Yoga and Athletic Performance

Introduction & Background
This thesis discusses the importance of a regular yoga practice for sport specific training. The following material offers an argumentative analysis on sport related injuries and performance and how yoga can benefit the individual athlete and team, as a whole.
Statement of Purpose
The purpose of this thesis is to express why athletes should be incorporating yoga into their weekly training regimen and how that can be accomplished.
III. Opening
We need to pay special attention to the athletes’ needs, as their sport training naturally creates physical and mental imbalances. Depending on the sport, an athlete is prone to becoming strong in one area and weak in others. There is a mobility capacity that is often imbalanced in athletes that can create severe injury. For example, an athlete may find certain movements to be very easy and others to be very tight, rigid, or difficult. Typically, athletes are one-dimensional and yoga can diversify that.
It is very difficult for an athlete to encounter a true yogic experience, as they are naturally competitive and hard on themselves. Athletes are likely to push themselves physically, ignoring cues and signs of pain in the body. A yoga practice will encourage a different level of body awareness. Yoga will encourage the athlete to listen to their body and note the difference between pain and discomfort. This will allow the athlete to prevent injury and possibly rehabilitate injury at a more appropriate pace. The yoga mat can offer a safe space for the athlete to remove their competitive nature and receive a much needed mental break from the pressures of the playing field.
IV. Athlete Defined
According to Webster, an athlete is a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina. (Webster, 2015) There are many different levels of athleticism, all of which I will describe below. An excerpt from the LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development) Model on the stages of athlete development will be used as an example to explore enhanced athletic participation and performance in athletics with long term development. Each stage is based on the individual’s development and not just chronological age. Age is merely used as a guide for the purposes of the study. Males and females develop at different rates, and ages differ throughout the stages. (Balyi, 2001)
Active Start (Ages 0 – 6): Early Childhood Development, Controlled Play, Self Confidence
At this stage it is all about play and mastering basic movement skills. Children should be able to have fun with physical activity through both structured and unstructured free play that incorporates a variety of body movements. An early active start enhances the development of brain function, coordination, social skills, gross motor skills, emotions, and imagination. It also helps children build confidence, develop posture and balance, build strong bones and muscles, achieve a healthy weight, reduce stress, sleep well, move skillfully, and enjoy being active.
Fundamentals (Ages 6 – 9): Pre Adolescent, Sport Sampling, Recreational, Skill Building, the Transition
From ages 6 to 9 in boys and 6 to 8 in girls, children should participate in a variety of well-structured activities that develop fundamental movement skills and overall motor skills including agility, balance, and coordination. However, activities and programs must maintain a focus on fun, and formal competition should be only minimally introduced.
Learn to Train (Ages 8 – 12): Foundational Sport Skills
From ages 8 to 11 in girls and 9 to 12 in boys, or until the onset of the growth spurt, children are ready to begin developing foundational sport skills. The emphasis should be on acquiring a wide range of skills necessary for a number of sporting activities. Although it is often tempting to overdevelop talent at this age through excessive single-sport training and competition (as well as early positioning in team sports), this can have a negative effect on later stages of development if the child pursues a late specialization sport. This early specialization promotes one-sided physical, technical, and tactical development and increases the likelihood of injury and burnout.
Train to Train (Ages 11 – 16): Recreational & Competitive Sports, Student vs. Student Athlete
The ages that define this stage for boys and girls are based on the onset and duration of the growth spurt, which is generally from ages 11 to 15 for girls and 12 to 16 for boys. This is the stage at which people are physiologically responsive to stimuli and training. Children should establish an aerobic base, develop speed and strength toward the end of the stage, and further consolidate their basic sport-specific skills and tactics. Skill training and physical development is considered superior to winning, at this stage. Concentrating on the process as opposed to the result of a competition leads to better development. This approach is critical to developing top performers and maintaining activity in the long term. Athletes are training at the middle and high school levels during this stage, both recreationally and competitively, club level play is also a factor.
