By Ashleigh Boyce, High School Teacher, Fitness Instructor, Coach
When it comes to youth sports and even college and professional level sports, we often find that our athletes are training for an exponential amount of time in the weight room and on the field… but there is an element missing that could have a hugely positive impact on our growing and fully-grown athletes. That element? Yoga.
While yoga can be utilized as a physical practice to stretch, strengthen, and tone the physical body, there are elements of yoga that can help to strengthen the mental and emotional bodies of our athletes. Breathwork, meditation, and visualization are tools used by some of our most well-known athletes, such as the late Kobe Bryant, and his good friend Dwayne Wade. You’ve maybe even caught episodes of Hard Knocks, where we’ve seen some of our NFL teams utilize yoga in their training. The components of yoga practices can not only help the recovery of our athletes and allow space for muscular growth, but can help athletes to better focus during practices and games, and allow them to rewire the body to remain calm during high-stress situations.
Yoga & Training
As mentioned, many of our athletes spend hours training each week in the weight room or on the field. With differentiated training, their goals may be to increase muscle mass or increase flexibility, agility and balance. The progression of our yoga poses can help lead to muscular growth and strength in the physical body, according to an article by Annette Khayela (2021), and in turn can help to supplement other training modalities. The mind-body-breath connection utilized throughout the yoga practice can also help athletes as they find those connections in their weightlifting and training programs. Recovery is hugely important when it comes to our athletes. Taking the time to make space within the body and stretch the muscles does help lead to muscular growth, but it also helps athletes to recover and can aid in injury prevention. Overall, we know that yoga’s physical practices can help athletes with their balance, flexibility, range of motion and agility. These reasons alone could be why one chooses to incorporate yoga practices into their training… but there is more.
Breathwork and Training
Breathwork can be utilized for many different purposes including developing our mind-body connection, stimulating the vagus nerve, calming the nervous system,energizing the physical body, and increasing focus. Breathwork is a tool used by many yogis that can be extremely beneficial to athletes. Incorporating breathwork into the training of our athletes can help aid in healthier heart functioning and stronger lung capacities. According to The Excelling Edge, diaphragmatic breathing, or deep belly breathing, can help athletes to increase coordination, calm the nervous system by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system), increase concentration, and can help athletes process information faster. Breathwork alone can make a huge difference in the performance of athletes within practice and performances. Not only can breathwork aid our athletes’ physical performances but it can also aid athletes in the moments where game plays or outcomes don’t always go their way. Breathwork helps individuals with emotional control, therefore contributing to less outbursts and more sportsmanlike conduct. The ability to regulate emotions through breath can help athletes to not only “get out of their heads” but also allows them to be more resilient when faced with unfavorable outcomes or situations on or off the field. Another great breathwork to utilize, other than diaphragmatic breathwork, is the 4-7-8 method. The Sustainable Training Method, encourages the use of 4-7-8 post workout to increase recovery, lower cortisol (stress hormone), and to help settle into that parasympathetic nervous system. This is a great tool to utilize after your workout and even before heading to sleep.
Meditation & Visualization
In a study conducted in the 1980s at the University of Chicago, a basketball team was split into 3 separate groups by a sports psychologist, Judd Biasiotto. Group 1 was instructed to practice free throws every day for an hour, Group 2 was asked to simply just visualize themselves making free throws, and Group 3 was asked not to practice or think about free throws. At the end of the month, Biasiotto tested the students and while the third group showed no improvement, the first group improved their initial scores by 24% and the second group improved by 23% (Stryker, L. 2022). That is a 1% difference between the group who physically practiced and the group who practiced visualization. Now imagine the difference in the initial and post tests if we added in a group who practiced AND visualized. According to Linda Stryker, PhD, some scientific studies have shown that training the mind through practices such as meditation and visualization can alter the structure of the brain. This is a missing key in so many of our athletes that can help with those pre-game nerves, the confidence they have stepping on their court or field, and even their overall athletic performance throughout the competition or game.
How Do We Break the Barriers?
I’ve found myself in many conversations debating the importance of these components of yoga and mindfulness in our athletes. I’ve been met with every reason why people haven’t incorporated it into their athletes’ training programs or even into their own training programs. They may not prioritize it in their training, they may have certain stigmas regarding yoga practices, or they may fear not being “good enough” at these practices.
These practices have such incredibly positive benefits for our athletes: increasing healthy heart function, regulating the nervous systems, decreasing stress hormones, increasing confidence, regulating emotions, and increasing muscular growth, flexibility, balance and agility. Will these practices come easy? No. Will they take work? Yes. The data is there to support the implementation of these practices but it is the mindset that needs to catch up.
Breathwork, yoga practices, and visualization can be an absolute game changer for our athletes if we start to encourage them from a young age. As we all know, coaches and parents have a huge impact on the training regimens of their athletes. They determine when they show up, what they show up for, what they’re training, and where their focus is.
So the question is – what are you doing to make sure your athletes are showing up at their best, both in the present moment and in the future?
Ashleigh Boyce, High School Teacher, Fitness Instructor, Coach
Ashleigh is a diehard Jersey girl and health enthusiast. Ashleigh grew up as a three sport athlete and currently is a high school health and PE teacher, as well as a fitness instructor and lacrosse coach. Ashleigh came into yoga after two knee surgeries and is a firm believer in finding contentment within our yoga practice as well as outside of it. She believes we should be proud of each step of our journey, enjoying the growth process throughout it, having fun, and not being fearful of challenges. Ashleigh’s love of books, laughing, fitness and hard work along with her light, fun energy will bring you a flow that challenges you physically, inspires you mentally and encourages you spiritually.