The Zen of Sports Success

Zen by definition refers to a movement of Buddhism that emphasizes enlightenment by means of meditation and direct, intuitive insights. Since I'm not a Buddhist, I use the word zen to refer to deep, but also profoundly simple, insights we can all appreciate.

When it comes to being successful in any sport, there are many zen-like principles you can use to improve your performance and develop yourself to achieve more of your true potential.

Start with the basics and grow from there

In all things, and in all sports, one must begin with the basics. We may live in a hurry-up world, but if you want to achieve great success in anything, particularly a sport -- which requires the development of both your mental and physical strengths and abilities -- you must start slow. Even a triathlon champion must first learn to crawl and walk before he can run. Learning to ride a bike and to swim usually follow later. All the most basic skills must be developed before he can concern himself with advanced concepts like speed and long-term endurance.

Learn from the wisdom of those who have gone before you

True champions seldom get there all by themselves. The flames of their success are often sparked by one who has gone before and then are fanned by a coach, guide or mentor. Look at the Olympic gymnasts and figure skaters as an example. Young students who show potential are often recognized and placed with the Olympians of former years who guide and train them. It is a great honor and a significant advantage to benefit from the lessons others have already learned. In doing so, you accelerate your learning curve and significantly increase your ultimate chances for success. Even if you don't have your sights set on the Olympics, you can learn from experts in the sport, a personal trainer or a coach in your sport.

Practice, practice, practice

Repetition is the key to mastery. Many athletes may hit a home run at some point in their lives, but only the very best will consistently hit the ball over the fence time after time and game after game. Only those athletes who regularly practice their chosen sport will achieve a measure of performance that is regularly good enough to be deemed exceptional. The saying "if you don't use it, you lose it" is very true in this case. Great athletes who try to take the easy way out will never aspire to the same level of success an average athlete with perseverance can attain. If you want a high batting average, you've got to get up to bat a lot more times than the next guy. Stick with it -- especially when the going gets tough.

Focus your concentration

In order to achieve something, you must have a goal. In order to have a goal, you must know something about your sport. Study your sport, study those who have gone before you and achieved a measure of success, and concentrate on learning all you can from them -- and from your own experiences. Stay focused on the task at hand and the action to follow. Block distractions from your thoughts and concentrate on the present moment.

Visualize your success

Never consider the negative "what ifs" or spend time worrying about what could go wrong. Always give your undivided attention to exactly the way you want it to go. See your success in your mind. Picture or visualize what you want to achieve. Play it like a movie in your mind. Concentrate on the image and think positive thoughts. Constantly reaffirm to yourself that the vision can become reality. You are what you think you are. You can become what you believe you can become.

Practice patience

Anything worth having is worth working for -- and waiting for. Success in sports is often like that. Along with all the practicing, concentrating and visualizing, a successful athlete learns to develop patience. Olympic athletes don't train to compete in a few short weeks or even months. They learn the basics and develop and refine their skills over the course of many years with the best instruction and guidance money can buy. Along the way, they experience disappointments and setbacks -- sometimes injuries and recovery, training and retraining. Serious success in a sport is not for the faint of heart -- or the impatient person. Sports all-stars aren't born. They are developed. With time, practice and patience.

Grow and mature

With age often comes wisdom and insight. Some physical skills are like that, too. You need to develop and grow before you can hope to attain your ultimate success. You must develop your skills over time. An athlete needs to develop physical muscles, flexibility, stamina and strength to become successful. Dancers build leg muscles and control over their movements with time and maturity. They develop flexibility and agility, grace and endurance. There's a reason you've never seen a six-year-old prima ballerina. It is like this with all sports.

Invest in yourself wisely

Your body is like a bank account. If you make regular, healthy investments over a period of time, you can expect to receive dividends. If you eat healthy, drink plenty of water, exercise, get enough rest and don't pollute your body with chemicals and toxins, your body will perform at its peak. If you don't … well, garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes. Given the possible return on investment, why not invest in the best for you?

Stretch yourself

Your skills and abilities will change over time. With practice and repetition, things that once challenged you will become easy and routine. A successful athlete keeps raising the bar, stretching herself to do more with each new accomplishment. Goals grow and change. Yours should, too. Keep pushing yourself to achieve just a little bit more. Run a little longer, a little further or a little faster. In doing so, you will come ever closer to your ultimate potential.

Be at peace with yourself

Not everyone will make the Olympics. And even of those that do, only one athlete will walk away with the gold. Only one team will win at the Final Four. Only one team will win the Super Bowl. While it sometimes seems our world is totally focused on winning, you need to recognize that your personal best may not be the world's best. And that's OK. There isn't much room at the top, and it's pretty hard to balance up there at the top of the heap anyway. It's a precarious position at best, and most people don't last up there very long. Be content with your accomplishments and your own personal growth and development. You've worked hard to get where you are. Be proud of it.

Never get too cocky

We've all seen them -- so I won't name names: those athletes who strut their stuff and think they are God's gift to mankind -- or at least to a particular sport. Like the games wouldn't go on without them. They may reign supreme for a while, but even kings get overthrown. And so it is with athletes. World records are broken. New superstars displace old. New players outperform veterans. Winners become losers. Remember? It's pretty precarious at the top. So even if you get there, remember where you came from. Don't forget about that long hard climb. And while you're up there, reach down and give someone else a helping hand and lift them a little higher. It's lonely up there all by yourself.

Appreciate the gift you've been given

Everyone has special gifts. You have a gift. I have a gift. Yours may be super athleticism in a particular sport -- in fact, it very likely is or you wouldn't have much interest in this article. Whether you are an all-star quarterback, an Olympic skier or an aspiring tennis player -- whether your thing is hitting a puck into a goal, spiking a volleyball over a net or diving into the deep end, recognize that your talent is a gift. Be thankful for your gift, use it wisely and share it with others. Help them to develop their gifts -- whether they are in sports and athleticism or in another area, and always give something back. Those who have been given much should likewise share their abundance. It keeps a healthy balance in the world.

Is that zen-like enough for you? All the profound, philosophical insights that lie behind the secrets of success for athletes around the world can be summed up so simply. That's the secret of zen … simple, profound insights that really work. I'll bet even Buddha would agree.

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