Finding the mindful connection off the field through the practice of balance
For athletes, the mental game is just as important as the physical game. Athletes who are able to find the mind and body connection excel on the field.
Athletes must maintain awareness of the balance between their mind and body to continue to push their limits both academically and athletically, there are a number ways this can be done, one being through yoga and other meditation or mind-body awareness exercises.
Yoga is an ancient practice that originated in India to promote mental and physical well-being through a combination of poses, concentration and deep breathing, according to Medical News Today.
The overall philosophy of yoga is about connecting the mind, body and spirit. English professor Missy Phegley has been practicing and teaching yoga for 23 years.
“The mind-body connection is noticing how you're feeling, noticing how your body feels when you get really stressed,” Phegley said. “Being able to acknowledge your stress and intentionally allow yourself to relax and breathe through it.”
Athletes are constantly pushing themselves physically and mentally which can lead to stress. Phegley said that taking time to allow yourself to be still for five minutes a day can improve cognitive ability, social and emotional responses and improves physical performance.
Phegley said if athletes can focus on breathing in really intense situations, they are able to make snap decisions. She said practicing yoga can help prevent injury because the muscles and tendons become more elastic and athletes are able to bounce back.
Meditation is needed for an athlete's mind. According to Headspace, meditation can greatly improve the mind-body connection, allowing you to discover your optimal zone of performance.
Carrie Vance, a local to Cape Girardeau, considers herself an athlete because her week consists of pilates classes, bike trails, aerial silk art and mindful yoga meditation.
During Covid, Vance took advantage of her free time to feel more connected to her physical self. She would enjoy riding her bike on the local bike trails with her boyfriend, Skye, it was a fun way to hang out while being active.
After riding for 15-30 miles a day, she found time to stretch her body and meditate. Vance was performing yoga and didn’t even know it. She has found meditating before her yoga practice helps her body stay relaxed and the ability to target certain muscles.
“We hold a lot of tension in different parts of our body and when I do yoga, it's a chance to release the tension from work or bike riding or pilates,” Vance said.
Vance has noticed a huge difference in her balance, posture, self-love and overall breathing since picking up the mindful habit.
“I would say if you are interested in getting started in yoga for mental health reasons, do it. It is a great way to cope and not only handle your emotions, but to control them.” she said.
As an athlete, you have to be able to control your emotions. Senior wildlife and conservation biology major Kat McConnel not only has to have a clear mindset for herself but also the animal she is riding.
McConnel is the president of the Redhawks Equestrian Team, a sport club at SEMO. She has been riding horses for over 15 years and started competitive horse riding during her time at SEMO.
Being an athlete who competes with an animal who can not talk can become difficult or frustrating. McConnel said her emotions and body language can directly affect the horse's mood.
“I think paying attention to the biology of stress and how stress can affect your body and how your mind works is really important,” McConnel said.
She said practice makes perfect, just like in a collegiate sport. Learning how to be in the right mental state to communicate and trust the animal without talking.
McConnel knows she has to take control of the situation so the horse feels supported and they can both work as a team.
Yoga is a 5,000 year-old practice many people use to find the balance of your body and mind. Phegley said it was important to notice when you are losing the balance; take a few slow breaths to have a clear mind to address the situation and move forward.
Breathe in, breathe out.
According to the National Library of Medicine, regular yoga practice can provide additional training to enhance performance, flexibility and balance of athletes.
SEMO Redhawks football players keep their balance every Thursday morning with English professor Missy Phegley, who has been instructing yoga for 23 years.
Phegley teaches the athletes to focus on breathing, on and off the field.
Defensive lineman senior Lunden Manuel will be fully returned to the field at the 2023 Homecoming game after an injury in his shoulder.
Manual was hesitant to begin participating in yoga classes at first, but he decided to try it after the surgery on his shoulder.
“I thought yoga was soft, and not my thing,” Manuel said. “But it’s hard, I respect people who do yoga.”
Manual said he favors the breathing exercises within yoga, which has helped him in other aspects of his life other than football.
“I use it [yoga] at night when I sleep, it really calms your body down and helps you relax all the nerves in your body,” Manuel said.
Redhawks football team captains were the ones who approached Director of Sports Performance Ryan Napoli about including yoga into their routine.
“Being a division I football player comes with a lot,” Napoli said. “It comes with a lot of pressure to perform and pressure to succeed. Giving them [student athletes] an outlet where they can get to a calm state and just focus on what they need to do.”
Napoli said he has heard nothing but good feedback from the athletes. He said he would like to incorporate yoga into the weekly regime of other Redhawks teams.
Phegley used to instruct yoga to previous Redhawks football teams but was glad to participate in its return with hopes to continue throughout the football post-season and instruct other athletes.
“We really appreciate her coming in and doing yoga every week with us,” Manuel said.