Tai Chi and Qi Gong: its not just for old people. How it can improve your athletic performance.

I have decided to write this article because they are a lot of misnomers and misconceptions about martial artis in general and a lot more about Tai Chi and Qi Gong specifically. I remember my first exposure to tai chi vividly.

I was in Hawaii for a high school basketball tournament and a series of exhibition games.We had arrived to Hawaii a few days before playing any games to get some high quality conditioning and strength work in. The first morning in Hawaii our Coach had put us through a absolutely grueling 2 hour conditioning series. During this intense training session I remember seeing a group of elderly people practicing tai chi out of the corner of my eye a few times and I became jealous of the absolute serene and lack of running they were enjoying. My first reaction was that looks so silly. What will they gain from doing something that slow, it looks useless. After the end of our workout a few of my teammates made some quips about the group practicing Tai Chi. Our Coach responded by mentioning that the group practicing Tai Chi would love to switch places with us and be able to complete our workout so we should stop moaning and be grateful that we were able to complete such a hard workout.

While my Coach’s statement was imbued with wisdom, my initial idea of tai chi was absolutely incorrect. It was NOT a lesser form of exercise that old people do because they can not do anything else. It was in actually and extremely powerful and enjoyable form of exercises that is both great for your body AND spirit. However, it took me much longer than I would have thought to learn this lesson. After that day Tai Chi was placed in the deep recesses of my mind, and I did not come to my attention until I happened to stumble upon Brian Clay’s (2008 Olympic Champion in the Decathlete) autobiography in the Boston Public Library (A highly recommended read). In the book he mentions repeatedly how vital acupuncture and Tai Chi were in supporting him perform at a world class level.

I came across this book at the perfect time in my life as I had suffered from a myriad of injuries during my first NCAA track and field season and that summer I was scouring the entire Boston Public Library for answers. Even though I knew that it was absolutely tantamount that I take the next step forward and learn and practice Tai Chi it was a full 2.5 years later until I seriously and consistently began practicing Tai Chi. This is a great opportunity to highlight an important learning point, common knowledge is NOT common action. Knowledge is useless if it is not acted upon.

Nevertheless, once I came back to Vancouver to begin my graduate school training at the University of British Columbia I got connected with an absolutely amazing Tai Chi and Qi Gong Instructor (Josie) who runs the North Shore Tai Chi Spirt School (https://www.facebook.com/NorthShoreTaiChiSpirit).

To say that practicing Tai Chi and Qi Gong has had a positive impact on my athletic performance and more importantly my life is a gross understatement. Not only do I feel way more energetic, serene, and happy but my athleticism has skyrocketed while my those nicks and bruises I took for granted as the cost of doing business in competitive athletics disappeared. However, the most important aspect of Tai Chi that has helped me improve in all aspects of my life is increasing my body awareness. Sam alluded to this in an earlier post about mindfulness. Your improvement in any area is limited by the focus you are able to allocate to a specific area. Mindfulness or body awareness is your gym for improving your focus. It is something all great athletes such as Kobe Bryant know is essential to peak performance.

“Its not about how much you practice, it’s about how much your mind is present while you are practicing.” 

So I hope this article helped open your eyes to the wonders of Tai Chi and Qi Gong and clear up some confusions regarding Tai Chi. If you suffer from chronic injuries, or are unable to stay honed in during a game, Tai Chi is a tool I would highly recommend that will enable you to become the strongest version of yourself. If you have any questions or would like me to discuss a specific topic please message me on Facebook (Pavan Mehat) or LinkedIn.

Summary 

– Tai Chi and Qi Gong is a very versatile and powerful form of exercise that will strengthen both your body and mind

-Tai Chi and Qi Gong will help improve athletic performance by:

1) Increasing Body Awareness

2) Improving Flexibility and Strength

3) Decreasing the chance of Injury and Allow you to Bounce Back quicker from Injury

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Mindfulness in Motion

“It’s not about how much you practice, it’s about how much your mind is present when you’re practicing.”

If you follow psychology at all, you may have noticed that in recent years, the term “mindfulness” has been garnering a lot of attention. The most commonly accepted definition of mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.”  Mindfulness is not a trance state, it is not someplace that you can get to. It is a way of being in the present moment.  It is not some clear-minded, peaceful fantasy world.  Noticing the breeze brushing against your cheek is mindfulness, but so is noticing your desire to check that text as you drive.

Chinese Study showed that after only 20 minutes a day for 5 days a group given meditation instruction scored significantly better than a control group (given relaxation training) in:

Attention

Lowered anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue

Decreased cortisol

Increased immunoreactivity (increased immune system functioning)

Recently, researchers from Harvard have also begun to study mindfulness meditation on a regular basis.  Using randomly-assigned studies where they have taken before and after shots of the participants’ brains have shown that over the course of 8 weeks the group that practiced mindfulness meditation had significant changes in their brains.

Brain

What were these changes?

