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Why pro athletes practice yoga for mental strength

In this guest post by David Carlton, learn why more professional athletes are turning to yoga and other mindfulness-based techniques to build mental strength and resilience.

If you’re used to following professional sports, you may have noticed in the last few years that there’s been a sort of quiet revolution in how players and teams prepare for competition.

Some things never change, and sports stars will always have to do certain workouts and practice certain regimens to stay fit enough to excel in their respective sports. However, where we once saw little but muscle-building, protein consumption, and otherworldly cardio emphasized, we’re now seeing a distinct and widespread focus on mental health, mental strength, yoga, and similar practices. 

This shift has perhaps been clearest in professional basketball, where NBA players have become some of our most visible sports celebrities and have, in the process, embraced various aspects of mindfulness and mental and spiritual health.

Some of the most prominent figures in the sport, from all-time great LeBron James to legendary college coach Mike Krzyzewski are among those sports figures best known for practicing yoga. And prominent players including Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Jahlil Okafor, and Trae Young have been outspoken about taking proactive approaches to mental health. These players have collectively shined a light not just on the mental health struggles that celebrity athletes can face, but on the broader issue of taking care of one’s mind every bit as carefully as one’s body. 

There’s been similar, if somewhat less publicized progress in professional football. We tend to think of the NFL as many things. It’s a league of enormous men playing a very physical sport. It’s the most-watched sport in America, generating all kinds of material for bettors and analysts all over the country. It occupies Sundays and drives whole cities into frenzies. And frankly, it doesn’t always seem like the healthiest environment or influence.

In the midst of this culture though, we’ve seen more positives regarding full-body health and mindfulness. Several entire teams have implemented yoga as a regular practice, and players as prominent as star wide receivers Steve Smith and Brandon Marshall have opened up about battles with mental health issues. 

The same can be said of other sports as well. Professional baseball has welcomed various kinds of mental health and mental strength experts in team clubhouses; tennis star Mardy Fish spoke up several years ago about struggling with anxiety attacks; athletes at all levels of all sports are learning about the benefits of yoga, not just for the body but for calm, focus, and stress relief. 

It’s difficult to overstate how important this is, particularly as relates to young people. Sports figures are heroes, and beyond that they’re specifically models of health and ideal physical states. Kids and even young adults look up to these figures and seek to emulate them, whether consciously or not. And at many points in history, athletes weren’t necessarily the best of role models.

Professional athletes are beginning to represent the idea that total-body wellness and mental health are every bit as important as strong muscles and general toughness.

Baseball had its steroid era, football spent years ignoring legitimate mental health concerns, and basketball and baseball were too “tough” or “macho” at times for these issues to stand any chance of generating positive attention. By and large, the message was clear: focus exclusively on physical strength, build up muscle, and tough it out with any kind of anxiety or mental struggle. 

It’s a whole new world now. While some of the harmful notions just described are still present in sports, they’re now balanced out by significant, widespread focus on mindfulness, healthy practices, and mental health. This is not to equate yoga, exercise, and mental health either, but to some extent, in this discussion, they’re all part of the same movement.

Professional athletes are beginning to represent the idea that total-body wellness and mental health are every bit as important as strong muscles and general toughness. For that message to be heard by generations of young people may represent an invaluable shift in how we view personal wellness.


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