Meditation has done more for the mental part of my game than anything else I’ve ever done. Period. As crazy as that may sound, it’s true.
I’ve been practicing meditation consistently now for about a year and a half and I’ve seen dramatic changes in my life and my game.
In this post, I'm going to share my specific meditation practice and how it has improved my game. I’m sharing this in the hopes that it either...(1) encourages you to give meditation a shot or (2) inspires you to recommit to your own routine.
My Meditation Practice
I wake up every morning and the first thing I do is meditate for 10 minutes. It’s a very simple routine that has 3 steps. Here’s how it works:
The Set Up
I sit comfortably in a chair (preferably outside and in a quiet space) with relaxed, upright posture and my feet flat on the floor. I close my eyes and begin.
For a minute or so I breathe deeply with the goal of relaxing my body. I breathe in for about 4 seconds, hold for a few seconds, and breathe out slowly for about 7 seconds (the exact length isn’t crucial as long as the exhale is longer than the inhale). As I breathe out, I imagine the stress and tension melting away as I sink into the chair and the floor.
Once I feel relaxed, I spend a minute or two doing a mental body scan. I start at the top of my head, noticing the sensations and feelings that exist. I slowly work my way down my body, noting any sensations of discomfort, tingling, warmth, heaviness, the pressure of the chair etc. This exercise ends once I reach the soles of my feet and feel my feet on the floor.
For the remaining 7-8 minutes, I simply focus on my breathing. I notice the rise and fall of my chest and stomach and the moment of stillness between each breath.
The most important part of my meditation occurs when my mind inevitably wanders off. I’ll start thinking about what I’m going to eat for breakfast or my workout for the day. When I realize that my mind has wandered, I bring my thoughts back to my breathing.
When my timer goes off after 10 minutes, I'm done.
***Update: As of April, 2017 I've bumped this up to 20 minutes in total, simply adding all 10 minutes to step 3.
That’s it. It’s very simple and can easily be incorporated into a morning routine.
The Most Common Pitfall
Over time, I’ve found that I’m able to keep my mind focused on my breathing for longer stretches (although I still have days where I can barely stay focused for more than one breath). However, for any beginners out there, be prepared for your mind to wander relentlessly.
When I first began, I couldn’t focus for more than a breath or two. And once I realized my mind was wandering yet again I would get frustrated and angry that I couldn’t do something that seemed so simple.
I tried to grit my teeth and will my my focus back to my breathing. With that strategy, I didn’t last long and ended up quitting after a few days.
It was only once I was advised to return to my breathing in a gentle and non-judgmental way that I was able to stick with meditation and begin to see improvement over time.
My meditation practice is based on the concept of mindfulness, which is supported by a growing body of scientific studies that I won't dive into here.
The idea behind mindfulness meditation is that you can train you brain to get stronger. Just like doing reps on the bench press will strengthen your muscles, mindfulness meditation can do the same for your mind.
That’s the reason for keeping your attention focused on your breathing. Every time your mind wanders, it takes a certain cognitive effort to return your focus to your breathing. You can think of that effort as a rep for your brain.
What I didn’t understand before I began meditating is that the most important benefits don’t actually show up while I’m meditating. Rather, they show up in all other areas of my life--including when I'm on the court.
Specifically, how has meditation improved my game?
Responding rather than reacting
By nature, I’m a pretty even-keeled guy. But even so, it’s easy to react automatically to a negative event.
Let’s take an example: Say the ref makes a bad call against you. Immediately and automatically, many players will get angry and frustrated. But why? You have no control over what the ref does and allowing that event (that you can’t control) to dictate your emotions is frankly, stupid.
However, meditation has given me the awareness to break the automatic chain reaction between some event and my reaction.
I feel like I can now choose my response rather than allow an unconscious reaction to control me. As a result I can respond consciously in a way that’s more beneficial to my performance.
If I feel tired and sore, I can more closely analyze whether I’m just being soft and need to push through it or if I should take a day off to recover.
If I tweak my ankle, I can more better assess whether I’m actually injured or whether the pain is temporary and I should push through it.
If I’m exhausted during a drill and feel like quitting or slowing down, I can take a moment and consciously override my instinct to take it easy and force my body to give a little extra effort.
Feel anger, don’t get angry
Thanks to meditation, when an emotion arises, I’m much more likely to be aware of it. Once I recognize it I can minimize it’s influence.
For example, if I get the ball stolen from me, I’m probably going to feel angry and a little embarrassed. And if I let those emotions control me, I’m not going to be at my best.
The difference now is that I can separate feeling anger from actually getting angry. In other words, I don’t have to respond to an emotion just because it’s there.
Meditation hasn’t made me some kind of emotionless robot or anything. I still feel emotions very strongly. But it’s given me the ability to not let my emotions control my decisions.
The thoughts that go through our heads are crazy. And for me, they’re extremely critical. I could go for 25 and dish out 10 assists and I’ll be beating myself up over that open three I missed or the one turnover I had.
Meditation has helped me quiet this internal critic and replace it with more beneficial thoughts.
I’m by no means perfect at this. If I talked to a friend the way I talked to myself, well, they wouldn’t be my friend anymore.
But, I'm now better able to recognize when I’m unnecessarily beating myself up. From there I can consciously insert more constructive thoughts in its place.
Focus and attention span
This shows up for me mostly in my training. It’s incredibly easy to zone out when you’re working on a basic drill or at the end of a long workout.
When you’re mind wanders, the value of each rep diminishes massively. As cheesy as it sounds, every rep counts. And by practicing when you’re not fully engaged mentally, you’re wasting time on the court.
As Kobe said, "It's not about the number of hours you practice, it's about the number of hours your mind is present during practice."
Since beginning meditation I’ve found that I can quickly notice when I’m losing focus. Once I’m aware of it, it’s much easier to have the presence of mind to consciously bring my attention back to the current rep.
If it seems outrageous that a specific, tiny exercise has these broad-ranging benefits, you’re not alone. If I told myself about these supposed "benefits" a year and a half ago I would’ve called B.S. I would’ve thought I was either straight up lying or crazy.
Fortunately, I’m not lying and (as far as I can tell) I’m not crazy. Meditation is for real. It's done more to improve the mental part of my game than anything else I’ve ever tried.
If you want to start meditating, I highly recommend an app called headspace. It has guided meditations that are helpful for both beginners and advanced meditators.
Take their free 10 for 10 challenge, where you follow a simple guided meditation for 10 minutes a day for 10 days. If you don’t like it after that, then stop. But give it a fair try and see where it takes you. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.