Meditation for Athletic Performance

By Dan Peterson

We’ve looked at the importance of Alpha EEG rhythms before, and the association of higher Alpha levels and success on pressure-intensive, precise activities like free throw shooting, and putting performance in golf. Given this correlation, it seems significant to athletes that a recent study from researchers at Harvard Medical School provides evidence that mindfulness meditation may enhance our ability to control our alpha rhythm levels. Via Medical News Today:

The study tested 12 healthy volunteers with no previous experience in meditation. Half completed the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed at the University of Massachusetts. The other half were asked not to engage in any type of meditation during the study period. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), an imaging technique that detects the location of brain activity with extreme precision, the researchers measured participants’ alpha rhythms before, during and after the eight-week period. Specifically, they measured alpha rhythms in the brain area that processes signals from the left hand while participants were asked to direct their attention to either their left hand or left foot. Participants’ abilities to adjust the alpha rhythm in cortical cells associated with the hand, depending on where their attention was directed, were recorded during the milliseconds immediately after they received an attention cue.

The results showed that the subjects who completed the mindfulness meditation program showed significant differences in their ability to control and modulate their alpha rhythms. As for the larger meaning behind the study:

The study also sheds light on how meditation may affect basic brain function, explains Stephanie Jones, PhD, of the Martinos Center, co-lead author of the paper. “Given what we know about how alpha waves arise from electrical currents in sensory cortical cells, these data suggest that mindfulness meditation practitioners can use the mind to enhance regulation of currents in targeted cortical cells. The implications extend far beyond meditation and give us clues about possible ways to help people better regulate a brain rhythm that is dysregulated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.”

It is yet another piece of the growing body of evidence for the case that mindfulness meditation is a potent tool for changing the way the brain functions, and even the structure of the brain. A study last year conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon demonstrated that mindfulness meditation training can very rapidly lead to white matter growth in the brain. A literature review around mindfulness meditation shows that it can significantly improve behavioral and biological markers as diverse as mood control, immune function, and stress hormone levels.

These studies prompt obvious questions about whether athletes ought to be practicing mindfulness meditation to enhance their performance, especially with respect to the clutch situations where performance has already been tied to alpha rhythm levels and a quiet brain. The question of whether mindfulness meditation training has any effect on sports performance has not been extensively studied, although this 1996 study demonstrated a significant improvement in shooting performance among marksmen after meditation training. It is a research area that seems overdue for exploration.

For more on how meditation changes the brain, see this excellent interview with Michael Posner of the University of Oregon on NPR’s Science Friday.

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