Covert use of performance enhancing substances — aka “cheating” — is as old as organized sports. Even the Ancient Greeks are said to have taken “potions" to enhance their athletic prowess. Today, with one drug-cheating revelation after another splashed across the headlines, many people are so fed up they now regard most exceptional performances with skepticism and disbelief.
The 2018 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors have plenty going for them on the court. But it’s the players’ off-the-court moves that really set the team apart from past dynasties.
Take point guard Stephen Curry, one of the most adored and spectacularly–skilled basketball players on the planet today. His ball–handling, passing, and three-point shooting abilities are downright otherworldly, routinely leaving spectators in the stands (as well as players on opposing teams) with their jaws dropped. How does he do it?
Curry’s training regimen includes a variety of high-tech drills: wearing goggles that generate a series of flashing lights as he performs ball-handling drills; working with two (or more) balls at the same time; and moving through a circuit that flashes instructions that he must respond to instantaneously. All this is to elevate his reflexes, perceptual acuity, and decision-making abilities to super-human levels – and there’s little doubt that it has worked!
But Steph Curry’s training has another – less glamorous but equally important – side to it. This is the quiet side, the spacious side, the side that cultivates the capacity to relax deeply. It includes weekly sessions in a flotation tank, which allow Curry’s body as well as his mind to decompress, to float in dark silence, in a space devoid of the distractions of external sense perceptions: just 98.6-degree salt-water and the sound of his own breathing. During basketball games, Curry’s coaches encourage him to “think of nothing” as he sits on the bench during rest periods, to let his mind relax completely, internally spacious and thought-free.
It is this unique combination — joining physically intense training with periods of deep relaxation and mental-emotional quietude — that has unleashed the brilliance that we now appreciate from Steph Curry on the basketball court.
Moments Of Mindfulness – Flowing Into A Stream Of Concentration
We could describe what we see in Steph Curry’s performance – or that of any other elite athlete – in terms of mindfulness, concentration, and open awareness.
“Mindfulness” means pretty much what it sounds like: to keep something in mind, or to remember something. When we keep something in mind, with alertness and a commitment to coming back to it again and again, we are exercising mindfulness. In Buddhism, for example, the practice of mindfulness is typically structured around the Four Foundations Of Mindfulness:
• mindfulness of the body
• mindfulness of feelings or sensations
• mindfulness of thoughts and emotions
• mindfulness of mental objects
An important subset of the mindfulness of the body is the mindfulness of breath – and following the breath through its complete cycle can be an excellent starting point for developing mindfulness.
Elite athletes tend to possess highly developed mindfulness of the body and physical sensations, especially mindfulness of the breath. Such moments of mindfulness – with dedicated training – can then become a stream of effortless concentration, even in the heat of competition.
The Continuity Of Open Awareness
And what makes the concentration “effortless”? It is the space of open awareness within which the athletic activity unfolds. This kind of spaciousness is activated via the more introspective aspects of one’s training regimen: the flotation tank (to use Steph Curry’s example), or sitting quietly in meditation, or engaging in the beautiful practice of walking meditation – training a smooth coordination of breath and movement.
As our steps (right, left) and our breath (inhale, exhale) permeate each other more and more deeply, they become like pearls on the string of open awareness. The spacious vibrancy and continuity of awareness is what allows the spontaneously-perfect shape, structure and power of our movements to arise of their own accord, whether it be shooting a basketball; running a marathon; or quietly walking through our summer garden, enjoying the scent and beauty of newly blossomed flowers.