Train to Compete (Ages 15 – 23): College Exposure
Once development is established, the athlete can train to compete. They can either choose to specialize in one sport and pursue a competitive stream, or continue participating at a recreational level and thereby enter the Active for Life stage. In the competitive stream, high-volume and high-intensity training begins to occur year-round. This is where club level play is pertinent. Clubs are defined as groups or organizations in which a specific sport is played at a level above high school varsity sports. At this stage, we see extreme competition for ages 13 – 18, and typically serves as a pre-cursor to collegiate sports and scholarships.
Train to Win (Ages 18+): Collegiate Sport, Elite Student Athlete vs. Student
Elite athletes with identified talent enter this stage to pursue the most intense training suitable for international performances. Athletes with disabilities and able-bodied athletes alike require world-class training methods, equipment, and facilities that meet their personal demands and the demands of the sport. This stage performs in the NCAA – National Collegiate Athletic Association and includes a level of competition in which one typically earns a scholarship for national play. This stage can also expand to the professional level or olympic competition. In professional and olympic play, a very small percentage of athletes qualify to compete. Professional sports include national play and high paying salaries. Elite olympic competition is at the International level.
As yoga grows more popular in the west, we are seeing rapid incorporation of yoga at the professional sport level. Many National Football League (NFL), Major League Soccer (MLS), and National Basketball Association (NBA) players are required to have a regular yoga practice as a supplement to their training.
Active for Life (Ages 25+): Post College Young Professionals, Retired Athletes
Young athletes can enter this stage at essentially any age following the acquisition of physical literacy. If children have been correctly introduced to activity and sport throughout the Active Start, Fundamental Training, and Learn to Train stages, they will have the necessary motor skills and confidence to remain active for life in virtually any sport they choose. For high-performance athletes, this stage represents the transition from a competitive career to lifelong physical activity. They may decide to continue playing sport, thus being competitive for life, or they may become involved in the sport as game officials or coaches. They might also try new sports and activities (e.g., a hockey player taking up golf or a tennis player starting to cycle), thus being fit for life.
V. Challenges Athletes Face
Transitioning from middle school to high school, or high school to college can be stressful for any student. However, research shows that athletes may experience greater levels of stress due to the demands of their parents and coaches. The combination of athletics and academics in general can be overwhelming.
It has been proven that athletics and physical activity can serve as a stress reliever as well. If a student-athlete is experiencing stress with scheduling/time demands, loss of star status, grades, injuries, or the possibility of sitting the bench, it can be quite overwhelming to have all these stressors concurrently. The interaction of these multiple stressors presents a unique problem for the student-athlete and can compromise total well-being.
Research shows that student-athletes who experience these high levels of stress are more likely to acquire poor health choices and habits, experience mental health issues or suffer from low self esteem. In addition to mental health concerns, many student-athletes report physical health concerns that are not limited to injury. Common concerns include insomnia, tension headaches, fatigue, and digestive problems. In fact, 10% of college athletes suffer from psychological and physiological problems that are severe enough to require counseling intervention (Hinkle, 1994). Even more alarming is the fact that college student-athletes tend to avoid seeking out available counseling (Murray, 1997), so the percentage of student athletes who may actually require such intervention is possibly higher than this figure.
Many studies have been conducted to research the struggles student-athletes face. Researchers have found that student-athletes have reported feeling uncertain in three common areas: personal uncertainty, social uncertainty, and future uncertainty. (Hinkle, 1994)
As young athletes in today’s society, personal uncertainty is at all time high as children are being pressured to be uncertain about their body image, about the work-life balance, and so much more. Areas of personal uncertainty for student-athletes also include uncertainty about injury, future play, college, or about balancing school work and sports. Uncertainties developed during childhood can be transferred to the adult life. (Romo, 2014)
Elements of social uncertainty, such as friends and cliques, are very common for student-athletes. There is the pressure of making your teammates your sole responsibility, your family. Social acceptance of performance on the court or field plays a large role with friendships and popularity, especially at the junior high and high school levels.
