It is becoming more and more commonplace for athletes and performers to tout the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Legendary coach, Phil Jackson, likely played a key role in popularizing mindfulness as a method of performance enhancement when he hired George Mumford to teach mindfulness to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and later Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. In the subsequent years, athletes and performers have continued to look to the simple meditative practice for a competitive edge.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, journalist Tania Ganguli reported on how current Lakers such as LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma make mindfulness meditation a regular part of their routine. Ganguli noted that Lebron, who has meditated for years, practices mindfulness on a daily basis. She also noted that Kuzma has found it helpful to practice mindfulness as a part of his pregame routine, which helps him to enter a relaxed and focused state.
How exactly does mindfulness help athletes to improve their performance? Ganguli interviewed Kristen Race, a mindfulness expert, whose explanation is quoted below:
“If you look at functional MRI scans of meditators, you see increased stimulation in the prefrontal cortex,” said Kristen Race, who has a doctorate in psychology and is the founder of Mindful Life Today. “You see a thickening of the gray matter. You see a shrinking of the amygdala which is responsible for the flight or fight response.”
She called the prefrontal cortex the “more sophisticated” part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making, problem-solving and wise responses to stress. Just like using another muscle in the body strengthens it, using the prefrontal cortex to meditate strengthens it.
While Race acknowledged that some stress is necessary for an athlete to perform well, too much can cause problems. She used the example of shooting free throws.
“When we get too deep into our survival mechanisms,” Race said, “our muscles get tense, our senses sharpen. That’s how you survive. But if your muscles get tense when you’re about to make a free throw, you can’t make the free throw.”
Mindfulness meditation can be used by athletes and performers of all levels. It’s been used by the greats who require only one name, such as Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron. But, it can also be used by high school athletes looking for a competitive edge or a business people interested in improving their performance. If you would like to learn more about how the Lakers are currently using mindfulness you can read Ganguli’s article in the Los Angeles Times here. If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness can be used to improve performance you can contact us to schedule a free phone consultation.
Author Dr. Jason von Stietz specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Sport/Performance Psychology in Torrance, CA.