The Mind of an Athlete

When the women’s squash team at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, began practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique in 2010, they were hoping to make their team experience less stressful and more enjoyable. Little did they know that it would also lead them to the top of their game, finishing the 2010 season as number three in the nation, an amazing feat for a small school. In 2013 and 2014, the team captured the number one spot, edging out much larger schools like Harvard and Penn State.

It all started when Dr. Randy Lee, associate professor of psychology and assistant coach, who was already doing some work with the students to help them reduce stress and improve focus, read the research on TM.

“I’m a scientist and I wanted to see the data,” said Dr. Lee. “There were 700 research studies, and I looked a lot of them up. It occurred to me that TM, given what I’d seen in the research, might be a perfect mesh with what we were already doing,” he said.

The team, who practiced TM together as a group, noticed right away that it made them calmer. Team member Tehani Guruge from Shri Lanka said, “TM helped calm me down. I used to get really angry on court. After TM the anger went away.”

Head coach Wendy Bartlett also noticed the difference. “In general we’re certainly a calmer team,” she said. “We’ve had just as many challenges this year as we’ve had any other year, but we were able to handle them better.”

Some students even found that it helped them reach the “zone,” that coveted space of mental calm and peak performance that many top athletes experience.

“Before I wasn’t able to focus completely on the game and was distracted by external factors like the audience,” says Nour Bahgat, a student-athlete from Egypt. “TM really helped me to get into the zone. Being in the zone is very important to an athlete because that’s the point where you can perform at your best level, so it was a great thing to learn.”

Alicia Rodriguez, a student from Mexico, reported a similar experience. “Whenever I meditated before a match, my body was so relaxed and my mind so calm. I was thinking on nothing. You already know how to play, so if your mind is calm your body will respond automatically.”

TM also helped the students with their studies. Emily Paton from Canada reported, “This year, especially, we got into a really good routine and schedule. It helped doing TM. Everyone said that after TM we’re so much more relieved and have more energy to go and do our studies afterwards. That’s not usually the case after playing hard.”

McCrea Davison from the US went on to say, “I notice that with the appropriate amount of study, every time I meditate before a major test I haven’t gotten below a 90. I think it’s because I’m more relaxed going into the test, and we learned in our class on the brain that when you’re stressed out your pre-frontal cortex shuts down so you’re not making good judgments and you can’t recall things as well.”

Research on people who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique shows that academic performance improves in students who practice TM. And in addition, reaction time is faster, energy increases, and the mind becomes calmer and more focused. All of these qualities come into play when performing sports.

Emily Lindon, a psychology major at Trinity College, studied the effects of the TM technique in promoting self-efficacy for her senior thesis. Self-efficacy is one’s belief in their ability to accomplish a certain task. According to research, someone who thinks more highly of herselftends to perform at a higher level.

“One of the groups that we studied was the Trinity College women’s squash team. We definitely found an increase in self-efficacy among the pre- and post-tests for those girls.”

Dr. Randy Lee thinks this makes sense. “The most important squash is played on the six-inch court between their ears,” he says. “And I think that is true for most sports. There is that mental peace. Our women are able to say, ‘OK, I can do this. I don’t need to worry about the scores, or what’s happening. I can make this happen.’ ”

With professional athletes like two-time World Series champion and Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito practicing the TM technique, it may just be a matter of time before other athletes discover its performance-enhancing and life-enhancing effects.

“With TM we have a whole new technique to begin to explore more to improve performance for almost any sport,” says Dr. Lee. “I can’t think of a sport I would exclude. It seems to me it can only bring positive outcomes.”

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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