Finally, student-athletes face uncertainty about the future. Which often spreads well into the adult years. Future uncertainty, such as uncertainty concerning post-collegiate careers and whether the time spent pursuing athletics will hurt career prospects, weighs heavily on choosing the right area of study. Juggling college sports and earning a degree can be very challenging. An athlete may want to pursue aerospace engineering, but is logistically unfeasible due to the nature of the team training schedule. When a high school senior is signing a scholarship contract with a University, they are quite possibly making a decision that will shape their entire future. The amount of pressure that puts on an 17 – 18 year old athlete can be extremely unhealthy.
Most athletes are survivors and find ways to cope with stress and uncertainties. Most student-athletes have reported using a variety of stress relief techniques, including seeking social support from friends, family, or academic counselors; socializing with friends to take a break from sports and school pressures, which sometimes translates to binge drinking; negotiating with coaches in an attempt to raise their scholarship; and sometimes concealing their athlete status from peers to minimize people befriending them for the wrong reasons or prevent negative stereotypes. Other student-athletes come to terms with uncertainty as a natural part of life and turn to prayer to help them cope.
Incorporating a solid yoga practice into the weekly routines of these student-athletes we can decrease the amount of stress, uncertainty, and injury. Having a self practice outside of team sports will greatly benefit student-athletes in the long run. It is the responsibility of educators to teach athletes the importance of and reasons why a yoga practice will greatly benefit their total well being.
VI. Why should athletes practice yoga weekly
Among yoga’s many benefits, stress relief ranks at the top. According to Timothy McCall M.D. (Medical Editor for the Yoga Journal), just about any system of yoga can help reduce stress levels, and the endemic of excessive stress levels is undoubtedly a major reason for the current surge in yoga’s popularity.
Yoga means to “yoke” or from a union. This is the most profound tool that yoga offers. By linking breathe with movement through vinyasa, we naturally link our patterns with state of mind. The shallow, rapid breath that adults have acquired can be a result and/or cause of stress. Practicing proper breathing patterns through asana can help subdue our levels of stress.
By incorporating breathing techniques into the athlete’s training regimen, we can slow down the breath, reduce stress and increase court awareness and clarity. The easiest of all techniques is to simply begin to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth. Lung capacity and focus will increase with nostril breathing. The greater resistance to air flow through the nasal passages compared to the mouth results in a naturally slower respiratory rate, which easily translates to a lower resting heart rate and quicker recovery.
Abdominal breathing, in which the diaphragm is used to maximum advantage on the inhalation and the abdominal muscles help squeeze air out on the exhalation, results in larger breath volume. The diaphragm is also used as a stabilizer for the skeletal system during this breathing technique. Slower, deeper breathing is much more efficient in bringing oxygen into the body while not exhaling more carbon dioxide (CO2) than is desirable. Rapid, shallow breaths, in contrast, tend to deplete CO2 levels, which has a number of negative effects, including promoting mental agitation, says McMcall. (McCall, 2007)
Another easy breathing technique to incorporate is lengthening the exhalation relative to the inhalation. This tool increases tone in the parasympathetic nervous system, as well as relaxation. This tool also decreases the fight or flight response controlled by the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. This technique allows athletes to make better game day decisions and deal with critical incidents in a positive manner.
Technology has created a society of over stimulated beings. We all want immediate gratification and what we want is always at our disposal. Although this can be a positive tool for professionals, it is a leading cause of stress and burnout. Fortunately, one of the 8 limbs of yoga, Pratyahara, allows us to turn our senses inward. This practice not only relieves stress but gives us a platform for visualization and meditation. Cultivating states of pratyahara and meditation through practice, give us the tool to detect stress before it overwhelms us, allowing for more clarity and emotional control. All of which can be translated to the court, classroom, or office.
In addition to stress relief, athletes will also acquire strength in underutilized muscles during a yoga practice. A regular, energizing yoga practice will cultivate strength as the athlete learns each posture. Not only will the athlete build strength in poses such as Virabhadrasana A & B (Warrior I & II), they will improve lean muscle mass. Sports such as swimming, running, and cycling typically under-utilize certain/specific muscle groups. Yoga will increase core stability and significantly decrease the likelihood of injury.
