How Buddhism can help eagles soar


Al Rieger

Some call it mental toughness. The ability to block out the thousands of screaming fans, the pressure of failing your team and school can give the young athletes on the Florida Gulf Coast men’s basketball team a competitive edge as they make their push toward the Elite Eight

Mindfulness, visualization and compassion — practices rooted in ancient eastern religions such as Buddhism — have been proven to help people with addictions, life problems and to foster happiness overall.  

Dubbed the “Zen Master,” former NBA head coach Phil Jackson applied these principles of Buddhism to his life and his players. The result was 11 championships.  

Western Illinois psychology professor Jonathan Hammersley said that prinicples of Budhism have been successfully used to treat patients with mental disorders and agrees that certain practices can be beneficial to athletes in high stress situations. 

“For athletes, I would think feeling overly emotional and letting fear or anxiety or excitement get the best of them, or also being overly analytical and thinking only of exactly what hand and wrist movements to use to shoot the ball, would be counterproductive,” Hammersley said. 

What a national spectacle this tournament has become. It’s like a month-long Super Bowl and there’s no doubt the young student-athletes have a lot more on their minds. 

They are expected to perform at the highest level in the national spotlight. The stakes  can tear at the gut. Legacies, career aspirations and egos can get in the way of playing their best basketball. 

In the Buddhism religion, a great deal of significance is put on the teacher-student relationship. The idea that success in the teacher can translate in the students translates perfectly into sports and especially March Madness.  

So how can Florida Gulf Coast head coach Andy Enfield establish a Zen culture so that his team can defy odds and beat the powerhouse teams like Florida on Friday?

While rewiring into a Buddha brain overnight is unlikely, there are simple techniques that could help the Eagles soar past the Gators.

Don’t fight the pressure 

The Eagles aren’t used to this. They have a huge fan base now, major media attention and that can lead to negative emotions about self-worth. 

Just the fact that they are getting this newfound attention adds to their “underdog” identity. There might be a tendency to retaliate against this identity in effort to prove everybody wrong, but this will inevitably create an inner struggle.  

Negative emotions can never be eradicated completely. Don’t fight the pressure. Understand it’s there and a part of you and the moment. 

Have compassion for those negative feelings. Saying to yourself, “I know I’m feeling pressure but that’s okay” sounds simple, but can have profound implications. 

Also, have compassion for the opponent. Understanding and appreciating the opponent can give you a mental advantage.   

Be in the now

When Brett Comer brings the ball up the court, he should feel the leather on his hands. He should be aware of his breathing and the temperature in the building. 

This is what mindfulness is about and it’s the goal of meditation. So many players focus on a past mistake or something they want to happen in the future, but a commitment to mindfulness for FGCU could help the Eagles take advantage of potential mistakes by Florida, a matchup and to simply enjoy the game.

“I think that an athlete who wants to reduce the overall stress and overwhelming feeling of performing on a national stage might benefit from trying to modify and replace maladaptive thoughts with more realistic or positive ones; telling oneself that realistically I am going to miss some shots but that is okay and not awful because I can get another chance and make the next shot,“ Hammersley said.

In the midst of competition, it’s so hard to tune out the hundreds of rapid thoughts passing through the mind’s screen, but if you can try and focus on every dribble, pass and shot — that’s when magic happens.  

Visualize the outcome 

This is a common practice in sports and it can lead to positive results.  Not just seeing the statement of what you want to happen, but actually visualizing what the play looks like.  

Buddists believe that the external world is a result of our own consciousness. Modern spiritual philosophies support the idea that if we are truly masters of our universe we can shape it the way we want it to look.  

These skills could be invaluable to young players who are still learning to manage their emotions. Ideas that have been around for centuries have been proven to help people reach their goals. Letting go and realizing that the game is impermanent and can change at any minute can help FGCU compete with their opponent and not themselves.