For 15 minutes a day, Tim Frazier, Penn State's senior point guard, finds a quiet place, switches on a podcast, and meditates. Along with his teammates, Frazier, the team's all-time leader in assists, has found that practicing mindfulness meditation - focusing on the breath with his eyes closed and becoming aware of his thoughts without judging them - has amped up his performance on the court.
"The game moves so fast, it's hard to focus on the here and now," said Frazier, who is pretty fleet of foot himself. "Meditation slows me down [mentally], keeps me more relaxed and more focused."
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help manage anxiety, depression and pain, according to 47 studies analyzed in JAMA Internal Medicine. It also helps to reduce anxiety and stress in cancer patients, studies show.
But now elite athletes from Penn State's Frazier to the NFL champion Seattle Seahawks are using meditation and yoga to enhance performance and avoid destructive habits like dwelling on mistakes.
"Sometimes during the game, you focus on whether past plays were good or bad," Frazier said, "but meditation brings you back to the play at hand."
The meditation podcasts for his Penn State team are recorded by Cara Bradley, director of Verge Yoga Center and Verge Athlete in Wayne, to supplement her regular visits to Happy Valley. Bradley, a certified strength coach who also works as a mental strength coach, has taught meditation to the Villanova football team over 10 seasons, including the 2009 FCS National Championship team.
She said she can always tell if teams are unified mentally. The Seahawks used a sports psychologist to teach the team meditation, and they "were unstoppable" in the Super Bowl, she said. "They were so collective in their energy."
"I go into a room with 90 guys and tell them I'm here to train their minds to stay calm and composed in the fire of competition," Bradley added. "And they respond."
Mindfulness meditation applies techniques honed by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It uses the physical sensation of the breath going in and out as an anchor to focus on again and again. When a thought arises that distracts from the breath, meditators observe it with curiosity rather than judgment, then return to following the breath.
This deceptively simple practice is taken seriously at Villanova. Weekly yoga and meditation sessions "have helped my players become more focused and controlled," said football coach Andy Talley.
Awareness of the moment helps players react less to situations, both positive and negative.
"Part of mindfulness is to learn to observe situations rather than automatically reacting to them," said Diane Reibel, director of the Mindfulness Institute at Jefferson University Hospital, which holds public classes. "Mindfulness teaches you to pause for a split second and notice, for example, 'oh, yes, anger is rising.' It gives you a way to approach the anger without acting on it. You can choose to use that energy in a positive, rather than negative way. Outcomes can be different; you have a choice."
Athletes often fail in large and small ways, and how they react can be crucial to long-term success. "What impairs performance more than anything during competition is the effect of negative emotions on biology and on the ability to maintain perspective and continue to perform at the level at which you're capable," said Michael Baime, an internist and director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness, which also offers programs for the public.
"Mindfulness practice really isn't that different from athletic training," Baime said. "If you want to get neuroscientific about it, mindfulness practice changes the structure of the brain through which awareness operates. Just as running increases the strength of the quadriceps muscle, mindfulness practice strengthens the executive control function of the brain."
"Elite athletic performance is mostly a mental game," Baime said. "Mindfulness improves working memory and what you're able to do in the moment of a challenging situation. It helps you to focus on the information you need to perform."
Pat Chambers, the Penn State men's basketball coach, also said meditation has helped his teams cut through the clutter of daily life.
"There are so many distractions with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. that I think you need a solution on how you can rid yourself of all that for a few minutes to refocus," he said. "My hope is that before practice, our guys can find a technique they like to clear their heads. That for a few hours they can stop worrying about their test the next day or the argument they had with a friend, so that once they step on the court, all they are worried about is getting better today."
To train athletes, Bradley uses yoga to introduce them to meditation.
She takes them into challenging physical poses, such as a standing frog where they are bent forward with feet apart. And then she walks them "through their minds to help them get to the other side of any tightness or fear or doubt. I have them hold the pose and through breathing and coaching, I work to get their minds to the other side of any discomfort."
"When you're present you have access to the most subtle shifts in guidance, the sense of where your body should be. We also have a sense of where our teammates are on court or the field."
Chambers said that he's "absolutely" noticed changes in how some Nittany Lions players perform on the court. "The ability to make a mistake and move on is so critical in basketball," he said.
A final aspect of mindfulness that may benefit athletes is the compassion component. While compassion may seem paradoxical in the cutthroat world of competition, Reibel points to research showing that self-compassion rather than self-criticism can be a huge motivator.
"Picture an athlete who missed the field goal. What does he do now? He could spend time beating himself up over it or say, 'I'm human, I make mistakes, and I'll do better next time,' " Reibel said.
Frazier agrees. "Sometimes during the game, you focus on whether past plays were good or bad," he said, "but meditation brings you back to the play at hand."