Developing strong mental skills is an important aspect of achieving success in any sport. Even though this is an accepted fact many don’t take the time to focus on them. It is often because of time restraints and the lack of practical ways to do so.
People commonly see yoga as a series of physical skills that improve strength, mobility and body awareness. Yoga is also an incredible way to work on your mental skills while developing your physical abilities.
In his book Mental Skills for Competitive Swimmers world renowned sports psychologist Dr. John Hogg lists several key skills needed to create an ideal performance state.
Yoga is a practical way to develop a number of those including:
- Visualization (Imagery)
- Attentional control
Yoga is a mindful practice where you develop awareness of the present moment. Through this awareness you are able to recognize your thought patterns and responses in a non-judgmental way.
This type of awareness fosters self-insight and self-acceptance which enables you to make appropriate positive changes with greater confidence and ease.
In classes we begin with focusing on the present moment through the breath and body awareness. Throughout the practice you are guided in such a way that this awareness continues.
Practicing yoga enhances the ability to relax both the mind and the body. Dr. Hogg explains the connection between the mind and the body is an important one;
“Every change in your mental and emotional states is consciously or unconsciously accompanied by a change in your physical state and vice versa (Hogg, 1995, p. 38).”
He encourages the use of relaxation techniques that focus on both the body and the mind;
“Learn relaxation techniques whether these are muscle to mind approaches (controlled breathing; progressive relaxation techniques) or mind to muscle approaches (Hogg, 1995, p 38).”
Practicing mindfulness in a yoga session helps relieve stress and tension that are most often caused by focusing on the past or future.
When classes are taught in a purposeful manner poses and sequences can be used to allow the body to relax with greater ease.
In a yoga practice you learn different breathing techniques (pranayama) that relax both the body and the mind.
In classes we use a technique of body scanning to develop the awareness of how the body and mind work together to allow for relaxation. We also use progressive relaxation in different classes before coming into our final resting pose.
“Anytime you are thinking about something you are in a sense talking to yourself (Hogg, 1995, p. 51).”
Yoga helps develop your self-talk in different ways. Initially working on this skill involves developing self-awareness and an understanding of how you speak to yourself.
Self-talk can have a positive or negative affect on your mental state. It is important to understand the words that create each response.
With that understanding you can work on adjusting your responses to those thoughts, which in turn will help develop and reinforce positive self-talk.
In a yoga session you will face situations that test you both physically and mentally. It is often during these challenges that awareness to your self-talk becomes heightened. By being mindful of these thoughts you start to have the ability to lengthen the time between stimulus and response. This time allows you to change negative self-talk and reinforce positive self-talk.
There are many studies that show the power of visualization and its positive influences on performance.
In yoga classes we use different techniques to teach imagery. The first is to focus on images that tend to be easier to picture.
As an example we often use a three-part breath, which has a wave like rhythm and motion. While performing the three-part breath students are encouraged to picture the breath moving like waves in the ocean and then visualize those waves.
We then move to more specific visualization practices at the end of a yoga session.
During this time swimmers visualize their pre-race approach. They do not only visualize the ideal situation, but also how to manage challenges that will present themselves.
One question they are asked is; what are the skills from your yoga practice you can implement to prepare for a peak performance?
An example of this is if someone is prone to experiencing a significant amount of pre-race anxiety they might visualize a pose or breathing technique they can use to allow themselves to relax before they compete.
As the ravenous leopard needs to stealthily focus on its prey in order to feast the athlete, hungry for excellence, must totally concentrate on the task at hand if success is to be devoured. (Cheng, H.)
Attentional control is developing the ability to focus on the task at hand.
As discussed earlier yoga is a mindful practice where your attention is directed to the here and now through the breath and body awareness. During a yoga class you are being taught to immerse yourself in the present moment.
This is essentially practicing attentional control.
In the classes we work on developing the ability to continue to focus on breath while moving through poses and sequences. By connecting movement and breath you are practicing the ability to be fully engaged with the task at hand.
Hogg, J.M. Mental Skills for Competitive Swimmers. Edmonton: Sport Excel Publishing Inc., 1995.
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Jeff has worked with my swimmers during taper leading into this summer’s championship season. His work with them helped those on taper relax and visualize, and others that were still a few weeks away from rest to stay loose and pliable while building core strength.
Jeff does a great job introducing movements that are new to the athletes as well as refining techniques of athletes that are more experienced with yoga.
The best part about having Jeff work with the swimmers is his understanding of the sport and his ability to create yoga movements that are directly transferable to movements in the pool.
Dryland/Performance Coach Bellevue Club Swim Team