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5 athletes who turned to spirituality to improve performance

5 athletes who turned to spirituality to improve performance

Novak Djokovic

Diverting focus away from bigger-picture distractions – the scoreboard, external pressure – is imperative when competing the biggest titles, presumably informing Djokovic’s investment in spirituality throughout his career.

The Serb, for example, regularly visited a Buddhist centre during his triumphant 2014 Wimbledon campaign, meditating and recharging between matches. Yet a year-long slump – from the all-conquering, grand-slam holding king of men’s tennis to this faltering, fragile version – has coincided with him switching his hobby into an obsession.  

The growing influence of Pepe Imaz – who values Amor Y Paz (Love and Peace), meditation and lengthy hugs as crucial – as an influential face in his support team is testament to Djokovic’s priorities. His results suggest that it is not working. Nor did recent ‘shock therapy’ – parting with his entire coaching team days before the French Open – designed to stir him into action. He now arrives at Wimbledon, amazingly, as the fourth favourite to lift the title. If all goes to form, he’ll need an even longer cuddle.

Team GB 2016

As sports psychologist Roberto Forzoni told us recently, maintaining focus and staying in the moment is key to optimum performance under pressure. Team GB were vindicated last summer, then, by sidelining traditional methods and making available to their athletes a meditative app, Headspace.

With 24/7 meditation now an easily-accessible possibility, Tom Daley – a vocal supporter – and his colleagues presumably had to beware entering a permanent Zen state.

But Laura Trott – who claimed her third and fourth gold medals in Rio – is also insistent on the virtues of such breathing techniques, and echoed Forzoni’s sentiments almost word for word. “It really ties into the idea of mindfulness – only thinking about what you’re doing in that very moment and not allowing your mind to run away with worries about past events,” she told Cosmopolitan magazine.

It worked beautifully, as the Brits recorded their greatest ever Olympic performance, usurping China to second place in the medal table.

Glenn Hoddle/England 1998

Robbie Fowler spent most of his session having a beer in the back room with her husband. Steve McManaman compared the training camps to a “cult”. Ray Parlour requested a “short back and sides, please” when approached.

But in fairness to Glenn Hoddle, introducing ‘faith healer’ Eileen Drewery to his England squad in 1998 was not a universal failure.

Gareth Southgate, among others, was said to have benefitted from the experience, while Gary Neville says the squad were queueing to receive an injection of energy, literally, from a doctor Hoddle knew before the game against Argentina in France.

But the boss’ imposing like-it-or-lump-it approach to spiritual preparation became overbearing. A pre-match touch on each player’s heart from Hoddle, who also reportedly sent his staff on an anti-clockwise walk around the pitch to create positive energy, did not prevent a penalty shootout exit.

Hoddle may reflect that he should have prioritised his impressive football brain a tad more when preparing his team.

Jonny Wilkinson

Inspiring England to World Cup success in 2003 left Jonny Wilkinson forever fulfilled and content, right? Well, no. In fact, Wilkinson describes winning the trophy as a “danger”, as he struggled with a crippling fear of failure and the pressure of sitting top of the pile.

As a boy, according to The Telegraph, he vomited with nerves before matches, and as an adult was unable to shrug off similar feelings of insecurity. Subsequently turning to Buddhism in 2008, then, enabled him to put his failures into perspective.

The spiritual side to Wilkinson both saved his career, and – considering the man himself admitted he “did not know what it really meant to be happy” – transformed his life.  

Cristiano Ronaldo

It can’t be easy being Cristiano Ronaldo. Tax-fraud accusations, numerous jibes and spurious transfer rumours have plagued his summer. So who can blame him, while away with Portugal at the Confederations Cup, for grabbing a bit of alone time to relax in the Russian sun. Even better, he took a photographer with him. So we all got to see it.




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Adam Drury
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