Meditation for Athletes / by James Leath

I meditate daily. It's the first thing I do after making coffee.

When I was younger, I didn't understand what meditation was. I always associate it with some guru on a mountain away from civilization. Honestly, I thought it was pretty stupid and for weirdos.

I pulled my hamstring my junior year during a football game. The trainer said I would miss the next game, and that was just unacceptable. It drove me crazy. The following Monday I was in the library, and I ran across an old video of the late great Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton. The only game he missed in his 13-year career was in his rookie season of 1975. That is incredible for any football player, especially a running back. 

I watched the video right there in the library during my lunch break. The lessons I took from that one interview stay with me to this day. In the days after a game, feeling beat up with aches and pains all over his body, he would sit in silence and imagine blood cells carrying healing properties to his injuries. With each deep breath, he would imagine all that good oxygen go right into that hurt area, and with the exhale, all the injured cells would be repaired. He said he would do this for an hour at a time. 

So, I tried it. I had nothing to lose. I made it maybe five minutes before I had to get up and do something. My hamstring still hurt really bad, but I felt a sense of calm that, as a high school student and all the craziness that goes into that, I hadn't felt before. 

In the training room during practice, while my leg as being iced, I closed my eyes and tried it again. After a few minutes, I had the sensation that I was warming up my hamstring despite being covered with ice. When done with my ice session, I felt great--physically and mentally. 

I kept doing it all week long. Ten minutes when waking up, 20 minutes in the training room while being iced, then however long it took me to fall asleep that night. 

On Thursday, I was cleared by the trainer to play in the game the next night. Even though I wrapped my leg for support, I don't think I needed it. That was one of my best games of the season. 

Two lessons I learned. One, the mind can be focused to do way more than we allow it to do because of all the things in life that distract it. Music blasting, social media updates, Netflix, etc. And two, sitting in silence for a few minutes each day strengthens the mind and allows for a more focused, calm effort amid the chaos around me. 

You see, meditation isn't about getting rid of your thoughts. It's about learning to be at ease with them. Doing this every day gives you the mental strength to have a calm head when everyone else around you is losing theirs!

I use Headspace ( There are other great apps, I'm sure, but Headspace is the one I use. Ten minutes in the morning, and sometimes if I am having trouble getting to sleep at night. You don't need an app, though. Set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes, find a comfortable, safe place to sit, and count your breaths. Inhale 1, exhale 2, inhale 3, exhale 4. Anytime you find your mind is wandering, gentle push those thoughts away and get back to focusing on your breathing. 

That's it. I recommend adding it to your pre-practice and pre-game routine. Give it a few days in a row, and I know you will find it will add tremendous value to your life like it has mine.