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Meditation Techniques for Focus and High Performance

What do professional athletes, business titans and Navy Seals have in common? They all use specific meditation techniques to improve focus, productivity and performance.

The word “meditation” might bring to mind peaceful relaxation or the yoga class at your gym, but the truth is that there are many meditation techniques which are used by leaders and competitors to prepare and perform at the highest levels.  Below I provide simple instructions for two meditation techniques including Box Breathing and Sports Visualisation.

What is Meditation?

Meditation has been used by humans for thousands of years to improve concentration, reduce stress, gain perspective and increase well-being.  More recently, it has been adopted by professional athletes to mentally prepare for competition, by business leaders to increase creativity, make better decisions and manage conflict, and by military special forces to improve focus.

Very simply, meditation is the practice of focus, loss of focus, and return to focus.  This is done by focusing on one thing like the breath, a word or sound, a visualisation, or a repetitive activity, and then going through the process of focus, loss of focus, and return to focus.  Just like exercising a muscle, this practice of losing focus and regaining focus is valuable in many critical, high-stress and competitive situations. Through practice, you can significantly enhance your ability to focus deeper, for longer periods, and bring clarity to thought processes.  

When meditating, your mind will wander to all manner of random thought.  This is frustrating, but it is very normal. Meditation is an exercise to improve awareness of loss of focus, and to practice returning to the object of your focus.  The only way to get better is to practice.  And practice.  Just like getting better at the piano or learning a new language.  Exercising and strengthening this ability to focus and return to focus is beneficial to almost everyone, but particularly if you want to perform at high levels. 

How do you meditate?

Very simply in a few words: Find a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable position and set a timer for 5-20 minutes. Close your eyes and spend up to a minute settling and relaxing your muscles. Focus your mind on something – breath, a word or sound, a visualisation, bodily sensations or a repetitive activity (i.e. a technique). Your mind will naturally wander away and you will lose focus. When you realize that your mind has wondered, shift your attention back to your meditation focus. For 5 to 20 minutes you will repeat this process of: focus, loss of focus, return to focus, loss of focus, return to focus.

The actual process of meditation appears meaningless. It seems like a waste of time to count breaths or repeat a word in your mind.  But what you are really doing is training yourself to focus, accepting that you will lose focus, and then returning to focus.  And in addition to the benefits of exercising your ability to focus, some side benefits will be better performance, relieving stress, clarifying your thinking, and in some cases new creative output.

Here are two examples of meditations techniques which can improve focus and performance: Box Breathing and Sports Visualisation.

Box Breathing

In this Box Breathing exercise (which has been described by former Navy Seals on podcasts and youtube videos) you will breathe in a four-cycle pattern of 4444: inhale for 4 seconds, hold in for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold out for 4 seconds (these are the four steps in the ‘box’ cycle). When you inhale, first breathe in an upwards motion from the belly, diaphragm and then the chest, exhaling first from the chest, then diaphragm, then belly, exhaling with slight force and with cheeks filled.  It may help to say or think, “inhale 2, 3, 4, hold 2, 3, 4, exhale 2, 3, 4, hold, 2, 3, 4”.

Find a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable position and set a timer for 1-5 minutes. Close your eyes and spend up to a minute settling and relaxing your muscles.  

When you inhale for a count of 4, you may want to visualise positive healthy oxygen coming into you. See and feel yourself inhaling purity, health, vitality and tranquillity. While retaining your breath for the count of 4, visualise all these attributes spreading to every cell in your body. Now exhale carbon dioxide and pain, anger, impatience and illness for a count of 4. Then rest for a count of 4 and feel relaxation. 

If there are other people around and you cannot find an isolated place, this exercise can be performed with your eyes open. This way you can repeat a mantra or count to yourself and no one will even notice that you are meditating.

Your mind will wander, and when you realise that you are thinking about something other than the breathing pattern, return your focus.  Continue until the timer goes off. 

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Sports Visualisation

Sports visualisation can be used to improve performance in swimming, running, golf, skiing, or any sport, to increase the effectiveness of deliberate practice and before a competition.  The process of creating and ‘rehearsing’ a positive mental experience in order to enhance your ability to achieve a successful outcome in real life has been used by great athletes from Muhammad Ali and Michael Phelps to Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill and rugby great Jonny Wilkinson.

Find a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable position and set a timer for 2-10 minutes. Close your eyes and spend up to a minute settling and relaxing your muscles. 

First visualise yourself achieving perfect form in a variety of specific actions relevant to your sport; such as a tennis serve, a penalty kick, shooting a basket, putting or cycling. Visualise yourself repeatedly achieving perfect form in the key actions, and repeat the action again and again in your head.  

After some time, bring to mind the actual environment of a competition, for instance when you are in a match or on the day of the game. Visualise the sights, sounds and smells, the atmosphere, the sensations, and your own nerves. You could even start with the early morning alarm and proceed through the day, suiting up and arriving at the competition and that feeling in your stomach. It will help your body get used to performing under pressure to rehearse even the nerves that you will feel on the day.  Use multiple senses, like sound, sight and smell.  The more vivid the mental image, the more effectively your brain primes your muscles to complete the same physical and technical action in a real situation. Visualise yourself achieving perfect form in specific actions during the competition.  They key is to focus on perfect form, all of the small things you have trained to do and need to do to compete at the highest level. 

Your mind will wander, but keep coming back to the perfect form of key actions, and the sights, sounds and feelings of the event.  Continue until the timer goes off.    

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Final thoughts, and more meditation techniques

When you listen to interviews with high-performers and successful people in almost any field, it isn’t unusual to find that they use and rely on specific meditative practices. Whether it is athletes who are always preparing to perform, or military operatives who need to remain calm in difficult situations, or leaders who make decisions in public and stressful circumstances.

The most successful people often figure out that a particular form of meditation has significant benefits to their creativity, self-awareness, memory, well-being, productivity, and performance.

There are many ways to meditate, and each person’s practice can grow and evolve over time, in different situations and at different stages of life.  Trying different techniques is an excellent way to experience meditation, as well as to find a meditation practice that is right for you, right now.

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