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Athletic Mind. Athletic Body

Yoga Sports Coach™, Harry Jennings explores the confluence of neurology, sports psychology and yoga.

For coaches and clubs looking to gain a performance advantage, sports psychology has become an accepted norm, and many, if not most, elite athletes and clubs either employ or consult with a sports psychologist. As a long-time yoga practitioner, a long time competitor and coach in soccer, and now a certified yoga sports coach, I have always felt there is a connection between sports psychology and yoga; recently published scientific research is beginning to bear my hypothesis out. In addition to having common goals (ultimately improved performance), yoga and sports psychology have common philosophical and historical links. Both are holistic in nature, and while both have outcomes that are measurable and directly attributable to the practice, the “soft” benefits of sports psychology and yoga, those that are not a strict single action leading to measured effect, are often the most important for the athletes. Both yoga and sports psychology work to optimize other areas of the athletes work, the synergy thus providing added benefit that, while very real, is not easily quantifiable.

The advances in neuroscience of the past generation have given us new methods of measurement and avenues of research in sports performance. In the last decade especially, science is testing modalities for performance enhancement and we are beginning to see not only that, yes, certain practices work (and are not just traditional myths) but we are also gaining insight into how they work. Among the knowledge we now have is how yoga can positively impact the neural chemistry of an athlete, and thus is not only coherent with, but can actively be a tool used in, a training program for a healthy mind as well as a healthy body.

Yoga and sports psychology share a common historical link in that both are ancient practices, but both in relative infancy in their scientific application. Although a modern hatha yoga practice might be foreign to a yogi of 2000 years ago, they are on a continuum of practice, and likewise while the work of a modern sports neurologist may be radically different from a pep talk given to a runner in the dolichos at Olympia 2500 years ago, there is a continuity of intent and a direct lineage between those events. While mental motivational techniques are as old as sport itself, sports psychology, as a scientific discipline, is a very recent development. The American Psychological Association has only recognized it as a proficiency since 2003. Very broadly, sports psychology can be seen as an outgrowth of positive psychology, first championed by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1990s. That is, rather that working from a disease model, sports psychology addresses optimal performance and well-being of the athlete.

Yoga practitioners in sport know from personal experience that yoga is not just good for the body, it is good for the mind as well. Science takes a skeptical view, and increasingly the objective measurements of science are explaining the benefits practitioners have touted. A 2007 study in Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine showed a 27% increase in GABA, a neurotransmitter, after a one hour yoga practice compared to a control, suggesting yoga provides a neuro-chemical response to counter anxiety. A 2004 literature review in Journal of Physiology & Pharmacology showed a wide range of positive affects of yoga on stress response, improvement in resilience, and mind-body awareness. Working from a disease model, David Shapiro of UCLA found in a 2007 study on depression that yoga practitioners showed physiological responses such as heart rate variability that are indicative of a greater capacity for emotional regulation.

Sports psychology, though encompassing a wide range of issues in sport, above all faces performance anxiety, and emotional control issues of keeping the athlete “on task.” Dr. Steve Peters, writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry earlier this year defined the role of the psychiatrist in sport in part as “giving athletes . . . insight into the workings of the mind and application of this can significantly enhance performance in sport.” Yoga, with its demonstrated neurological benefits, can be a tool in the athlete’s arsenal that complements and optimizes the work of the sports psychologist, and vice-versa.

One of the goals I have working with yoga for footballers is to give them an insight into the working of the body, so that they can take full advantage of the performance envelope they have developed through years of hard training. As with positive psychology, we are not working from a disease model of what is wrong, but instead a positive model of what is right. The training in the gym, pool, road, or pitch is where the athlete expands his or her performance envelope, the headroom of how much they can accomplish. The sports psychologist and the yoga coach work not so much to expand that headroom, but to assist the athlete in reaching the potential performance allowed by training. Where the yoga coach and sports psychologist work in concert is providing means of feedback for the athlete for emotional, mental, and physical states. In Formula One, telemetry provides feedback for the engineers to optimize the machine. Yoga and sports psychology is the telemetry for the athlete to communicate with coaches, physios, and trainers to optimize all of the skills and abilities the athlete has to perform at his or her absolute best.

To find out more about Harry, go to his profile page.

Train to be a Yoga Sports Coach - today!

Harry will be spending a portion of December 2012 with Leeds United LFC in the Women's Premier League.

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