Relaxing with Crocodiles, Stretching with Cobras; Yoga for Young Athletes

By Baird Johnson,

For young student athletes in today’s world there is one universal opponent: stress. The pressure around good grades, travel sports, testing, elite competitions and college applications (for high school seniors) are enough to overwhelm even the most organized and motivated. Finding the balance between studying and practice, specialization and cross training is key, and the answer can often be yoga. Yoga may be the best solution to the variety of physical and mental challenges facing young athletes today.  “Yoga is an excellent modality to improve not only flexibility, balance, and strength, but to also enhance our reflexes,” states Lisa Anzelmo, an actively practicing student for 17 years and a teacher for the last 10.  Anzelmo currently teaches at Pure Yoga in NYC as well as at multiple Equinox locations.

The Center for Disease Control states that more than half of all pediatric sports injuries are preventable. Suggestions for how to avoid these types of injuries are proper training techniques, cross training, and proper stretching. Yoga helps address all of these and more. Incorporating yoga into a young athlete’s training can improve performance while also helping to reduce injury.  “I see a lot of athletes, old and young, in my classes and many are either recovering from injuries, or incorporating yoga into their training to prevent them,” Anzelmo shares.  And the beauty of yoga is that it can be practiced at home, in a small space, with very little cost.  Many resources are available to those who want to begin yoga. There are countless classes, books, DVDs, and even online videos to fit every budget.  There are programs tailored to tweens and teens and also those that target specific sports, like “Yoga for Runners,” (GAIAM).

The Benefits of Yoga

“When one thinks of yoga obviously flexibility comes first to mind,” says Anzelmo. Flexibility is one of the major benefits of practicing yoga.  This will help to reduce tightness in muscles, relieve tension and increase range of motion.  The downward facing dog and the cobra are good beginning poses to aid in flexibility.

Another benefit of incorporating yoga into a training routine is Increased strength. Anzelmo notes that not only does yoga strengthen deep core muscles, but balance poses also strengthen stabilizing muscles.  “When stabilizing muscles in our feet, or around our ankles, knees or shoulders are strong, this helps keep our joints, especially joints that are prone to repeated stress, safe and more agile,” she says. The plank is one of yoga’s more popular strengthening poses. The dolphin and dolphin pushups can also be used for strength training in place of weight training. The power gained from these and similar positions will come in handy in sports where more explosive movements are required like baseball, soccer and football. Sports such as martial arts, skiing and ice hockey require upright balance. The tree and the chair poses are good balance exercises to augment training for these sports.

Breathing technique is another benefit of yoga.  Sometimes, the techniques learned in yoga will be quite different from what an athlete has been trained to do in competition. However, these techniques can be used to manage nerves, and help an athlete relax before the big event.  Focus is a big part of yoga as well.  Being able to tune out the world and focus on mind and body and simply relax is key.  This might be new to a young athlete.  Even during practice, it’s competition all the time. Athletes may only be racing their teammates, but they are still racing to win.  Yoga, on the other hand, is not performance based; the competition element is removed.  Instead, practitioners are focused only on their bodies, muscles, and mind.

Relaxation is an important life skill.  Student athletes are pushed to the limit in and out of the classroom.  Being able to relax will not only help ward off injury, but may also help improve classroom performance.   “A clear mind and relaxed muscles can help you perform better than worry and tense muscles,” states Thomas Michalek, a former coach of the cross country and track teams at Colonial Heights High School in Colonial Heights, VA.  Michalek explains further, “That perfect balance of power and relaxation that sprinters tap into, where you can see the speed and power but their face, particularly their lips, are completely relaxed – that is what you strive for.  It’s beautiful, and yoga is an incredible resource in helping to achieve that combination of power and relaxation.”

Something to be aware of in beginning a yoga program is that athletes are sometimes over/under developed in certain areas of their body.  For instance, tennis players and golfers might have more range of movement on one side than the other, swimmers may complain of sore shoulders, runners might have tight hamstrings.  Adapting yoga training and positions for the individual is one of the major benefits of incorporating yoga into the training routine.  While yoga can be a year round compliment to other types of training, athletes should vary the routine. The off-season is a good time for strength building, during competition season the focus can shift to gentler, flexibility sessions.

For years professional athletes have practiced yoga. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lebron James, Kevin Garnett, the Seattle Seahawks, and the NY Giants have all recognized the benefits of yoga as part of their training.  This is filtering down to student athletes as well. The Stanford football team incorporates yoga.  Many school systems in the U.S. are using yoga as part of their PE rotation, including Brooklyn Tech. Stuyvesant High School offers a free afterschool yoga class.
Student athletes are still growing and their center of balance is changing virtually overnight.  They aren’t always as kind to their bodies as they should be, pulling all-nighters studying, not cooling down effectively after practice.  Yoga can play a key role in guiding them in creating and maintaining a mental/physical balance.  According to Anzelmo, “The benefits of yoga not only include flexibility and strength, but also mental focus, which for young athletes, is a vital tool on and off the field.”

Neta Katz , another local instructor who began practicing yoga 25 years ago when she was 19 and a soldier in the Israeli army, says she has seen more teens getting involved in yoga, something she hopes continues. “Usually teens come to yoga because they want to get in better shape, but after sometime many start to see that yoga had a wonderful effect on their emotional and mental states too. Yoga can become a perspective through which one can approach every aspect of life, with balance, equanimity, and the courage to grow from all situations that life presents.”

Baird Johnson is a member of our team of junior journalists. He is a 9th grader at Stuyvesant HS in Manhattan.

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