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We watch the Olympics and other sports competitions to marvel at athletes’ feats of physical performance. But their training isn’t all physical—and it doesn’t end with the closing ceremony. Elite competitors understand that mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can keep them mentally and emotionally fit before, during, and after an event.
It makes sense that athletes would include yoga as part of their workout regimen. It increases strength, flexibility, and endurance, according to Elizabeth G. Matzkin, MD, of the Women’s Sports Medicine Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. But yoga can also help athletes stay even-keeled as they cope with the stresses of preparing for an event, and the inevitable letdown that happens when the competition is over.
Keep your head in the game
When India shut down during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, rifle shooter Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar found himself feeling out of sorts. He missed being able to train with his coaches and teammates.
“I became a bit short-tempered. I got irritated at very small things,” he says. He turned to morning yoga and meditation to help him keep calm while he waited to find out the status of the Olympic Games and whether he’d be able to compete.
After he received permission to train again, he would practice yoga before going to the shooting range each morning. “It helps me focus and concentrate,” he says.
Single-pointed focus—the kind yogis cultivate when we practice dharana and dhyana—is what sports psychologists hope to cultivate in their athletes. Indeed, coaches think it’s what separates the champions from the also-rans. Being able to block out distractions and bring full attention to the competition helps athletes get into “The Zone.” This is the mental state that allows them to lock their focus and perform their best.
When the thrill is gone
When the competition is over and the adrenaline rush slows, athletes can use yoga and mindfulness to mitigate the impact of the “Let-Down Effect.” This is a phenomenon that happens after you’re on the other side of a stressful period.
“When we de-stress too rapidly, it can lead to biochemical changes that actually result in a weakened immunity,” according to Marc Shoen, a lead researcher on this condition. People may find themselves feeling depressed, anxious, panicky, or even physically ill. It can happen after completing a big project, a major event, or, say, a major international sporting event.
Margaux Isaksen, who competed in the pentathlon in the 2012 and 2016 games, called this period “post-Olympic depression.” The lights and cameras are gone; the competition you’ve been building up to is over. Athletes describe feelings of emptiness and loss.
Rely on your practice
Isaksen says doing yoga and spending time outdoors helped her boost her spirits. The physical practice can help regulate serotonin production; the philosophical side of yoga encourages a balanced mindset.
One of the best ways to avoid a big emotional crash is to try to stay balanced throughout the stressful period. Use meditation, rhythmic breathing, or other relaxation techniques to decompress when stress arises, suggests Dr. Nieca Goldberg, of NYU’s Langone Medical Center. Take short breaks from the stressful activity as often as possible.
Once the stressful situation is over, lean on your breathwork and meditation practice to lower your heart rate, reduce blood pressure and cultivate calm. Experts say a good way to come down from an intense adrenaline rush is to do moderate physical exercise. Once again, it’s yoga for the win.
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