Increased gray matter in:

The left hippocampus – involved in both short & long term memory, as well as spatial navigation.  Team sport athletes – imagine being able to learn and absorb your team’s playbook more quickly than ever. Imagine being able to navigate the court knowing exactly where your teammates are, developing court vision like Chris Paul.  Individual skills and sport benefit from increased gray matter in the hippocampus as well – memory is necessary for learning, so this finding would imply that you would be able to remember and re-create that perfect forehand on the tennis court or a spot-on approach in the long jump.

The posterior cingulate cortex – link between several different regions of the brain – if your parts of your brain can’t communicate with the others, you can’t function.

The temporo-parietal junction – used to process incoming information – think of how much information you have to process during a competition – your coach, your opponent’s intention, your teammates’ intention, their location, etc.  Improved ability to do this would theoretically lead to improved skill on the field.

The cerebellum – this piece of the brain has a large role in motor control, i.e. coordination.  Damage to the cerebellum has been shown to mess with motor skills and posture among other things.  As an athlete, you need this area in tip top shape!!

, in the body, stress markers such as cortisol were proven to have become significantly lowered – cortisol is implicated in disease and overtraining, among other things.

Chris+Paul+2012+NBA+Star+Game+6uqjeaJ_fY7l

But wait…aren’t these meditators sitting the whole time staring at the floor?  How do these changes in brain structure apply to performance in a sport?  It’s a fair question.  Let’s bring it back to the Kobe Bryant quote at the beginning.  You cannot improve without being present.  If you aren’t paying attention, or are otherwise putting in poor-quality work, it is not going to be of the same benefit as high quality work.  You can’t even know if you are putting in high or low quality work if you aren’t present and paying attention!  Being present is a skill.  Some people are better than others, and these people generally learn faster than the rest of us.  However, like any skill, you can practice it.  Just like training for strength in the weight room can benefit an athlete on the track, training in formal mindfulness can benefit an athlete by helping them stay focused.  Formal practice is helpful, but you can also practice it without sitting. It can be walking to class or brushing your teeth, an everyday moment.  I used to use segments of collegiate practices throughout the week as specific times to hone my focus – warming up, cooling down, during downtime.  I would try to stay as much in the present moment as I could.  By doing this I noticed two things: first, that I would become more aware during the rest of practice as well, and second, I would notice a lot of things that I had never noticed – feelings and thoughts that were there all along were brought to light.  Simply using your mind to pay attention to whatever may arise in the present moment – worries about the upcoming test, regret that you didn’t say more to your crush in the dining hall a few minutes before, the sensation of sunshine on your face, whatever might be swirling around in that head of yours– is practice.

A key to mindfulness practice is being there for anything that comes up – often we like to run away from thoughts or feelings that we don’t like, and often make our situations worse for ourselves by doing so.  Procrastinating is an example – the work does not go away, and the anxiety only gets worse with each passing moment.  While mindfulness practice does not mean that you must resolve anything, it requires courage to face it.  It takes effort to be with suffering without running to a social media feed or whatever we like to use as a distraction when we would rather be someplace else.  One must be there for our sensations, thoughts and emotions in the present moment like we are there for a loved one – unconditionally, through good times and bad, without judgment.

On the playing field, this means that we are not only present with thoughts and emotions that we like – the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net, the thrill of a big hit – we are present with things that we do not like, like our self-judgment after a mental error, or the butterflies in our stomach.  By harshly condemning our response to our errors, we make a mistake in the way we handle our mistake.  The first step is to stop digging, to accept what is, and to move on from there.  Mindfulness’s contribution to sports psychology is not in that it changes our thoughts and emotions as much as it changes our relationships to our thoughts and emotions.  They may change as you really face them, examine them, hold them up to the light – but they do not have to.  It may be enough to understand that we can tolerate fear, embarrassment, anything.  In the same way that the thought that “this is going to be a great game” doesn’t always turn out to be true, by staying present and accepting of the opposite thought (i.e. this is going to be terrible), we do not have to trap ourselves in the self-fulfilling prophecy that that thought often leads to.

at mark  Throwback…Monday?

As a track & field athlete, some days, practice was pretty painful.  However, as both my mental ability and meditation practice developed, I was able to stay with my dislike of workouts that I wasn’t good at, and shift my attention back to what I needed to do to get better.  Many track runners, and other athletes as well, mindlessly blow through repetitions without realizing that every step is an opportunity to perfect their form, their speed, even work on their attitude as they practice.  So although the workouts still hurt – and I still didn’t look forward to them – when I left the track I could honestly say I was better than when I arrived.  Had I tried to avoid those negative feelings…I would have completed the workout, sure, one way or another…but I would have missed the opportunity to improve that my new acceptance in the present moment gave me.  Sport is all about small improvements. In track & field athletes train for months to get fractions of a second faster.  In team sports as well, an inch will often separate a basketball from a defender’s outstretched hand.  Every little thing matters – the question is, are you going to be present to improve?