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How meditation and mindfulness can improve cricket performance and focus

Justin Langer appears to meditate between overs
Justin Langer appears to meditate between overs

The pandemic has affected each and every one of us over the past few months. Now, as lockdown eases, one of the main challenges we face is a new normal that looks different from our life before. Cricket is no exception.

With the nation going back to playing cricket this weekend after a long period of lockdown, many players, both amateur and professional, may be feeling concerned about their performance. For cricketers at clubs, counties or leagues, COVID-19 may have affected their training and skill, as many will not have played the sport for a while.

There may be further concerns about how to stay focused on the game while navigating the many changes implemented by the ECB. This includes no crowds, a maximum of 30 people (including coaches and officials), and everyone having to remain socially distanced at all times, with batters following distinct running lines. These changed circumstances can affect focus and increase levels of stress, which impacts performance.

Here are some tips on how cricketers can use mindfulness and meditation to maintain focus, stay resilient, ease stress and anxiety, and ultimately improve their cricket performance, whether recreational or professional.

Maintaining focus

Players will have to navigate all these changes and remain careful and vigilant, while also ensuring they perform well, sticking to the goal of getting wickets and scoring runs. Many amateur and professionals may be concerned about staying focused on the game within an environment that’s been radically transformed. This is where meditation can help.

Meditation is like strength training for the brain. It can not only change our mindset and perspective, but it can also physically alter our brains. Meditation increases the thickness of the gray matter of the prefrontal cortex. This can help us minimise distraction, stay present in the moment and remain focused when playing cricket; 4 weeks of Headspace improved focus by 14% (source).

When players are feeling overwhelmed and distracted by the multitude of changes, they can use their breath as a tool to reset their mind and physiology, and anchor them in the present moment. The simple act of focusing on our breathing (whether ahead of the match, post-match, or even in between overs and in the tea break), following the inhalations and exhalations and the rise and fall of our diaphragm, can help us unwind, reset and step away from the worried mind.

By becoming more aware of how we are feeling, even if it’s just noticing that we are becoming distracted or losing focus, we can observe these feelings and accept them as normal, understandable experiences.

Easing stress and anxiety

As well as managing these new changes, many amateurs and professionals haven’t played cricket for a very long time. This can lead to increasing levels of stress and anxiety about how they will perform now that they are returning to the sport, which can affect motivation.

Meditation is scientifically proven to help alleviate stress. Stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, causing a surge of natural stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the bloodstream. However, when the mind and body are relaxed through meditation, the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, causing the body to stop releasing stress hormones.

Cricketers should set aside five to ten minutes each day to meditate or do breathing exercises to help them pause the mind, step back from stressful thoughts about the changing game, and cope with fears about their performance.

Staying resilient

Even if players are struggling in their first few games back, or are failing to find motivation to train and continue when their performance is lacking, it’s important not to give up. They must stay resilient and accept these new challenges.

Meditation can help us cultivate self-compassion and train the brain to stay resilient, which lets us more easily accept where we are and maintain motivation. Headspace is proven to increase resilience by 11% (source).

When cricketers notice the early signs of anxiety or worry when they’re at home in-between matches, they should simply take a few deep breaths, be patient with themselves and grab a glass of water; if this is mid-match, then as soon as they can during a break. This will help them resettle and get back into the right frame of mind.

The more regularly we meditate, the better it will help this mental resilience. Imagine that your brain needs to be worked out the same way that your body does. Just as sustained, regular exercise is good for your body, sustained, regular meditation can help your brain. Meditation is not a quick fix but instead it trains the mind to shift the way we relate to our thoughts and feelings.

Improving sleep quality

Players must ensure their mind and body is rested ahead of the strenuous physical activity of a game of cricket.

Trouble with sleep is rooted in a thinking mind, so through meditation we can let go of the endless commentary in our mind and worried thoughts. Training the mind through meditation can help us learn to be calmer, clearer and less overwhelmed, making it easier to wind down and drift off.

Cricketers should also try to implement a consistent bed-time routine and make sure they’re not using screens late at night before bed, as that can stimulate the mind, allowing it to wander and not switch off as easily. Additionally, having a consistent wake up time is the single best thing we can do for our sleep. That’s because the circadian rhythm (AKA the body clock) is set by our wake-up time, rather than our bedtime. This, in conjunction with a regular mindfulness routine, will help to create the ideal conditions for a restful sleep at night, which can subsequently help improve cricket performance.

A basic mindful exercise to start

With regular mindfulness and meditation practice leading to improved focus, motivation and resilience, and decreasing stress and anxiety, many players may be thinking: where do we start?
The Headspace Basics pack can help ease you into a regular meditation practice, as it consists of gentle breathing exercises and introduces the foundation and fundamental techniques of mindfulness and meditation.
Here is a simple breathing exercise you can do to be help become more mindful:
1. Find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and focus your attention to your breath.
2. Don’t alter or rush it, allow it to continue at its own rhythm and simply observe the rising and falling sensation that it creates in your body.
3. Focus on the quality of each breath, asking without judgement: is it long or short? Deep or shallow? Fast or slow?
4.     Begin silently counting each breath: 1 as you inhale, 2 as you exhale, 3 on the next inhalation and so on, up to 10. Then start again from the beginning at 1.
5. If your mind wanders: don’t worry, that’s completely normal. Notice new thoughts, but then let them go, bringing your attention back to your breath.
6. Once you have completed 10 minutes, congratulate yourself, recognising how the process made you feel.

Practising these meditation exercises regularly and being more mindful, as well as incorporating self-care into the daily routine can all help with adapting to playing cricket post-lockdown.

While mindfulness isn’t the only solution, it is one important step that cricketers can take to stay motivated and focused, and enjoy a successful return.

By Lindsay Shaffer, Sr. Director, Business Development & Partnerships at Headspace

Download Headspace on the App Store or Google Play, and visit www.headspace.com for more information.