre-season game before final roster cuts, a playoff game, or maybe even The Superbowl. There’s a lot on the line.
Focusing in a normal competitive environment can be challenging enough, but when you add in pressures like those above, it can seem completely overwhelming. However, the physical and mental hurdles that stand in the way of our best games can be minimized through simple exercises designed to prepare the mind and body for the unique challenges on the field. By incorporating a combination of yoga postures into pre-game warm-ups, an internal shift toward stillness, or quieting of the mind, and heightened body awareness is achieved. These exercises can build a strong foundation for a more focused and aware athlete, allowing the loud stadium, the opponent or whatever external pressures exist to fade into the background.
While yoga has become a popular and widely accepted practice to the general public, it is still relatively new to the world of athletes. There are certainly stigmas attached to yoga, with common thought relegating the practice to alternative lifestyles or trendy girls in tight pants. It is different from traditional stretching and training regimens. These ideas are easily demystified when you understand how sport-oriented yoga can directly affect your health and career longevity. There is very real value associated with yoga poses specifically designed with sport in mind – a fact many top athletes have recognized over the past several years. With appropriately tailored stretching sequences, yoga can be advantageous for athletes of all levels and disciplines.
Yoga has become increasingly popular with athletes for the physical gains it offers. Certainly, thoughtful incorporation of yoga into traditional strength and conditioning programs can yield noticeable results — boosting strength, flexibility, balance and endurance. By carefully tailoring yoga stretches to an individual athlete’s needs, one can identify and correct muscle imbalances, mitigate injury risk, and reduce recovery times — all important aspects to career longevity.
As true with any new skill, mastery requires practice. We didn’t learn to walk, throw, or catch in a day. Yoga is no different. Over time, the body accepts these new positions and poses; the muscles become more pliable and strong in new ways. The physical foundation of athletics and yoga evolve from the same root of building muscle memory. This develops new neuromuscular patterns designed to recall in repeated actions for ease and fluidity. The more an athlete practices yoga, the more body awareness improves, and the athlete feels where they are in space without having to look. Such coordination is critical for difficult sideline receptions, where a receiver must instinctively know their location or for a tackler turning to grab an opponent while running down field.
Many athletes begin yoga solely for the potential physical benefits. Indeed, the payoffs in performance and muscle therapy are particularly appealing for those seeking a continual edge on the field and the training room. However, as yoga is incorporated more fully into strength and conditioning programs, additional benefits are quickly realized. Most importantly, participants note an increased sense of calm, clarity and mental balance — traits essential to having one’s “head in the game.” An athlete can be talented and physically prepared, but without adequate mental toughness, performance suffers. As Gary Mack, author of Mind Gym, notes, “Achieving inner excellence is a process. Building mental muscle, like building physical muscle, requires time and effort. The more you work on the inside, the more it will show on the outside.”
A cursory survey on the definition of mental toughness, suggests many athletes associate their game day mentality with a calmness, or quieting of the mind and the notion of being in “the zone.” This “zone” was was best defined as a feeling free of supreme preparation, free of inhibitions, reservations or distractions.
An appropriately tailored yoga routine promotes relaxation during times of stress, reduces mental and physical tension through breathing exercises, enabling players to more easily find this elusive and essential “zone.” By placing athletes in unfamiliar circumstances, yoga challenges participants to control their breath, and become mindful of their heart rate in uncomfortable situations. These breathing and calming techniques learned on the yoga mat pave the way for a clear, focused mind on the field — despite Game Day’s many nerves and distractions. In this way, yoga helps athletes more fully harness their mental power, minimizing the hurdles of doubt and uncertainty and providing a blank slate of quiet confidence against which physical greatness can shine.
Successful athletes understand there is more to peak performance than brute strength and endless practice. In order to reach one’s pinnacle, players must tap an inner power — their competitive spirit or “mojo.” Athletes who incorporate yoga into their regular routines often embracing life from a more positive standpoint, allowing a deeper, truer connection to themselves and their endeavors. For those who achieve a true peace, its as if each moment stands still or things move in slow motion. Each variable is processed with complete clarity, from ball location, to teammate awareness, to field position. The player truly feels like they have all kinds of time.
As yoga is a completely customizable program, it can be tailored to include the most important poses and sequences to maximize the benefits to a specific position with an economy of time in mind. Yoga practices can be geared toward an off-season session, in-season session, game-day warm-ups, cool-downs, endurance building or anything in between. It is what you make of it.
Incorporating a yoga practice into your strength and conditioning program can be a great benefit. Over the course of the next few months, we’ll cover a variety of topics specific to football players and the industry as a whole. Now knowing that yoga is not a religion, but actually a science that is accessible to everyone. It is no longer held just for the alternative lifestyle living but is vital to the longevity of your athletic careers.
Lindsay Smith, e-RYT 500, is a certified Yoga Tune Up® instructor and co-founder of RAW Sports Yoga, specializing in teaching yoga for professional and Olympic athletes. Lindsay’s unique approach to yoga infuses sport-specific poses, anatomical awareness, and invigorating breath work. She has coached some of the best athletes in their fields from the high school, collegiate, professional, and Olympic levels. Lindsay’s approach to yoga provides every athlete the opportunity to maximize their performance in their position, and longevity in their sport. Although athletes are Lindsay’s specialty she also works with individuals of all ages and abilities using her skills and unique point of view to customize an appropriate set of postures to surpass your goals.
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