As athletes grow rapidly, self control and stability are questionable. Yoga provides stability and balance, which equates to enhanced movement control. As the athlete cultivates balance, they will have improved technique and form. This leads to a more efficient stroke for a swimmer, a more fluid golf or bat swing, a longer running stride and even an improved jump shot. (Roll, 2012)
Flexibility, the most widely assumed benefit of yoga, can do wonders for an athlete. Yoga improves crucial joint and muscular flexibility. This translates to greater range of motion in the shoulders and hips. A greater range of motion will make a volleyball spike more powerful, a swimmer able to pull more water, or allow a batter to have a more thorough swing at bat.
Another great benefit, especially for youth, is mental and emotional control. The physical benefits of a regular practice are more commonly known. The mental benefit athletes acquire put yoga one step above all other training aspects. As the time comes to move inward on the mat, or quiet the mind, athlete’s tend to look for the exit. It is our job as teachers and coaches to encourage being still and quiet in poses such as shavasana, or corpse pose. Resting in shavasana or finding a sitting practice, allows the nervous and cardiovascular systems to do their jobs. A restored nervous or cardiovascular system will naturally increase performance on the court or playing field.
VII: Yoga as a Visualization Tool
Visualization can be defined as a formation of mental images; the act or process of interpreting in visual terms or of putting into visible form. Visualization allows the basketball player to see himself making the shot. It allows the volleyball player to see herself placing a serve. Visualization can be used for fundamental play or even to determine pain. The possibilities are endless when you have a strong visualization practice. Visualization, or mental imagery can be used to: familiarize the athlete with the playing field or site of competition, recall images of goals or past successes, perfect skills, and reduce negative thoughts while focusing on positive outcomes. Visualization should not be used to focus on outcomes, but to focus on the actions needed to achieve desired outcomes.
Visualization will not only help to determine pain, it will also help to cope with pain. If an athlete can visualize the pain, they can describe it more accurately. Is it hot or sharp, tingling or throbbing? This will allow the athlete to differ pain from discomfort and/or help a professional orthopedic diagnose injury. Meditation plays a large role in coping with pain. Injury can be a travesty in the lives of athletes. Being able to deal with “sitting the bench” or rehab is extremely important and often overlooked.
Fear, focus, and sleep are other important factors that can benefit from visualization. With fear, lack of sleep, and stress, the immune system takes a hit. Athletes cannot afford to get sick. If an athlete becomes ill and loses the chance of play time, it can negatively alter their mental state. A steady meditation or calming yin yoga practice will help strengthen the immune system.
Fear is a common feeling for athletes; fear of losing, fear of failing, fear of injury, fear of the future, fear of letting your teammates down, fear of letting your fans down. Fear-based play can lead to mistakes. Fear consumes the mind and blocks the ability to perform. Meditation and visualization has been shown to calm the mind, surpassing the feeling of fear located in the amygdala.
Focus plays a large role in determining certain plays, calls, wins, and losses. Focus increases court awareness. It may encourage a volleyball player to read the opponent to determine where to block a hit. Or, it may center the mind of a basketball player at the free throw line and increase the chance of making the shot. As a player gets frustrated on the court, focus and intention will allow the athletes mind to regain control of the situation. This practice will also encourage athletes to think in present tense, disregarding any failures that happened in the past or any game time in the future, focusing on the present situation and succeeding in the now.
Athletes are typically comfortable in high stress situations and often pride themselves on that trait. However, having the ability to reduce stress in any situation can serve as a great tool for the individual athlete and his/her teammates. The lower the stress, the lower the intensity and opportunity for disaster. This also plays into emotion control. The life of an athlete is an emotional rollercoaster. Meditation can serve as a guide to understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is something that can be embraced during a game or even when deciding which college to sign with.
Sleep is one of, if not the most, important factor in an athlete’s life. Sleep is such a valuable tool that can be strengthened with a steady visualization or meditation practice. It is important that the athlete spend most of their sleep in stage three of the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycle. During stage three there is no muscle or eye activity. Stage three sleep consists of quality, deep sleep and can significantly serve an athletes performance on and off the playing field.
