Yoga & Sports Performance

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I have the privilege to gain access to high performance athletes in my line of work and I know the importance of mental toughness and resilience that’s required for the athlete to perform in the competitive setting. Daily training environment may prepare them physically in terms of skills training, strength and conditioning. Nothing can replicate the demands in a real game setting – in terms of focus, resilience, mental toughness, etc. So I am personally interested to explore on how yoga has helped in sports performance on the mental aspect; and hence this article.

While it is a known fact that Yoga is gaining popularity over the last decade; it is also gaining popularity as a performance enhancer in sports. As I research into Yoga & sports performance, there is a myriad of articles online that talks about how yoga can help with the performance during competition, and there are also many benefits for the individual.

Physical benefits
Yoga’s benefits of improved flexibility, balance and strength — including core strength — are critical components for injury prevention. I have personally heard many athletes saying that they are not flexible, their hamstrings are tight… and they have a preconceived idea about yoga being slow and boring because sports is dynamic and adrenaline driven. They dread stretching because it does not come naturally to them. However, it is essential for increasing longevity in any sport.

The breath
Yoga incorporates breathing techniques that aim to connect the body and the mind. Proper breathing techniques can increase VO2 max and calm the nervous system. Breath work can improve athletic performance by building stamina and reducing performance anxiety, and most people don’t use their lungs to their full capacity. Breathing techniques can help athletes breathe more efficiently and so the body is actually taking less effort to do the same amount of work. Athletes who use breathing techniques to calm down can also focus better. Imagery or visualisation, a common technique employed by sports psychologists, can have a more pronounced effect when coupled with efficient breathing techniques, that I am sure.

Mental benefits
Athletes are often focused on accomplishments and quantifying their training, but yoga teaches a lot about discipline, about slowing down and about practicing something without the intent to accomplish anything.
Regular yoga practice can also help an athlete to achieve a mental boost that they aren’t necessarily going to get from their sport training. This mental boost might make a difference on the field or the race course, especially in stressful situations and when decision making is involved.
“Science is now proving the mind overrides our physiology,” according to Julie Rader, a Yoga Sports Coach. “This translates to athletic performance in an athlete’s ability to do things most humans cannot, simply because they focus their mind and believe it is possible. This is how some athletes always seem to pull through when all of the odds are against them”.

A focused athlete is unstoppable. Most athletes at the elite level are extremely physically fit. The athletes who excel and rise to the top are the ones who have a strong, relaxed and focused mind.

Several academic studies have highlighted what yoga can do for athletes. Various research has found that practicing yoga:
– Improved VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise).
– Improved flexibility and balance.
– Reduced stress and can keep child athletes mentally and physically fit.
– Improved basketball performance.
– Increased efficiency among short-track speed skaters.

Another study demonstrated that using diaphragmatic pranayama (breathing) exercises in yoga reduced exercise-induced oxidative stress in athletes.

It is not just the asanas that are beneficial, many benefits from practising the pranayama to increase lung capacity, increase mental capacity and reduce anxiety.

Beyond flexibility and balance, athletes are using yoga to strengthen their bodies and minds to boost their athletic performance. In short, Yoga creates a greater body and mind awareness needed for athletes to perform at their best.