Yoga and the Youth Athlete

How important is yoga to a youth player and how important is the ‘right’ yoga?

Yoga can play a vital role in the proper development of the youth athlete, if practiced correctly. The understanding has to be clear that the intention is not to become a yogi but to compliment the sport of the athlete and increase athletic performance, at any age. 

Flexibility, the most widely assumed benefit of yoga, can do wonders for athletes of all ages. But, it’s particularly crucial to start the basic foundation at a young age. It may be easy for some athletes to try yoga for the first time and feel they can jump into intermediate to advanced postures.  Just like the sport they are coming from, they took years to build a foundation of where they are in that sport. This same approach should be applied with yoga.  Athletes, regardless of fitness level, should start with beginner classes so they build a foundation of all aspects of the practice: basic posture alignments, breathing techniques, and meditation applications. In my opinion, it’s also important to start a youth practice to attach fun and familiarity to it. Many intermediate and advanced yoga classes are taught in a manner that assume students have these foundations in place.  Therefore, by skipping beginner programs, an athlete will miss out on crucial foundation elements. Starting at a very early age a yoga practice will lay the proper foundation for the longevity of the athlete. 

As far as the “right” yoga goes, 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. 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 player hit the ball with more power, a swimmer able to pull more water, or a batter in softball/baseball to have a more thorough swing at bat.

On the contrary, I’d like to raise some caution for athletes who practice yoga. Although yoga offers great benefits, athletes should be mindful of the type of yoga they do and how it is integrated into their training program.  Practicing the “right” yoga is crucial. For example, some styles of yoga can be very vigorous (power yoga) or have dehydrating effects (hot yoga).  An athlete adding yoga to their program needs to ensure that the style of yoga does not introduce over-training or other adverse effects.  As qualified coaches/trainers, we know how best to integrate yoga into a training routine, keeping in mind the cycling of events and peak training periods.

Athletes can be too flexible!  As much as one can see the benefit of being flexible, keep in mind that joints need stability. Over-training flexibility can reduce the ability of muscles, tendons, and ligaments to stabilize joint structures.  Understand the nature of joint loading that is involved in particular sports and be mindful to not overuse yoga flexibility exercises on those joints. With all of this in mind, we know that not only is there a “right” kind of yoga, you have to practice the “right” yoga at the “right” time. 

I’ve provided a graphic here, to outline exactly what to practice and when to incorporate into your training regimen. If you’d like access to the full PDF, shoot us an email HERE! Ask and you shall receive. 

The combination of laying the proper foundation in youth sports, attaching fun to it, and practicing the appropriate styles, at the appropriate time is of utmost importance.

What are the biggest challenges you face with the amateur or youth athlete?

The biggest challenge we face is really two-fold: body awareness and focus, or the lack thereof. I’ve found that by incorporating breathing techniques and focus games into the youth athlete’s training regimen, we can slow down the breath, reduce stress and increase awareness and clarity. The easiest of all techniques is to simply begin to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth. The greater resistance to airflow 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, both mentally and physically. The breath is also a great place to start when teaching body awareness. It’s the foundation of all movement, and again, foundation is everything. 

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. 

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.

Focus plays a large role in determining certain plays, calls, wins, and losses. Focus increases court/field awareness and sport IQ. 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/field, focus and intention will allow the athlete’s 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.

Your background in Volleyball is impressive, what have you found over the years transposes from one sport to another?

I find that athletes are highly likely to push themselves physically no matter what sport they play, ignoring cues and signs of pain in the body. A yoga practice will encourage a different level of body awareness, which I touched on in the previous question. 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 common competitive nature and receive a much needed mental break from the pressures of the playing field.

Not only do athletes have a high competitive drive and pain tolerance, they all seem to experience burnout, fear and depression (likely from loss of sport) at some point in their athletic careers. 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, in any sport.

It has been proven that yoga, athletics and physical activity can serve as a stress reliever. 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 competitive student-athlete and can compromise total well-being.

Research shows that competitive 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, studies have shown 10% of college athletes suffer from psychological and physiological problems that are severe enough to require counseling intervention. But, this number is likely much higher considering the fact that athletes tend to avoid seeking counseling out of fear of loss playing time. 

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.

By incorporating a solid yoga practice into the weekly routines of these competitive 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 our responsibility as educators to teach athletes and their parents the importance of and reasons why a yoga practice will greatly benefit their total well being. It’s not just about the scholarship or the W.

What advice would you give to young players and parents, in any sport that would help their physiological longevity?

My advice is to get on the mat. Start practicing yoga at a young age, to become familiar with the practice early on. Whatever is learned on the mat, can be used as a tool to overcome fear and stress and promote a healthy mindset for life. 

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, and 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.

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, as discussed before. 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.

With a regular visualization, breathing, and meditation practice, an athlete will undoubtedly increase performance on the court/field, 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.

Meditation, visualization and performance breathwork, generally start by moving – the physical practice of yoga. Yoga training offers a number of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. An 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. Whatever the reason, get on the mat. 

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