With a regular visualization, breathing, and meditation practice, an athlete will undoubtedly increase performance on the court, increase lung capacity and strengthen the immune system. A steady practice will benefit the athlete individually and his/her team as a whole. All techniques used on the mat can be translated to the court or playing field and thereby enhancing total well being and performance.
VIII. Injury Prevention and Rehab
A very common training exercise for athletes is the over head squat. The over head squat can also be performed as a snatch or hang snatch. The movement can either be executed with body weight only or with a barbell over head. The proper positioning includes a very wide overhand grip while maintaining the bar and extended arms behind the head, the toes are positioned outward with a wide stance. To execute the movement, the athlete descends until knees and hips are at a 90 degree angle or until thighs are parallel to the floor. The knees travel in the direction of the toes and extend upward until the legs are straight. As the athlete moves through this exercise the head is forward, back is straight, chest is open toward the sky, and feet are flat on the floor with equal weight throughout. This particular movement is utilized in training for jump landing. Over use, poor form, and bad posture are just a few concerns that could lead to injury while practicing the over head squat.
Common sport injuries from this movement (jumping) can affect the calves and ankles. The calf muscle, on the back of the lower leg, is actually made up of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger calf muscle, forming the bulge visible beneath the skin. The gastrocnemius has two parts or “heads,” which together create its diamond shape. The soleus is a smaller, flat muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius muscle. The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles taper and merge at the base of the calf muscle. Tough connective tissue at the bottom of the calf muscle merges with the Achilles tendon. The Achilles tendon inserts into the heel bone (calcaneus). During walking, running, or jumping, the calf muscle pulls the heel up to allow forward movement.
Possible conditions of calf injury include, but are not limited to, calf muscle strain, pulled muscle, muscle tears, and ruptures. Over stretching and over use of the muscle beyond normal length or capacity can result in common muscle tears or strains. Calf muscle strains can vary from mild to severe. A calf muscle strain is commonly called a pulled calf muscle. “Pulling” the muscle refers to stretching the calf muscle beyond its limit. These are all very common injuries for athletes and typically occur anywhere in the body.
Moving downward on the leg, the ankle is a large joint made up of three bones: the shin bone (tibia), the thinner bone running next to the shin bone (fibula), and a foot bone that sits above the heel bone (talus). The bony bumps (or protrusions) seen on the ankle have their own names: the medial malleolus, the posterior malleolus, and the lateral malleolus.
The ankle joint allows up-and-down movement of the foot. The subtalar joint sits below the ankle joint, and allows side-to-side motion of the foot. Numerous ligaments surround the ankle and subtalar joints, binding the bones of the leg to each other and to the foot.
Ankle injuries are extremely common in athletics, especially in basketball, volleyball, and softball. Some conditions include sprains, fractures, arthritis, and gout. A sprain is caused by damage to one of the ligaments in the ankle, usually from an accidental twist or turn of the foot. Rehabilitation can prevent pain and swelling from becoming a long-term problem. The ligament joining the two bones of the lower leg (tibia and fibula), called the syndesmotic ligament, is injured in a high ankle sprain. A high ankle sprain causes pain and swelling similar to a true ankle sprain, but can take longer to heal. A fracture is a break in any of the three bones in the ankle. Most commonly, the bones of the lower leg (tibia or fibula) is fractured. And while it’s not common in athletes, osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, can affect the ankle. Finally, a form of arthritis in which crystals periodically deposit in joints, causing severe pain and swelling, causes gout. The ankle may sometimes be affected by gout at later stages of the LTAD model.
There are many ways to rehab the calf and ankle, but, one very common yoga posture which can facilitate healing – Downward Facing Dog (Down Dog), or Adho Mukha Svanasana. Down Dog calms the brain and helps relieve stress. It energizes the body and stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches, ankles, and wrists. Down dog strengthens the legs and arms which prevents injury. Among the many benefits of this posture, it is also therapeutic for high blood pressure, asthma, flat feet, and sciatica. Fortunately, a sound yoga practice incorporates downward facing dog in most instances.
