You’re at the service line, trying to focus. It’s late in the last set, and your team is down by one. If you miss this serve, the other team will win.
As much as you want to relax or focus on the positive, you feel incredibly nervous. Your mind recalls the last serve you missed and how that affected the team. “No,” you tell yourself. “I won’t miss it this time.” You remind yourself that you’ve served successfully hundreds of times. So why are you still nervous?
You toss the ball, ready to put it into play. Will you stay cool under pressure or will you send the ball straight into the net?
A successful serve in this situation requires skill, of course, but skill alone doesn’t promise a player will never miss a serve, hit, or dig. Without the ability to focus on the present, an athlete’s mind is likely to jump to memories of the past or concerns about how a mistake would influence the game. Concentration is a key ingredient to success, and it’s a skill every athlete can develop.
So, how do you get better at concentrating?
It’s All in the Mind
Luckily, concentration functions much like the muscles in the body. You can train yourself to have better concentration in day-to-day life and in high-stress situations. It does take some time to develop the necessary skills, but concentration is something you can improve through practice.
Meditation, and specifically mindfulness meditation, has gotten a lot of attention recently as a way to improve concentration. And for good reason. Dr. Emma Seppälä devoted her doctoral studies to the effects of meditation after she experienced positive changes from her own practice. She has gone on to identify no fewer than 20 benefits a steady meditation practice can bring, including everything from boosting the immune system and increasing grey matter in the brain, to improving people’s ability to stay focused and calm in diverse situations.
“Before an athletic performance, we want to be cool, calm, collected, and focused,” Seppälä notes. “However, most of us have not learned how to cultivate that state.” Mindfulness meditation offers us a technique that anyone can learn and put into practice.
Ironically, many people avoid starting a meditation practice because they “just can’t concentrate.” However, it’s a misconception that meditation is the attempt to empty your mind. That’s not the goal of meditation, and beginners and seasoned practitioners alike can tell you that emptying your mind is almost impossible. As soon as you sit down and close your eyes, dozens, if not hundreds, of thoughts will come up. That’s normal. Meditation teaches us how to observe the numerous thoughts that come up without reacting to them, without following the train of thought.
This ability to observe without reacting, gained through meditation practice, leads to higher concentration. During meditation, people practice continually ignoring their random thoughts and bringing their attention back to an object of focus, such as the breath. This activity builds the concentration “muscles” over time.
Begin at the Beginning
Shane Davis, head coach of the men’s volleyball team at the University of Loyola, has been using meditation with his team for a year now. He admits he was nervous when first incorporating meditation into his team’s routine. He wasn’t an expert on the subject, so he wasn’t sure he had the authority, so to speak, to put this idea into practice. But he knew his team needed to do something to address the mental aspect of the game.
Working with the university’s chaplain, Davis had his players go through a 10-15 minute guided meditation where they thought for a few minutes about questions the chaplain posed. The questions were about volleyball and the players’ academic and personal lives. The players’ response was mixed. Some fell asleep, while others were very excited to just have a time of reflection. (Falling asleep, by the way, is extremely normal for beginners. Over time people can conquer sleepiness that arises during meditation.)
Encouraged by the positive reactions, Davis incorporated another meditation session. Now, before each game, an assistant coach leads the players through some deep breathing exercises, and then moves on to having the players visualizing themselves doing well in the game. Davis reports that instead of starting each game full of adrenaline, players are more calm and collected. It’s clear their focus is sharper than it was before the team did any meditation.
Davis is now a big believer in the positive benefits meditation can bring to a volleyball team. He recommends that coaches give it a try and tinker with the process until they find a way to fit meditation into their practice routines.
There are many kinds of meditation, and there are many ways to practice mindfulness. While the diversity can be overwhelming, people don’t need to be proficient in every technique. It’s best to spend some time trying to find what works best for you. Focusing on the breath is a common way to begin a meditation practice; however, there are many other techniques including focusing on any sensations of relaxation in the body, noting the difference between internal thoughts that are images or mental talk, and even listening to music.
What’s key to all these techniques is once your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to the object of focus with equanimity. There’s no need to feel stressed that your mind wanders and you aren’t meditating “right.” Be gentle with yourself and remember to just observe. Mediation isn’t a time to come to conclusions. You are allowed to just watch your body and your mind.
Dr. Seppälä suggests beginners take a class or use guided meditations to get started. If you don’t know of any meditation centers or teachers in your area, one teacher who offers guidance over the internet is Shinzen Young. A meditation teacher and scholar with decades of experience, he offers a plethora of information about mindfulness techniques. In addition to his articles and YouTube videos, he provides a monthly guided-meditation session via Skype.
Whether they know it or not, many athletes have experienced the deep concentration that mindfulness practice can bring. In sports we call this concentration being in “the zone.” While in the zone, athletes report being completely focused on each moment as it comes and being able to ignore the outside world. However, just as many athletes have noticed that their ability to stay in the zone fluctuates. A high-pressure situation or emotional events from one’s personal life can make concentration during a game difficult.
A systematic meditation practice can help athletes get in the zone more frequently. Keep in mind you might not see instant results. Meditation can be very beneficial, but a 15-minute session before a game doesn’t guarantee the performance of a lifetime. It takes consistent practice and time to see consistent results. However, just because you don’t notice an immediate change after a meditation session doesn’t mean you aren’t improving your concentration abilities. The work you do during meditation builds up over time and little by little your concentration will improve.
What is mindfulness?
If you can observe your thoughts and emotions with equanimity, then you are practicing mindfulness. Put another way, to be mindful is to be aware without passing judgment.
For example: You are running and your back feels a little sore. Your mind might begin a series of thoughts about that fact, trying to figure out why you are sore, thinking about how to prevent being sore next time, or emotional feelings, like anxiety, may crop up. This is how our mind works. If you are practicing mindfulness, you are able to just observe these thoughts without engaging with them. You notice the soreness, and any subsequent thoughts about it, and accept it as it is. You don’t try to change the feeling of pain or your thoughts about it.
You don’t have to go above and beyond to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Setting small, easily obtainable goals makes it less difficult to begin a new habit. Aim to practice sitting meditation for five minutes a day. That’s it. After you’ve been able to commit to five minutes a day for a few weeks, you can increase your sessions to 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, and so on.
What it looks like
Here might be a typical line of thoughts during a mindfulness session. You sit down, ready to begin. You decide to focus on your breathing. You begin.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
Shoot, I should go to the bank tomorrow, but when? I’m so busy. Tomorrow’s Grandma’s birthday. Did I send her a card? She loved my card last year. I’ll have to call her…oh yeah, I’m supposed to be meditating now.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in –
Ouch, I’m sore from last practice. I thought I was getting in better shape. I’ll have to do more burpees at home and then make sure I really stretch. I…oh meditating.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
How long have I been sitting here? Probably 15 minutes, at least. I’ll just check the clock. What? Only three minutes have passed. Ok, gotta make it to five minutes. Go back to focusing on your breath.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
Originally published in April 2014