IX. Stretching vs. Stabilizing
Yoga differs from standard stretching in that it requires the athlete to stabilize specific muscle joints. By stabilizing the joints, we are increasing dynamic range of motion. This time also offers a mental break for the athletes as they focus on stabilizing muscle joints as opposed to power moves. A sound yoga practice reduces onset muscle soreness and reverses muscle imbalances caused from sport specific training. Having an intelligent yoga program will reduce pain and muscle cramps during competition. Yoga can accomplish improvement as simple as improved posture or as complex as increased athletic performance. By stabilizing the muscles, we are providing the athletes with the necessary tools to be more aware of their bodies on the court. Which in turn, increases performance both physically and mentally. (Melott, 2014)
X. Yoga in the Training Season
All athletes have an annual training program, regardless of sport. Most training programs contain an off-season and base period, a build period in which work intensifies, and a peak or competitive period. It is necessary for all training programs to include strength, agility, and plyometrics. Yoga should be used as a tool to compliment the training season, not undermine it. In order to incorporate yoga into the training season properly, there must be an inverse relationship between the intensity of training and yoga.
In the off-season and base periods, training intensity will be light, and focus will be directed toward strength building and correcting imbalances caused by sport specific exercises. During this period yoga can be used to aid in injury rehabilitation by focusing on strength and building range of motion.
As training intensity increases, the focus will become maintaining flexibility with yoga. Yoga practice during this period should focus on stretching over strengthening, with the exception of core strength asana. Yoga should always enhance performance, so it is important to listen to the body during this period, always erring on the safe side by not pushing past the edge.
During peak and competitive training periods, yoga should be toned down significantly. Focus becomes the intention of the yoga practice. Yoga should include gentle modifications and restorative poses during this time. This is also a great training period to incorporate meditation, visualization, and breathing practices at least every other day. (Roundtree, 2008)
Yoga is a great tool for athletes to teach them to listen to their bodies. In other words, yoga provides a platform for working an intelligent edge – sustainable intensity. Endurance athletes or marathon runners know this imagery all too well. A yoga practice should be deep enough to feel the benefit, but never so deep that it causes pain or injury. Working to the edge allows opportunity for growth, but athletes need to be smart and not over competitive.
The key to incorporating yoga into a training regimen is to be efficient. Just as in a specific sport, in yoga energy, breath and intention is directed to a specified location. The athlete must be mindful of the muscles targeted in each pose. Effort and competition must remain positive, and resort away from judgment. A smart yoga practice will give the athlete the tools needed to move inward and relax.
XII. Closing
Yoga training offers a number of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. A intelligent yoga practice, when coupled with sport specific training, will increase mental concentration and significantly reduce levels of stress and anxiety. Yoga can also help the athlete feel better about their body by increasing strength, flexibility, and body awareness. As an athlete becomes more in touch with their internal self, the doors of possibility begin to open rapidly. Whether an athlete decides to compete competitively or recreationally, yoga is the tool that is going to get them to the next level safely and soundly.
XIII. References
Athlete. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2015, from
Balyi, I. (2001). Sport System Building and Long-term Athlete Development in British Columbia Canada: SportsMed, BC.
Hinkle, J. S. (1994) Integrating sport psychology and sports counseling. Journal of Sport Behavior, 17, 52-60. Retrieved from
Murray, M. A. (1997). The counseling needs of college student-athletes. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 58, 2088. Retrieved from
Romo, L. (2014). Study Offers Insight Into Challenges College Athletes Face. NC State University News. Retrieved from
McCall, T. (2007). Yoga for stress and burnout. The Yoga Journal. Retrieved from
Roll, R. (2012). Why Every Athlete should do you yoga. Mind Body Green. Retrieved
Melott, L. (2014). Why every athlete should do yoga. Elephant Journal. Retrieved from
Roundtree, S. (2008). The Athletes Guide to Yoga. Boulder, CO. Velo Press.